Atomization of society and social self-organization: Context of Russia

The human individualization in industrial-capitalist society, according to Erich Fromm, is complex and controversial (1). In our view, it will be more accurate to speak not about "privatization" of modern society, but about its "atomization", similar to chaotic movement of particles n thermodynamics.

A "privatization" in social terms is human turning to his private interests. But the activities of the members of modern society, according to Andre Gorz, "acquire a certain cohesion" only under the influence of market processes, that is, this cohesion is extremely unstable, it is the "result of accident" (2).

Potentially, this trend leads to disintegration in society of such a complex of ties as mutual aid, and this is recognized and even hailed by the supporters of market economy (3). Thus, Friedrich von Hayek specified the "archaic nature" of small communes in the structure of the total market; he stated that there is no place in it for collectives of people, connected as before by the ties of non-commercial mutual assistance.

At the same time, the social reality of the modern world fortunately does not limit with the mentioned tendency of "atomization". For example, it is estimated that in modern Britain, 60% of human activities are still carried out for free and voluntarily by parents, relatives, neighbors, etc. This is a kind of "gift economics" (4). We do not have the corresponding figures for Russia; very probably, they would be comparable. One should, however, take in consideration that as services continue to become more commercialized, the share of "market" activities is constantly growing, and in Russia it is happening very swiftly. What is more important, the general social consequences of "atomization" are here of a more destructive nature: it seems that Russians are losing the ability to jointly defend their needs and interests.


In modern Russia, the gaping difference between the degree of social discontent and the prevailing non- readiness of people to undertake collective action in order to change the situation is evident.

Let us turn to statistics. According to the Institute of All-Russia polls, in 1994 between 80% to 90% of the population in Russia considered the situation as a crisis or a catastrophe, and about 60% of the respondents admitted that their wellbeing had become considerably or “somewhat" lower. More than half of the population expected a further worsening of the situation, but 85% of those who answered the poll questions, believed that their personal life, despite everything, “was generally working out" (5). At the same time, 50 – 57% thought that it was quite useless to try and influence the authorities, 7 – 14% were ready to go to court or act through personal connections and only 2 – 3% of those polled expressed their readiness to participate in meetings and protest demonstrations, 4 – 8% in strikes, 5 –7% in the work of various corporate organizations and civil initiatives. Obviously, it could mean only one thing: the majority of the people, to this or that degree, had accepted the neo-liberal idea that, it is possible to remedy one's situation only as a result of individual or egoistic efforts, primar¬ily of commercial nature. According to surveys, in 1992 over 88% of the respondents would like to take up business. In 1994 their number dropped to 30%, but this figure is still quite significant (6).

The same trend persisted generally at the turn of the century, after 10 years of reforms. 80% of the respondents stated that they saw their situation as a crisis, or even critical. But people often continued to put a stake on individual survival. Thus, only 20% of the respondents said that the biggest achievement of the reforms for society at large was the opportunity of gelling unlimited incomes, but this factor was mentioned as the most significant personally for them by 42% (7).

The statistics of protest actions, strikes and other similar events confirm the conclusion about the striking social passiveness of Russia's population. Even in the periods when non-payment of salaries became especially widespread and continuous, protests were either short or were organized exclusively by functionaries from trade unions or political groups. In the first years of reforms, the trade union leadership tried not so much to organize action, but to limit their radical nature, al¬though the symbolical "protest days" and marches obviously were quite powerless to influence the policy of the authorities. In other words, even when the workers were ready to participate in collective action, they preferred others to organize it for them. Finally, strikes of soli¬darity were practically non-existent.

Further on we will analyze in more detail those rare exclusions to this rule that came to our knowledge. So far, it will be enough to name the high degree of destruction, atomization and de-solidarization of the modem Russian society and to ask: what particular reasons caused this situation?


In the past century, Russian society seems to have seen at least two successive waves of atomization, caused by drastic social changes, accompanying the establishment and development of industrial society in Russia.

