Book Review: ‘Six Weeks in Russia in 1919’

News and Views about Russia

‘Six Weeks in Russia in 1919’ by Arthur Ransome. (Paper, 2s. 6d. I.L.P., S.L.P., and George Allen & Unwin, Ltd.)

This interesting work by an observer who has recently returned from Russia consists of a series of short sketches descriptive of the situation there during February and part of March this year.

The position of our Party in relation to the Russian insurrection receives in this book a good of justification. Much of the work consists of interesting though brief accounts of the personalities of prominent characters in the revolt, and their opinions upon various phases of the situation confronting them.

The industrial difficulties which face the Bolsheviks are dealt with, but so also are the valiant efforts being made to overcome them. Railways and roads are under construction; the Baltic-Volga canal system has been improved to admit the movement of large ships; power-stations on a peat fuel basis are in process of building, and improvements in textile production have been made enabling the utilisation of the abundant supply of flax which is available. There is a great shortage of transport, fuel, and food, but the last two items have become more plentiful since the acquisition of the Ukrainian supplies.

In the control of industrial establishments technical and managing experts are appointed by a central authority instead of being, as formerly, elected by workers in the concern—an important modification.

The most important problem in Russia, is, however, that of agriculture, and this is, unfortunately, all too briefly dealt with. One thing is made clear—the utter impossibility of land socialisation for a long period to come is now recognised by the Soviet Government. Let us quote Ransome:

    “In the afternoon I met Sereda, the Commissar of Agriculture. He insisted that their agrarian policy had been much misrepresented by their enemies for the purpose of agitation. They had no intention of any such idiocy as the attempt to force the peasants to give up private ownership. The establishment of communes was not to be compulsory in any way; it was to be an illustrative means of propaganda of the idea of communal work, not more. The main task before them was to raise the standard of Russian agriculture, which under the old system was extremely low. By working many of the old estates on a communal system with the best possible methods they hoped to do two things at once: to teach the peasant to realise the advantage of communal labour, and to show him that he could himself get a very great deal more out of his land than he does. “In other ways also we are doing everything we can to give direct help to the small agriculturists. We have mobilised all the agricultural experts of the country. We are issuing a mass of simply written pamphlets explaining better methods of farming.” (Page 99-100. Italics mine.)

According to some of our critics the Russian moujik needs neither force nor persuasion to acquiesce in the socialisation of the land, but those in Russia know different. Philips Price, in his pamphlet “Capitalist Europe and Socialist Russia,” tells us that: “the decree on land, issued by the Bolshevik Council of the People’s Commissaries, instantly quieted the peasants. They knew that the land would indeed be theirs if the land committees, which they controlled, had the handling of it.” But, we may add, “theirs” in a different sense from that the Bolsheviks intended, for on January 23rd, 1918, they passed the new land law which declared, according to Price, “All private property in land, minerals, water, forests, and the forces of Nature within the limits of the Republic are abolished for ever, and “the land without any compensation to the owners (open or hidden) becomes the property of the whole people to be used for objects of common utility.” (Italics mine.)

How does this decree square with the statement of Sereda as to the non-interference with private peasant property? This is one instance of what Ransome in more than one place refers to, namely, that many of the fine sounding Soviet decrees exist largely or wholly on paper owing to the difficulty of enforcing them: “the spirit is willing” but the materials are damned rotten.

Does not the idea of model communes and propaganda pamphlets remind us of the work of Owen, Cabet, and the other Utopians who hoped to banish capitalism by “good examples”; by demonstrating the “superiority” of communism with “model factories” and co-operative colonies. Of course the conditions are vastly different, for the experiments in Russia are undertaken with the assistance of the State authority, but even so, to convince tens of millions of semi-barbarian, grossly superstitious, illiterate and intensely conservative peasants by such means is a colossal, an insuperable, task.

Ransome reports the continuation of his conversation:

    “I told Sereda I had heard that the peasants were refusing to sow more than they wanted for their own needs. He said that on the contrary the latest reports gave them the right to hope for a greater sown area this year than ever before, and that even more would have been sown if Denmark had not been prevented from letting them have the seed for which they had actually paid. I put the same question to him that I put to Nogin as to what they most needed; he replied ‘Tractors’.” (Page 100.)

