Book Review: Soviet Capitalism
“Soviet Communism: A New Civilization?” by Sidney and Beatrice Webb. 2 vols. 1174 pp. (Longmans, Green & Co., Ltd. 35/-.)
The present writer is unable to join in the chorus of flattering praise that has heralded the appearance of the above volumes. The title of the work is misleading. Even Stalin has not yet had the impudence to declare that Communism, as a system of society, has been established in Russia. The plan of the book is bad. The second volume goes over the same ground as the first from an angle which, though slightly different, does nothing to improve the perspective. Finally, the contents show a complete lack of any sense of the relative importance of the various aspects of the subject. For sheer question-begging assumption, tedious repetition and the wholesale sacrifice of inner understanding to formal description it will be hard to beat. A fascinating and important subject of widespread interest has been subjected to the typically superficial treatment one has learnt to expect from the Fabians, with the result that instead of enlightenment all one gets is a headache.
The authors ask us to contemplate an economic and historical miracle. They profess to depict a society which has liquidated capitalism without first developing, in anything approaching fullness, the productive forces which that system calls into being. We are expected to believe that in Russia there is a large and growing class of wage-receivers without a corresponding class of wage-payers, that profits are made, but that no one makes profit, that capital is accumulating at an unusually rapid pace, but that no one owns it, and that while no one dictates, the workers and peasants are, none the less, most effectively dictated to. The present scribe remains incredulous.
The Webbs occupy over four hundred pages describing the formal relations which are supposed to exist between the elements of the constitution, such as the Soviets, the trade unions, the handicraft co-operatives, the collective farms, consumers’ co-ops., and the Communist Party. In their entirety these are organised into a “pyramidal hierarchy” (the authors’ expression) at the summit of which stands the Council of People’s Commissars, consisting entirely of Communists. At the base of the pyramid, however, in the soviets of the cities and villages (the only directly elected bodies) the Communists are in a decided minority. The collective farmers are not as such represented, although they and their dependants form, roughly, half the population, while the Communist Party is “outside,” (or should it not be above) “the law and the constitution ” (p. 430).
This arrangement, ascribed to the genius of Lenin, is called by the Webbs, “multiform democracy.”
After having patiently waded through the above-mentioned four hundred pages, the reader is confronted by the confession of the authors that the constitutional structure changes so rapidly as to be difficult to define (p. 418). A further thirty pages have then to be traversed to discover whether or not the government can correctly be described as a dictatorship. The Webbs decide not, but the fact that no organised opposition to the government is tolerated is not even mentioned. Not until we reach page 586 do we encounter the significant statement, quoted approvingly from the work of an American engineer, that “Without the G.P.U. there would be no Communist Party in Russia to-day, no Union of Socialist Soviet Republics.”
In other words, the secret political police, one of the worst features of Tsarism (marked down for abolition by the pre-war Bolsheviks when they were still advocating a democratic republic), is the chief prop of their present rule. The supremacy of the Communist Party is based, as they have so often told us, not upon the consciously organised majority of the population, but upon an instrument of terror designed to protect them, at once from the plots of ambitious rivals and the revolts of the discontented.
This survival of semi-mediaeval methods of government requires to be explained, and it is characteristic of the Webbs that they have given us the very minimum of historical background. They devote so much space to the details of the superstructure that, in spite of the size of the volume, they skip over important points with mere passing references. Thus, if one wants information concerning “the liquidation of the capitalist,” one finds two or three isolated pages, in the course of which one learns that although “Lenin would have waded through seas of blood ” to achieve this object (p. 535), it actually occurred “very largely by accident” (p. 612) owing to the need for evading, if possible, certain stipulations by the German Government with regard to the execution of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. We are given the bare information that on or about June 28th, 1918, “a decree was issued declaring all enterprises having a capital exceeding 200,000 roubles to be the property of R.S.F.S.R.” There is nothing concerning the extent to which this capital was previously in the possession of foreigners, nor how the decree affected Russian holders. Neither are we told how the lesser concerns came to be nationalised. For information of this description one is obliged to go to less pretentious volumes such as “Economic Trends in Soviet Russia,” by A. Yugov, or Mr. M. Dobb’s “Russian Economic Development. ’ ’
Apparently the Webbs have never heard of the huge new Russian National Debt, though government bonds are occasionally referred to. The subject of taxation is dismissed in a few sentences. For some obscure reason the State taxes its own industries, though “the assessment is mitigated in various ways, in favour of the collectivised concerns,” whatever that may mean (p. 117). One gathers, however, that though the workers get about two hundred roubles per month on the average, some people make up to 24,000 roubles in the same period. Even when their income tax is paid they are many times better off than the skilled worker. According to the “U.S.S.R. Handbook” (Gollancz, 1936, p. 310), the tax on higher incomes has been reduced since the Webb’s book was published.