The first wave swept over Russian society under Stalin's regime. Hanna Arendt stressed rightly that if in Germany the nazis' totalitarian regime was, to a certain degree, the result of public atomization, in the USSR, on the contrary, the "mass society" was created by Stalin's regime (8). Thus, from the late 1920s to the late 1950s the peasant community — the form of life of the overwhelming ma¬jority of the population — was destroyed in Russia. It was replaced with the system of kolkhozes and sovkhozes. Tens of millions of peo¬ple were forced to leave the village: gradually they became integrated into the urban industrial production. The State-owned enterprises became a kind of substitute for the former rural community, as in Russian big cities now most people do not even know their neighbors living in the same block of flats.

The regime striving to be totalitarian needed its subjects to be as isolated from each other as possible. For this aim, measures were taken to maximally limit all manifestations of informal, horizontal ties among people on the basis of the family principle, camaraderie, mutual assistance and good neighborliness. Ideally, the people were to interact with each other through the authority "vertical" and its party and al¬legedly "public" institutions. Thus, for example, even family conflicts were quite often investigated at the meetings of party committees or by the so called "comrades' courts" at the enterprises. The system of denunciations and informing was also aimed at teaching people to be afraid of each other and to trust no one.

Nevertheless, we should admit that although the first wave of atomization did distort the traditional values and ties, they were not completely destroyed. Stalin's totalitarianism, despite being extremely repressive in nature, penetrated the mass consciousness of the working people in the USSR only in the form of certain elements. The hori¬zontal axis of social relationships based on the feeling of personal involvement and comradely assistance could not disappear altogether, because many workers were associated through their jobs, and some¬times through their place of residence. They lived in hostels of their enter¬prises or in blocks of flats built for them by the plants and factories where they worked.

Such informal social self-organization quite often turned against the ruling regime and contained a certain potential for resistance. Cor¬respondingly, the protests of the "soviet" years were most exclusively self-organized and spontaneous. A good example is the strike of workers in Novocherkassk in 1962, cruelly suppressed by the CPSU authori¬ties. Judging by the memories of Peter Siuda, a witness and par¬ticipant in the events, the movement started spontaneously; the work¬ers, according to him, were guided by the workers instinct: people went from workshop to workshop, and other workers joined them on the way (9). Other spontaneous workers' strikes of the soviet era used to flare up on the same production basis.

The tyranny of the authorities, combining political and economic functions, often became the stimulus capable of making the people see their mutual interests. For example, such were the protests against the actions of police in different cities in the 1970's, or the environ¬mental movement that became stronger in the USSR after the Cher¬nobyl catastrophe in 1986. A real movement for civil self-govern-ment was emerged around environmental civil initiatives springing up spontaneously almost everywhere: in city districts and communities the residents convened assemblies, where they established self-government committees. Some of them got very close to demands that we could characterize as the idea of sovereign rights of residents on their terri¬tory.

During the "perestroika" period, however, this mass self-organi¬zation quickly came to naught, because it was very swiftly integrated into the current system. This was caused by the absence of what might be called "a bright idea". The self-organized population saw clearly what they should protest against, but most of them had a vague idea of the coveted social alternative. Such ideas were not part of the public structures and norms, and did not follow from them: here one could see the effect of the first atomization wave, which destroyed the Rus¬sian peasant communities. This is why the social movement fell an easy prey to the opposing factions of the ruling nomenclature, who used it in fight-ing each other, and then led it to destruction. The author, who in those years happened to participate in the Moscow environmental move¬ment, had an opportunity to observe the way the civil initiatives and their active leaders took over the political leadership of the so called "democratic" (pro-market) nomenclature factions. More and more often they would give up their own demands and slogans in favor of those that were put forward by politicians, in exchange for expectations that the latter would consider their needs in the future. Later, many of the leaders of the environment movement joined "the power". On the other hand, the "rank-and-file" participants of the initiatives became disillusioned in collective action that had brought them no success. They felt cheated and did not believe any more in the possibility of achieving anything. As a result, residents' assemblies ceased to be called, and the self-government committees turned into top bodies without any control from below. Thus, the social movements in Russia in the late 1980s soon "dis¬solved" and ceased to exist. And then the second wave of atomization swept over the disappointed, disoriented and tired society.


