After Lenin, by Michael Farbman. 280 pages. 7/6. Published by Leonard Parsons, 24, Devonshire Street, W.C.1.
Michael Farbman sets out to tell the story of Russia since the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1921. In doing so he gives us not only a clear and absorbing account of the chief existing economic and political features, together with many glimpses into the future as he anticipates it, but also a useful brief analysis of the forces which have moulded the present out of the pre-war Russian State.
He is amazed at the almost universal failure in this country to understand what is going on in Russia, and he ascribes it largely to the fact that the continuity in office of the persons and the party made prominent in 1917—the Bolsheviks—has quite hidden from view the radical changes in policy that have taken place. Confusion is deepened by the habit of continuing to use revolutionary phrases long after they have been robbed of all meaning by changing circumstances.
There is a new and stable Russia, but it is not by any means the one desired by the Bolsheviks, although, to a superficial view, they dominate the situation. Looking below the surface, Mr. Farbman concludes that “ the important point to grasp . . . is the fact that a new ruling class is being evolved ” (15) and the real power of the Bolsheviks comes from the circumstance that they saw this “new ruling class emerging in Russia and were astute enough to manoeuvre themselves into the position of its leaders ” (23). They have held that position by making a series of far-reaching concessions to the peasants, and in Mr. Farbman’s view they will continue to govern and make concessions, until divergent interests, crystallising in distinct political parties, break up the apparent unity of the Russian Communist Party which has been so far the only, albeit a very restricted medium for the expression of political opinions.
The overwhelming force which made possible the overthrow of Czardom was the determination of the peasants to have land. In the 40 years following 1861, the date of their “ emancipation ” from serfdom, the number of peasants rose from 45 to 85 million, while over the same period the area of land used by them increased by only one-fifth. The average holding fell in size by nearly one half, and the result was semi-starvation for millions. “Seventy per cent. had not enough fodder for their cattle and produced only the subsistence minimum for themselves” (180). Changing conditions and improved agricultural methods made life still harder for the great majority. After a period of stagnation Russian agriculture in the nineties began to revive—for the landowners—owing to increased foreign demand and higher prices for grain. For the peasants this merely aggravated an already barely tolerable situation by making it harder still for them to rent land. It was now more profitable for the owners to have their land cultivated for themselves by hired labour.
The discontent of the poorer peasants and landless labourers found an outlet during the attempted revolution of 1905 in their endeavour to drive the land-owning nobility off the land by the deliberate destruction of their houses, agricultural machinery, etc. After 1905, Stolypin’s reforms, by assisting the break-up of the village organisation, the Mir, helped the wealthier peasants to buy the land of the poorer, and thus destroyed peasant solidarity against the landowners. Yet discontent grew and received its magnificent opportunity in the breakdown caused by the war. Even before the Bolsheviks seized power the great estates were being taken forcibly and divided up. It was the peasants who carried the Bolsheviks into office, but when once the land was theirs and their position on it reasonably secure, they had no further concern with plans for social revolution. Mr. Farbman records the surprise felt by himself and other observers at the remarkable political insight shown by the seemingly dull peasants. They fought loyally and tenaciously with the Bolsheviks in defence of their land against Monarchist counter-revolutionaries; and when the same Bolshevik government tried to seize their surplus produce in order to feed the towns, the peasants resisted, arms in hand, with equal tenacity. They stringently curtailed production and brought Lenin and his party to unconditional surrender; also incidentally this curtailment was a big factor in multiplying the hardships of the famine. The result of their victory—the New Economic Policy—was that they gained the right to sell their produce freely in the market.
In legal theory the land is national property, but in truth the peasant occupier has security of tenure and in effect the land he occupies is his. The law forbids him to sell his holding, but allows him to lease it out, and Mr. Farbman confidently predicts that improvements in agricultural organisation and technique will be accompanied by growing inequality in the villages. A class of wealthy peasants accumulating larger and larger holdings will be faced by a class of landless rural labourers. In passing, it is worth noticing that a feature of village life unwisely relied upon and exaggerated by Lenin—the antagonism between rich and poor peasants—was brought to an end by the seizure of the land, for the effect was to equalise all holdings. This immediately robbed the Bolsheviks of much of their active support in rural areas.
Other developments equally obnoxious to the Communists have been going on in the towns. Despite their decrees, their propaganda and their state services, the Bolsheviks have been quite unable to check the growth of a powerful capitalist trading class, the state enterprises being helpless in face of the competition of more adaptable private traders.
Mr. Farbman quotes official figures, and goes on to say : These figures “show that even in the wholesale trade private enterprise enters into such serious competition with the State that it has nearly as many shops as the State. They demonstrate further that 92 per cent. of the retail trade is in the hands of private persons, and, what is of gravest importance, they show that from that area in which the masses make their purchases—the market-places—the State-controlled trade is completely absent. In the villages the situation of State trade is still less favourable. Here State shops are practically unknown and even cooperative shops are only 14.6 per cent. of all shops. If we compare State and private trade from the point of view of their respective turnover, we find that 64 per cent, of the entire turnover in the cities is made by private traders . . . the main struggle is being waged, and will continue to be waged, in the important sphere of retail trade. Yet the success already achieved by private capital in the wholesale trade is very remarkable. In the beginning of 1923 the proportion of private capital in this branch of trade was only 10 per cent. By the end of the year it reached 30 per cent’ (page 135).