How are wages determined? “According to social value,” reply the authors (p. 186), which turns out upon examination to be nothing more than a new name for our old friends, supply and demand, or in other words the relative scarcity of certain grades of skill. Devotion to the piecework system of payment is transformed in these pages into a “socialistic” virtue, taking the place of profit as a lever for achieving industrial progress. The accident rate is not mentioned, but, apparently, even American mechanics, accustomed to the driving methods of Ford’s factory at Detroit, have been compelled to protest against piece-work in the tool-room (p. 709).
The Trade Unions bit the dust about six years ago as independent defenders of wage-rates (pp. 170-2), and have been saving the government the expense of a separate department for administering sick-pay, etc., since 1933. The soviet trade union “is not formed to fight anybody, and has no inducement to prevent the competition among workmen for particular jobs ” (p. 173). Its chief concern apparently is now the speeding up of production. Trade Union officials act as rate-fixers (p. 188), and help to keep the wheels of industry working smoothly by discouraging strikes. Communists in other countries have called this sort of thing by hard names, but Russia has become, in a more sinister sense than ever before, the land of holy idol worship.
The rank and file of the Communist Party play a similar role. Forty per cent. of the membership are salaried officials (p. 352). The rest see in their skill at leading non-members in increasing production, the high road to promotion. Even the very cows on the State farms recognise the touch of their authority, yielding five litres of milk to them as against four to non-members (p. 361). Can it be that they have replaced the old peasant milking songs with a chant of the theses of the Third International? Of their loyalty there can be no question, however; they do not even ask their leaders to issue a balance sheet for the 50 million roubles which is subscribed annually as membership fees (p. 371).
The State Trusts and Combines controlling the various large-scale industrial establishments (compulsorily amalgamated during the period of civil war) are not departments like the Post Office (or the Railways in certain countries), but rather, bodies comparable to the United States Steel Corporation or the Imperial Chemical Industries, Ltd., with their respective boards or commissions of directors appointed by the People’s Commissar in each case (p. 110). They in turn appoint the general managers of the separate factories or plants. Management by committees elected by the workers in the factories established by decree in November, 1917, was definitely deposed by a decree of June 28th, 1918, placing each enterprise under the control of a single manager (pp. 604-9).
This triumph of bureaucracy over a mild form of anarchy naturally pleases the Webbs, but they fail to point out that the entire situation demonstrated the absence of any organised working-class ready to establish Socialism by democratic methods. In spite of formal trustification, however, we are told on p. 772 that “thousands of separate employers are actively competing with each other in their search for this or that kind of skilled worker, whilst each is habitually struggling against all the rest for an adequate supply of unskilled and even raw peasant labour.” In view of this fact, the forcible collectivisation of two-thirds of the peasantry, involving as it did the expropriation of hundreds of thousands, takes on a new light. The dispossession of peasants is the historical capitalist method of increasing the supply of labour-power for industry.
“Each enterprise is responsible for all new and additional capital invested in its undertakings, and for the actual repayment of loans and the payment of bank interest, with a system of accounting of great strictness and complexity” (p. 781). In spite of this, however, Molotov, President of the Council of Commissars (p. 782), complains that “we have cases in which those who direct trusts, co-operative organisations, factories, or soviet farms, sell their produce more profitably, upsetting the fixed prices, and fail to meet their obligations to the State, taking in reality the unclean path of speculation.” Thus, in a land where scarcity, not over-production, is the rule, control from above fails to prevent the assertion of economic laws which enable individuals to enrich themselves at the expense of the State in whose service they are nominally engaged. Curiously enough, the Webbs do not give any examples of these people being shot by the G.P.U. “Counter-revolutionaries” appear to be drawn mainly from the lower official ranks, the so-called technical intelligentsia. And even clerks and shop assistants, foremen and stationmasters, train conductors and book-keepers fail to acquire “soviet incentives.” Indeed, the Webbs saddle this section with responsibility for the fact that in the U.S.S.R. “the project or plan is always superior to the execution of it” (p. 798).