The first part of Sereda’s statement looks like an exaggeration. It probably means more has been sown than during the past four years, which should be pretty obvious seeing that the millions of peasants drawn from production for the Imperial army completely disorganised agriculture and almost brought it to a standstill. But if Sereda means literally what he says: “more than ever before,” this would not be surprising, for after centuries of impoverishment both in land and products, the poorer peasants would indeed be fools if they did not use to the full their present opportunity to raise their level of subsistence.

But really Sereda’s evasive reply does not settle Ransome’s pertinent query at all. The point is, can the Soviet Government assure a constant and automatic supply of agricultural products as food and raw material whilst retaining the system of peasant farming and, at the same time, socialising the industries of the towns?

Sereda’s last point is significant—”Tractors.” Without machinery, and the consequent abolition of the primitive, individually used tools of production true socialisation is impossible. The manufacture or importation of agricultural machinery in sufficient quantities and its practical use embodying the destruction of the traditional mode of production and social relations in Russian rural life is the only solution—and this will take years to accomplish.

In an account of a conversation with Lenin Ransome says:

We talked then of the antipathy of the peasants to compulsory Communism, and how that idea had also considerably whittled away. I asked him what were going to the relations between the Communists of the towns and the property-loving peasants, and whether there was not great danger of antipathy between them, and said I regretted leaving too soon to see the elasticity of the Communist theories tested by the inevitable pressure of the peasantry.

    “Lenin said that in Russia there was a pretty sharp distinction between the rich peasants and the poor. “The only opposition we have here in Russia is directly or indirectly due to the rich peasants. The poor, as soon as they are liberated from the political domination of the rich, are on our side and are in an enormous majority.” I said that would not be so in the Ukraine, where property among the peasants is much more evenly distributed. (Lenin) “No. And there, in the Ukraine, you will certainly see our policy modified. Civil War, whatever happens, is likely to be more bitter in the Ukraine than elsewhere, because there the instinct of property has been further developed in the peasantry, and the minority and majority will be more equal.” (Pp. 150-151.)

Now, without pretending to any detailed knowledge of the situation, is not the support of the poor and the opposition of the rich peasantry due to the fact that the Bolsheviks support the aspirations of the poor peasants for larger allotments even at the expense of the richer peasants, and that the latter are prevented from employing wage labourers and thus cultivating and making a profit upon whatever surplus land was them, in addition to having to bear a heavy taxation? The support of the poor peasants does not mean they are in favour of land socialisation, but that they have received land from the Soviet regime which was hitherto denied them, as well as backing against their would-be exploiters.

It has been repeatedly stated in this journal that the Bolsheviks do not draw their power from a class-conscious working class. The above bears evidence of that, but Mr. Ransome’s book contains even more definite information on the point. He states that the discontent engendered by hunger and cold was so great and widespread, though unorganised, that the non-Bolshevik parties could, were they not afraid of reactionary invasion, use it with such effect as to overthrow the Communist Party. Now were the workers conscious supporters of Communism it is obvious that they would easily recognise their impoverishment to be due to causes outside the control of any political party, and that neither the Social Democratic reformers nor the Socialist Revolutionary Anarchists can materially alleviate their hardship. The evidence, on the contrary, shows that the Bolsheviks have proved far better organisers politically and economically than any of their predecessors in power, and that whatever improvement has occurred is, in a measure, due to them.

Most of the Bolshevik leaders seem to think that England is on the verge of a Socialist revolution, and Lenin in an amusing sentence quoted by Ransome declared that “Ramsay Macdonald will try to (stop it) at the last minute.” We here, however, know only too painfully how mistaken the Russian revolutionaries are. Let those who think it possible for a minority of workers here to seize political power in the way the Bolsheviks successfully adopted in Russia, ponder over the words of Meshtcheriskov, quoted by Mr. Ransome on page 58 of his book. This old Siberian exile, who has recently visited England, says:

    “In the West, if there is revolution, they will use artillery at once, and wipe out whole districts. The governing classes in the West are determined and organised in a way our home-grown capitalists never were. The autocracy never allowed them to organise, so, when the autocracy itself fell, our task was comparatively easy. There was nothing in the way. It will not be like that in Germany.2

The suppression and massacre of the Spartacists in Berlin, Munich, and elsewhere in Germany proved this judgement correct.

Let the revolutionary workers of this country continue their urgent task of agitation, education, and organisation for the day when, having full control of the armed forces of society through the only source of that power—the State machinery—they will be enabled to handle in no uncertain fashion the pro-slavery revolt of the present ruling parasites and their allies, and proceed with the only method of proletarian emancipation, the ownership and control by the community of the means of life.

R. W. Housley

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