This phenomenon was caused by accelerated transition from pa¬ternalistic state capitalism to the current market model. Reality shows that the majority of the population mostly accepted the new targets calling for individual-competitive life efforts (including commercial ones) and renounced the former collectivist values.

Let us quote just a few examples. The author happened to observe and analyze the reaction of the Rus¬sian population to the swift transition to the market and the lowering of life standards of the population, connected with it (especially after the "liberalization" of prices in 1992 and the following inflation wave). Many people confronted by the colossal growth of prices, running ahead of the average income growth, learnt to survive growing vegetables. But this was an entirely individual undertaking. At the same time there were practically no serious attempts of getting hold of empty land collectively. Neither were there any attempts of organizing agrarian production cooperatives. Consumer cooperatives, which could have considerably limited the spreading speculation in re-buying and re-selling foodstuffs and other goods, were also quite an exception.

Various national minorities, especially migrants, demonstrated a certain inclination to limited forms of collective self-organization. It is a well-known fact that Turks-Meshetians, who sought refuge in central Russia escaping from Middle Asia, helped each other build houses and raise family economic units. On the other hand, mafia-type groups, whose members were also connected by origin, became quite widespread. Well-known by analogous structures in the whole world, this process was characterized by the intertwining of mutual aid ele¬ments with tough hierarchical subordination and aggressive attitude to the social environment. Strictly speaking, the aim of such mafia-type mutual aid is commercial-competitive success, in other words, the mutual aid factor in this situation is of subordinate nature.

Interestingly, the same thing happened to the widely spread prac¬tice, when the people who got to the top give assistance and support to their acquaintances, relatives, fellow countrymen or clients in ex¬change for certain services. That is, we are speaking about the phe¬nomenon traditional for Russian society, namely, "blat" or "acquain¬tance". With the transition to market economy, these relationships became completely commercialized, and the rendered services turned into exclusively cash payments.

Thus, with commercial-individualistic values coming to the fore, the disintegration of structures of the traditional Russian society was complete. As German researcher Robert Kurz rightfully noted, modernization carried out in Russia within just a few decades involved transformations which had taken centuries in Europe (from forcing peasants off the land, absolutism and mercantilism, through industrialization and urbanization up to the new, neo-liberal phase of industrial society) (10). In the course of that tense and painful race there was obviously little opportunity for new stable and efficient structures to replace the disintegrating structures of collective action.

Moreover, as no one society can exist on the basis of unlimited war of "all against all", Western society, during hundreds of years of capitalism formation, instinctively preserved from the pre-capitalist times or developed mechanisms of amortization, which prevented it from falling apart. Russian society – changing so fast that such mecha¬nisms had no chance of surviving or did not have enough time for development – appears quite defenseless in the face of the process of atomization and disintegration.


Now we will move on to phenomena of a different nature, which, on the contrary, testify to certain degree that a certain potential of self-or¬ganization latently preserved in the modern Russian society still per¬sists. As of today, it is very difficult to say with certainty whether it should be considered as the last vestiges of the "old" or the embryo of a new type of social relations. These phenomena are too isolated and rare to be judged definitely.

During the past 17 years the author happened not only to study the Russian social movements, but also to participate in them. To give just a few examples, reflecting the most significant aspects of the events (11).

1. In 1996, the workers' committee of the "Rostselmash" plant in Rostov-on-the-Don organized a trade union called "Workers' resis¬tance", independent of the formal trade unions and political parties. The activists sought to establish at the plant the workers' control and prevent the administration from plundering the equipment. By the end of the 1990s, the activists of the movement had been sacked from the plant, where the work force was demoralized by mass redun¬dancies (12).

