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Is Russia Socialist?

Most of the misconceptions regarding Socialism and Russia that have been propagated during the past twenty odd years by the Bolsheviks and the Communist Parties are to be found rehashed in “The Socialist Sixth of the World.” This book was written by Hewlett Johnson, the Dean of Canterbury, just prior to the outbreak of the war. An abridged edition of it, with the title “Soviet Power,” has sold widely in America.

“The Socialist Sixth of the World” is worth notice, as it gives an opportunity of explaining some of the fundamental principles of Socialism and of dealing with the economic base of Russian society. Let us at the outset that the Dean of Canterbury makes out a good case against capitalism, and exposes many of its contradictions. His book, however, is intended to point to a solution of these contradictions, and the solution he offers is not Socialism. Moreover, his “programme” is full of weaknesses.

Where the Dean fails

Though the Dean of Canterbury can see the contradictions of Capitalism, he is unable to explain how they arise, and the weakness of his whole case hinges on this point. He does not carry his analysis of Capitalism far enough. He can see that it is a society run for profit, and that the worker is exploited. What he does not understand is how this exploitation of the worker is effected; he does not understand what are the essentials of Capitalism – those features which distinguish present-day society from preceding systems of society: in brief, those features that are the hallmark of Capitalism.

This brings us to the very important question: “What is Capitalism?”“What are the essentials of Capitalism?”

Every society has a very definite basis, and every class society a very definite method of exploiting its subject class. This exploitation was not veiled in slave society; one man owned another and made him work. The master gave the slave necessaries of life and retained for himself what was produced over and above the slave’s maintenance. The exploitation and slavery of the present-day society are to some extent veiled. They are here all right, none the less. The capitalist does not own the worker, but still the worker is dependent on the capitalist class for his livelihood. And how is the worker exploited? Before production takes place today we have capital. This is money invested, for the purpose of profit, in the purchase of machinery, raw materials, factories etc. But these things are useless without workmen, so capital engages too the energies of the worker. The energies of the worker are used up in producing articles for sale, commodities, but the worker is not paid for the produce of his work for the whole duration of the day. In a working day of eight hours a worker may receive wages equivalent to, say, four hours’ produce of his work. The other four hours are given free to the capitalist. It is thus the worker is exploited under capitalism. Were he paid for the full produce of his eight hours’ work there would be no profits for the capitalist class. Whatever minor modifications present-day society may undergo, this is, simply and briefly put, an exploitation of the productive process. It is plain to see that wage-labour and capital are the roots of the whole system. Machinery, in simple or complex form, may be employed in any social system – but WAGE-LABOUR AND CAPITAL ARE PECULIAR TO CAPITALISM, and it is by their presence or absence that we can decide whether a society is capitalist or not.

In his “Wage-Labour and Capital,” Marx rightly points out that the two are complementary. The one does not exist without the other. He writes: “Capital and wage-labour are two sides of one and the same relation. The one conditions the other in the same way that the usurer and the borrower condition each other. As long as the wage-labourer remains the wage-labourer, his lot is dependent upon capital.” (P. 33. Lawrence and Wishart edition.) And again: “CAPITAL THEREFORE PRE-SUPPOSES WAGE-LABOUR; WAGE-LABOUR PRE-SUPPOSES CAPITAL. THEY CONDITION EACH OTHER; EACH BRINGS THE OTHER INTO EXISTENCE.” (P. 32. Emphasis by Marx.)

It is true that with the development of capitalism and different countries the form of ownership and control of capital may differ. But the form of ownership of capital is not the vital question. It may be owned by the small private trader, the large owner, the trust, or by the state –“the executive committee of the capitalist class.” But in all cases its presence proves the existence of capitalist society.

The Dean’s proposals

Dean Hewlett Johnson does not see that the roots of capitalism are wage-labour and capital, that these are the features distinguishing capitalism from all earlier forms of society.

It is not surprising, therefore, that he fails to understand the need for their abolition if we would be rid of capitalism. So it happens that in the “new order” proposed by the Dean we still have wage-labour and capital – which, as we have seen, spell exploitation and poverty for the working-class.

For the Dean, the term “modern capitalism” means unbridled competition, and his solution of the whole problem is the scientific planning of capitalism, so as to cut out competition and make the most efficient use of wage-labour and capital. His “new order,” then, is still capitalism, even if he wants wages to be paid according to ability and according to the work done. He relegates to the very distant future Socialism, wherein each will give of his best to society and partake of society’s products according to his needs. It is the old story. He is like other reformists, in that not accepting the Socialist case he is bound to put forward proposals to remodel capitalism – proposals which would still leave the worker a wage-slave and in poverty.

It is from Russia that the Dean has obtained his inspiration and ideas. He would like to see “Russian experiment” attempted here and in other countries.

We must now examine what he tells us about Russia and see if the title of his book is justifiable. Has Socialism been established over a sixth of the earth’s surface?

Some fundamentals of scientific socialism

Hewlett Johnson claims to have studied Scientific Socialism. More important, he claims that since 1917 Russia has been attempting to pit Socialist principles into practice.

The book under review proves two things; first, that the main teachings of Socialism have completely escaped the Dean; and secondly, that Russia is not, and never have been Socialist.

The principles of Socialism are to be found defined and elaborated in the works of Marx and Engels, who gave a scientific basis to Socialist thought.

Scientific Socialism explains how and why society evolves, how one social system is replaced by another. It is one of the main conclusions of Socialist thought that Socialism cannot arise BEFORE the economic basis is ripe for it. And this is sound common sense. Each economic system is a growth – out of the previous system. Capitalism grew out of feudalism, and could, not as a system, precede it. A new society cannot come into being until the need for it and the practicability of it, arises. Hence Socialism could not precede capitalism, for Socialism requires a very high level pf production, giant machines, and an educated and trained population to work them. It is capitalism which provides these, and it is because capitalism cannot use the means of production for the benefit of society that the need for Socialism arises.

The Dean ignores this very important teaching of Socialism. He admits that in 1917 Russia was backward economically, much more so than Britain, Germany, the U.S.A., France, etc. With a semi-feudal economy, the Russian population too was naturally backward. Illiteracy and superstition were both rife. Stalin is quoted as follows: “We inherited from the old regime a technically backward and ruined country reduced to semi-starvation. Ruined by four years of imperialist war, and again by three of civil war, a country with a semi-illiterate population, primitive means of production and small oases of industry scattered in the desert of petty-peasant farmsteads” (p. 167). The mass of the people being peasants, they neither needed nor desired Socialism. This the Dean admits (p. 101) when he writes: “Not only was Russia handicapped with a mediaeval agriculture, but possessed … a peasantry the most ignorant, superstitious and backward that Europe could show; a peasantry not only using the wooden plough, but wishing for no better; a peasantry capable of fighting burning thatch in a cottage conflagration with gallons of milk, through superstitious dread of using water for the purpose.”

And yet he proclaims that of all countries Russia was the one most suited for the first Socialist revolution. “Providence,” He says (p. 87), “surely planned Russia as the stage for the first Socialist civilisation.”

Providence indeed! Scientific Socialism which the Dean is supposed to have studied proves that evolutions and revolutions are not haphazard affairs, dependent upon miracles. Before leaving this point, let us quote one more passage from Marx. The sound common-sense it contains becomes all the more evident when placed alongside the confused writings of the Dean:-

“No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for there is room in it have been developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have been matured in the womb of the old society. Therefore, mankind always takes up only such problems as it can solve; since looking at the matter more closely, we will always find that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exists or are at least in the process of formation.” (Preface to “Critique of Political Economy.”)

(to be concluded)