As a student of Russian history, I have from time to time been struck by some of the similarities between corporate life and life in the Soviet Union under Stalin. In saying this I do not wish in any way to minimise the suffering and the evil murder of millions of innocent people. Rather I want to focus on the similarity in techniques of persuasion.
Lesson 1: planning. As a planned centralised economy, the Soviet regime ran everything according to the pyatiletka (the five-year plan). Stalin even wanted to make the film industry work on the same lines. Often they were as much a complete fantasy as their claimed fulfilment or more likely ‘over-fulfilment’. In my corporate life, I lost count of the number of 3 and 5 year business plans I worked on. More often than not they were put in a draw and forgotten until the next planning cycle started.
Lesson 2: visions and mission statements. Stalin used clunky slogans and visionary statements to exhort the people to greater effort. Successive CEOs came and went with their simplified statements of why we were all coming to work day after day. One of the more memorable ones was one of the last: “A good place to do business for customers, shareholders and colleagues”. That was probably only true for shareholders, as judging by the volume of customer complaints, they did not share the vision – and for staff it was an increasingly unpleasant and unhealthy environment in which to work.
Lesson 3: intolerance of dissent. Stalin saw any dissent as betrayal and ruthlessly suppressed any actual or supposed signs of it. Similarly, corporate life discouraged any dissent or disagreement with decisions. It doesn’t like democracy or debate. The price it pays is much pent-up frustration amongst staff and a failure to properly engage people. In the end, for a quiet life, people pay lip service to the company, much as the majority of people paid lip service to Stalin’s regime.
Lesson 4: purges. One of the main ways that Stalin dealt with dissent was through purges. The worst of these occurred in the 1930s following the ‘death’ of Kirov in Leningrad. Stalin, who was almost certainly responsible for having Kirov murdered, used it as a pretext for getting rid of people who he felt opposed his regime through a succession of purges in most areas of life, from the party, armed forces, NKVD (Secret Police), academia, industry, the arts, ordinary people. It reached its peak in 1937 when it devoured Yezhov, Head of the NKVD itself. Of course, companies don’t kill people or send them off to die in labour camps, but they do periodically have re-structures, often to shed staff in the interests of becoming more efficient. Often incoming CEOs or senior management instigate their own purges as a way of stamping their own authority quickly on a company and bringing in their own place-men, people who are loyal to them and whom they trust to do their bidding.
Lesson 5: non persons and the re-writing of history. Once Stalin had managed to grab and consolidate power, he famously made his erstwhile rival, Trotsky, a non-person. He was airbrushed out of history: photographs in which he appeared were doctored to exclude him; and he was expunged from books about the civil war in which he had played a leading part, both in shaping the new Red Army and in leading it against the White forces. Companies often treat their ex-workers in a similar way, their contributions are quickly forgotten, often downplayed, as if they were a risk to the current incumbents. Truly they are names written in water.
Lesson 6: propaganda and self-delusion. Stalin maintained himself in power through an extremely powerful and insidious propaganda machine (as well as by force, terror and fear) that created the delusion that people were living in a society that was travelling towards the perfect Communist society. The relentlessly upbeat in-house magazines and press releases generated by my previous company create a similar sort of effect: ‘this is a great place to work, we are on the right path, we are doing well, we can do even better. Of course, there are still things we aren’t getting quite right, but’: this last is even a direct borrowing from Soviet propaganda wording ‘konechno u nas est nedostaki, no…’ And suddenly one day I went in to work to discover we were all ‘colleagues’: the word ‘staff’ became a non-word.
Lesson 7: cult of the leader: Stalin idolised Lenin (even whilst betraying his last wishes), endlessly doodling the words “Lenin – teacher, friend’ during meetings. But he promoted himself even more as the Great Leader (Vozhd), especially after the Second World War. Similarly CEOs position themselves as the fount of all wisdom and knowledge, omnipresent in in-house magazines. Endlessly quoted, directly or indirectly, by senior managers and their cohorts to justify their actions.
Lesson 8: subordination of personal lives. Stalin wanted to re-make society and create homo sovieticus by remolding individuals, to colonise their private and even interior lives. Diaries of some intellectual revolutionaries in the 20s particularly showed that they shared the same ideal of re-making themselves. One of his great frustrations was what goes on behind closed doors in families and amongst friends and, even more frustratingly, what goes on in people’s heads. He therefore tried to break the family by encouraging people to inform on each other, even within families. My former company demanded ever greater and greater loyalty, forcing staff to work longer hours and sacrifice their own personal time, health and family life to meet corporate objectives.
Re-reading this, the way that companies behave is not just down to Stalin. It is behaviour that is learned from oppressive regimes of all stripes throughout history. Western Capitalism is just the latest to employ them.