The growing power of this trading class cannot be ignored by those who would govern Russia, and will in due course lead to a great struggle for political control. Another battle-ground is provided by the disabilities imposed on the peasants by the present State control of foreign trade. The value of agricultural produce measured in pre-war prices is 4.7 times as great as the value of industrial produce. Yet agricultural produce obtains in the market only 2.3 times the price obtained for the produce of industry. The remedy for the peasant is the unfettered right to sell his corn in the dearest market and to buy what he requires in the cheapest market, at home and abroad. The issue will be Free Trade versus State control, and the victory of the peasants will mean the destruction of what has been called by the Bolsheviks one of the three pillars of the Soviet State. Of the administration itself Lenin is reported to have said a few months before his death that the new bureaucratic machine was “adopted from Tzarism and only slightly anointed with Soviet oil” (page 6).
Mr. Farbman also sketches the leading figures in the Communist Party; describes the economic crisis of 1923 which foreshadowed the coming clash between agricultural and industrial interests; and gives an account of the successful attempt to stabilise the new currency. Other features we must leave, except to mention that the Trade Union movement has become (as must, of course, happen where the leading party is also the Government and hence the employer in State industries) a great organisation to prevent the workers from striking not only in State but also in private concerns (chap. viii).
While Mr. Farbman has, and deserves, a reputation for careful and unbiased observation, protest must be made against his carelessly inaccurate treatment and curt dismissal of Marx.
On page 34 he tells us that
“When Lenin inaugurated the dictatorship of the proletariat he was obviously unhampered by the slightest doubt as to the efficacy of Marxian principles, but the longer he tested them as a practical revolutionist and statesman, the more he became aware of the impossibility of building up a society on a mechanical and exclusively economic basis. When he had to adopt an agrarian policy totally at variance with his Marxian opinions, and when later he was compelled to make an ‘appeal to the peasants’ acquisitive instincts.and go back to what he styled ‘State Capitalism,’ he was not only conscious that something was wrong with his Marxian gospel, but frankly admitted that Marx had not foreseen all the realities of a complex situation. The greatest value of the Russian ‘Revolution to the world labour movement lies in the fact that it has replaced Marxism by Leninism.”
Apart from some obscurities in the above passage, the plain suggestion is that Marx had envisaged the possibility of establishing socialism without socialists; of initiating a proletarian revolution in a country where 80 per cent. of the population were non-proletarian peasants; and of building socialist society in the most backward country in Europe. Lenin, says Mr. Farbman, tried to apply this theory, found it failed, and rejected it. The fact of the matter is that this whole conception (as has repeatedly been shown in the Socialist Standard) is utterly foreign to Marxism, and Lenin has produced no material evidence to prove the contrary. Indeed Mr. Farbman and those like the Daily Herald, who have so gleefully reproduced his opinion, make no attempt to do so. They are wise, for there is no such evidence.
Moreover, Mr. Farbman himself supplies proof that Lenin was not, and could not, have been sent astray by following Marx in this matter. He writes this (page 96):—
“The most constant charge made against Lenin and his associates is that, contrary to the teachings of their own Marxian Sociology, which told them that Communism could only arise as a result of the most highly developed capitalism, they deliberately proceeded to precipitate this in a country predominantly agricultural and containing only the rudiments of capitalist development. But an examination of Lenin’s struggle for State Capitalism against his Left Communist associates in the spring of 1918 will show conclusively that Lenin worked his hardest to extricate his party from the fatal policy of indiscriminate nationalisation to which they were committed. . . . As a Socialist theorist Lenin had no manner of doubt that Communism was bound first to arrive in the highly developed countries of the West— England and Germany—and in America. He never made the mistake so commonly attributed to him of imagining that so backward a country as Russia was ripe and ready for Communism.”
Mr. Farbman here seems to be flatly contradicting his previous statement that Lenin went astray and had to “go back to State Capitalism.” But whether Mr. Farbman thinks that Lenin erred or not, it is perfectly plain that Mr. Farbman, and in his opinion Lenin also, knew well that Marx could not be regarded as an advocate of attempting to establish Communism in backward Russia. If Lenin did at any time believe that this was possible, he held that belief not only in defiance of Marxian principles, but also as a departure from his own view at the time of his return to Russia in 1917.
Mr. Farbman further quotes from a letter addressed in 1917 to the Swiss workers (page 98)
“. . . the idea that the Russian proletariat is the chosen Revolutionary Proletariat among the workers of Europe is absolutely alien to us. We are fully aware that the proletariat of Russia is less organised, less prepared and less conscious than the workers of other countries. It was the peculiar historical conditions and not the peculiar qualities of the Russian proletariat which made it for a certain period, and probably for a very short one, the advanced guard of the Revolutionary Proletariat of the world. Russia is a peasant country and one of the most backward of European countries. Socialism cannot win at once in Russia. Yet the peasant character of the country may, in view of the experience of 1905, give to the bourgeois democratic revolution of Russia such a swing as may make it a prologue to the World Socialist Revolution.”
Mr. Farbman provides the key to the situation when he writes: “I, personally, think that there was one cardinal error into which Lenin fell, and that was his ardent belief in the imminence of a World Socialist Revolution ” (page 97).
As the Socialist Party of Great Britain continually pointed out both before and after the Bolshevik seizure of power, the German, British and other workers were never for one moment able or willing to fight, work or even vote for Socialism. It was a tragedy that Lenin should have listened to those emotional babblers who mistook their hopeful imaginings for facts, and created the colossal myth of a revolutionary working class in England, Germany and America. It is a tribute to Lenin, amply supported by Mr. Farbman, that he was able to face the unpleasant truth before it was too late, and instead of concentrating entirely on futile schemes for world revolution, was willing to lay his hand to the task of hastening the industrial development of Russia under a system of State Capitalism, modified in favour of the workers to the extent that that is possible.