2. The workers' strike at the Yasnogorsk machine-building plant lasted from the end of 1998 until the middle of 1999. They fought against non-payment of salaries and the threat of the plant closure. Although the plant had a strike committee, consisting of members of the formal trade union, it was re-elected by the workers themselves. The strike was lead by the regular assembly of the workers: a case almost unique in modem Russia. The plant was not working, the workers took over the control over the warehouse of finished products and organized guarding of the enterprise.

The plant never resumed work under the leadership of the collec¬tive. The plant's workers survived due to the produce from their vege¬table gardens, part of which they had to sell in other towns, which look time and effort away from guarding the plant and participating in assemblies. When asked why they did not organize delivering the produce from their vegetable gardens together, in turn, the workers said they felt they were together and had one aim only at the plant, in their work places, not in their places of residence (a typical phenomenon for an industrial society). Eventually, the participants were hit by tiredness and apathy, the assemblies lost their popularity, and finally, by the summer of 1999 the strike committee had to compromise with the administration. They did receive their pay, though, but assemblies were no longer convened (13). The Yasnogorsk movement vividly showed both the power of self-organized action, and the difficulties of this form of fighting in modern Russia. First of all, it remained isolated from the other categories of workers in town and to involve other people.

3. The construction workers of “SMU-4”, "Mosenergomontazh” in Moscow went on strike in spring, 1999. This action was different in that it involved migrant workers, who lived in hostels and were dispersed throughout various construction sites and locations. This made their fight more risky, but also brought them closer. The main demand was salary pay merit. It was decided not to establish a formal body to lead the movement, or the striking committee, not to put the activists under "fire": and old, spontaneously revived communal tradition, relying on simple common sense. All the decisions were passed by the protesters' assembly. The workers' demands were partially met, the half-success was explained by the difficult conditions (the division of opinion be¬tween the workers and the technical staff, workers' alcoholism used as a weapon by the administration, the political interest in the construction business in Moscow). The initiative disappeared after the most active partici¬pants had left Moscow (14).

4. The protest of Saransk trolley-bus drivers in the summer of 2001, demanding a pay rise and being paid on time. The formal trade union was against the action. The strike was led by the workers' assembly, it was decided not to form a strike committee to avoid repres¬sion. The strike ended in failure, as it was not supported by another trolley-bus depot, and contacts with bus drivers were not established. In April 2002, drivers of another depot went on strike, but that time they were not supported by their colleagues. The overall atmosphere of terror coming from the administration also had its effect. In private interviews the workers admitted that there were cases of physical repression and murder of activists in the town, and no one wanted to become too "noticeable" (15).

5. Workers' strikes at the "Frunze Plant" in Penza in 2002-2003. The plant's acting trade union "Sotsprof” played no role in the pro¬tests (16). As the administration fired the activists, this spontaneously lev¬eled off the participants of the fight: during the strikes the workers talked to the administrators "as the whole workshop". Thus, the fear of repression acted as a stimulus in the development by the people of a "base-democratic" form of movement.

Let us draw some conclusions. First of all, we can notice that self-organization is born from the needs of real fight for one's rights. It is manifested at the time when the participants learn from experience that there is nobody they could re-delegate the fight to — neither the administration, nor the parties or trade unions will protect them. Life itself shows them the necessity to act informally and col-lectively, which in some cases does lead to the resurrection of human social sense. However, the presence of a critical situation as such in most cases is not sufficient for self-organization.

The second conclusion: elements of self-organization can be found in situations when people have closer communication with each other and see the collective needs better, for example, in stable jobs or in places of compact residence. In perspective, however, this connec¬tion cannot be considered stable. Big enterprises of the "soviet" epoch keep closing down or are drastically reduced in size (the effect of "de-industrialization"), while territorial community does not usually keep long — while the given concrete issue is especially urgent. When it is solved or the attempts to solve it fail, self-organization usually disappears. At the same time, the Argentine experience of "people's assemblies" after 2001 makes us suppose that spontaneous revival of territorial self-organization on quite a serious scale is truly possible.

