Communism on Tomorrow Street: Equality — and the limits of the social contract

In his very stimulating post, Steven Harris emphasizes again the egalitarian nature of Khrushchev’s housing drive. He goes on to suggest that this egalitarian approach, and especially the waiting list which filtered people’s broadly egalitarian expectations of access to housing, can at least partly be explained as a feature of the ‘Soviet social contact’, or the ‘state-society contract’. All of these issues are controversial, and I’m glad that he’s raised them. 

The Khrushchev era was marked by a much greater emphasis on equality than had existed during the time of Stalin. Ideologues still disputed the finer points of what equality should mean in a socialist society, but Khrushchev’s own instincts were egalitarian. Harris shows this very well in his discussion of cooperatives. And the housing program as a whole created a more equal society. The sheer volume of new housing was responsible for this, but so were professionally mixed neighborhoods, and also waiting lists that were more regularized than hitherto. As a result, the housing economy during the Khrushchev era produced results that were, relatively speaking, historically equal, both in Soviet terms and in comparative international perspective. This is one of the main arguments of my own book on the housing program.[1]

But Harris also discusses equality in a second sense. He argues that a person’s claim to housing on the basis of his or her wartime record, long-term family residence in Leningrad, or due as a rehabilitated former zek represented another form of equality: the claim to have an equal right to get out of the Soviet project a fair share based on what one had put in to it. When people were framing their claims in that way, they certainly did so in the belief that they had rights. But how does this relate to equality?

After all, perhaps such citizens were really making a claim for housing on the basis of special pleading. Or perhaps their claim was based on a sense of justice. Talk to some people, and social justice might mean equality, variously conceived (including in Harris’s extended second sense). But talk to others, and it means something quite different. My current project investigates ‘The Welfare State and Soviet Civilization’. When major pensions reforms were introduced in 1956 and 1964, many workers were concerned that pensions should precisely reflect the amount a person had worked and earned over the course of a career. The possibility of free-loading fellow-pensioners drove many of them to distraction. For many Soviet workers, therefore, social justice meant a fair reward for work.[2] Perhaps this chimes with Harris’s point.

But should Soviet people’s sense of what was fair and unfair be explained with reference to a contract between state and society? As I have argued elsewhere, and as Mark Edele shows compellingly in his recent book on Stalinism, state and society were not really separate categories in the Soviet Union.[3] You could say that a complex and multilayered (but never civil) society contained the state; or that the state was so big that people did not really exist outside it (at least through to 1964), however marginal, criminal, dissident or alternative some of their activities might have been, and however lumbering and incompetent the state’s operations often were. Even housing cooperatives, in their early years at least, were organized through workplaces and trade unions: in other words, through agencies of the ‘state’, through party and government and their devolved elements. Despite the fact that Soviet citizens, operating as individuals and collectives, made such a major contribution to the success of the housing program, they did not constitute a ‘society’ that could be placed in conceptual opposition to the state. (And on p. 201 of his book, Harris himself talks about the ‘overlapping’ of state and society in the communist neighborhood.)

Steven Harris’s discussion of people’s competing claims to housing is sophisticated, and his attempt to position them in the ‘communist way of life’ tells us a lot. But I’m not sure that the evidence can be framed in terms of a state-society contract. Perhaps people’s sense of what was fair derived instead from the intersection of self-interest, Soviet ideology and Russian culture. Others will think that the question is not even worth asking, but it’s often bothered me: how much does the notion of a social contract really explain the Soviet system and its housing economy?


[1] Mark B. Smith, Property of Communists: The Urban Housing Program from Stalin to Khrushchev, DeKalb, IL, 2010.

[2] Mark B. Smith, ‘The withering away of the danger society: the pensions reforms of 1956 and 1964 in the Soviet Union’, forthcoming in Social Science History.

[3] Mark Edele, Stalinist Society 1928-1953, Oxford, 2011.

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