The third conclusion: today, the feeling of solidarity in modern Russia is not very strong even where elements of self-organization do emerge. It can be proved by an almost complete absence of protests of solidarity with other fighting collectives and the difficulties in estab¬lishing links with other categories of workers or residents, suffering from the same problem.

The fourth point: the great role played by the widely spread fear of repression, which should not be explained — as it is often done — by memories of Stalin's terror, because in the period of uprisings in the 1960s and 1980s that memory was to have been even stronger. There were neither any extraordinary mass reprisals of the protesters in the years after the reforms. Interviews with people suggest that, apart from cases of individual victimization of activists, we deal with the general social uncertainty (including the result of the economic difficulties, mass redundancies, job hunting, etc), as well as the feeling of being isolated in the fight. In other words, the fewer people partici¬pate in the strikes, the more fear is felt by their participants. The deficit of solidarity gives birth to fear.

And, finally, the last point: in this or that case, the choice of historic opportunities that modern Russian society is small. Any further continuation or even deepening of de-solidarization may lead only to a real social agony and a situation of "war of all against all". Such a possibility only deteriorates the spiral of degradation, be¬cause those who enjoy political and economic power become even tougher in their demands to society with the little resistance they find. The other prospect lies in what Murrey Bookchin called self-organized "rebuilding of society". But this alternative, naturally, is far from being an automatic or programmed outcome of the crisis; it can open up only as the people themselves will learn to defend their rights in the fight.

Vadim Damier (2003)

(1) Fromm E. Escape from Freedom.

(2) Gorz A. Kritik der ökonomischen Vernunft. Вerlin, 1989. S.56.

(3) Hayek F. The Fatal Conceit.

(4) A Gift Economy: Notes on Alternatives to the Market // Direct Action. 2001. No. 21. Winter. P. 6.

(5) Russia in the Mirror of Reforms. Collected Works on Sociology of Modern Russian Society. Moscow: Russian Independent Institute for Social and National Problems, 1995. P. 9 – 11, 21 (In Russian)

(6) Ibidem. P. 143.

(7) Petuchow W. Zehn Reformjahre – Wiedergewinnung des Gleichgewichts // Wostok. Informationen aus dem Osten für den Western. 2002. N 3. Juli-Sept. S.23.

(8) Arendt H. Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft. N.Y., 1951. S.278.

(9) See: Novocherkassk 1-3 June 1962. The Strike and Shooting (On the Stories of Witnesses and Interview with P.P.Siuda). M., 1992. P. 35-36 (In Russian)

(10) See: Kurz R. Der Kollaps der Modernisierung. Vom Zusammenbruch des Kasernensozialismus zur Krise der Weltökonomie. Frankfurt a.M., 1991. S.57-58.

(11) Of course, there are not all self-organized actions emergen in Russia in the past years. From different parts of Russia reports of various spontaneous kinds of action come from time to time: pensioners blocking the street, protests against cutting electricity supplies, environmental action and blockades etc. However, it is only about the eco-protests that we can sometimes say with certainty that they are self-organized and do not happen on the initiative of local branches of political parties, formal trade unions etc.

(12) The New Labor Movement. Information Bulletin. 1998. Nо.1. Oct. P.3-4; 1999. Nо.2. Febr. P.3-4; 1999. Nо.3. Apr. P.3; 2000. Nо.7. Aug. P. 4-5 (In Russian)

(13) Ibid. 1999. No.2. Febr. P.2-3; 1999. No.3. Apr. P. 1-3; 1999. No.4. Sept. P.1-2 (In Russian)

(14) Ibid. 1999. No.4. Sept. P.2-3 (In Russian)

(15) Ibid. 2001. No.10. Sept. 2 – 8; 2002. No.12. Aug. P.1-4 (In Russian)

(16) Ibid. 2003. No.13. Oct. P.1 (In Russian)