Where these people are exceptionally scarce, such as experienced engineers, some curious incidents occur. Thus the Webbs found in “the best room in the best hotel in an important city, a Russian specialist who had been sentenced to a long term of imprisonment for counter-revolutionary activities. He had served only a small part of his sentence when the president of the trust for which he had worked, feeling severely the loss of this expert service, obtained the favour of his release” (p. 582). They also quote a case (given by Ella Winter in “Red Virtue” p. 76), in which “Four men in a civil aviation factory were arrested for wrecking. They were given ten-year sentences. A year later they were all amnestied, given 10,000 rouble bonuses for good work done, and sent back to work without a stigma ” (p. 583). Seemingly, it pays in Russia not to be a mere Kulak or other recalcitrant.
In the sphere of distribution, shops run by the trusts vie with shops run by the State directly on the one hand, and the co-operative stores on the other. Of the latter we are told (p. 326) that “There have been more speculators and embezzlers, thieves and bureaucrats in the co-operative system than any other branch of soviet enterprise”; evidently there is still a fair amount of scope in Russia for primitive accumulation. One cannot help wondering if those who get away with it invest in government bonds. Municipal pawnshops come to the rescue of those who cannot make ends meet in this way (p. 331), but stay, we have omitted to mention that the situation is likely to be relieved some time this year, by “the opening of ‘one-price stores’ after the model of the Woolworth establishments in the American and western European cities” (p. 330). Now let who will declare that the Soviet Government is not looking after the interests of the workers!
The struggle between the peasantry and the government has been practically’ incessant. The latter appear to have won, with the approval of the Webbs. The peasants, generally, are far too poor to purchase the expensive modern types of agricultural machinery now being produced; nor is the government now in the position to give them away. The plan, therefore, has followed the line of establishing machine and tractor stations for the purpose of ploughing the land of the collective farms, and threshing the crop in return for a proportion of the yield. This proportion has been the basis of dispute, in addition to the general distrust of the government’s methods. So the authors tell us that “What the Soviet Government was faced with from 1929 onward was, in fact, not a famine, but a widespread ‘general strike’ of the peasantry, in resistance to the policy of collectivisation” (p. 265). One expression of this “strike” was the destruction of livestock, which was reduced from 270 million head in 1929 to 118 million in 1933, i.e., to less than half. The reply of the government was wholesale deportation. By the hundred thousand the “recalcitrant” peasants were removed from the villages and put to work on roads, railways and canals, cutting timber or mining ores. Defending this action, the Webbs contend that as the soil was national property, the peasants were merely occupants who were under an obligation “to produce the foodstuffs required for the maintenance of the community” (p. 268). Was this what Lenin meant when he broadcast the slogan, “The land for the peasants”?
It is interesting to reflect that when it was pointed out in these columns, in the early days of the Soviet regime, that the peasantry were unlikely to take the Webbs’ views of their duties, we were derided by the British champions of the Bolsheviks, who imagined in their simplicity that the Russian mujik would have no difficulty in understanding the principles of Socialism.
Forming three-quarters of the population, the peasantry has no more political power than is represented by the village meeting (p. 22). Legally, the village soviet has wide powers compared with an English parish council, according to the Webbs; but they appear to have overlooked that the poverty of the peasantry is an effective barrier to any attempt on their part to use these powers. Thus the government has to prod the local councils into action rather than to check their extravagance.
It is from the peasantry that the Red Army is mainly recruited by compulsory service. We are told, however, that “many who are not conscripted actually volunteer for service. They find the army conditions, in fact, superior to those of the independent peasant or the miner, the factory-operative or the worker on the oil-field” (p. 125). How reminiscent of capitalism elsewhere! A further attraction appears to be that “The peasant who is serving in the army can always command a hearing. Many are the instances in which a son who is a Red Army man has been able, by intervening from a distance, to obtain redress for his father and family who have been suffering from some petty tyranny or injustice at the hands of a local official.” What happens to those who are not fortunate enough to have a son in the army?
The Russian authorities have for centuries preferred to deal with the peasantry collectively. Taxation in any form is thus easier to raise. The Bolsheviks, however, have a further motive. The fall of the Romanovs is a standing warning to them not to rely upon an antiquated agriculture for food supplies, especially in war-time. The same remark applies to their whole policy of planning. The Webbs admit this on pp. 637-8. “Every government has to plan for national defence. But to the Soviet Government the danger of war has hitherto been a constant pre-occupation. . . . This fear has from the first lent a strategic object to the planning. It has seemed of vital importance that . . . the U.S.S.R. should make itself substantially independent of the outer world, not only in all the means of waging modern warfare, but also in all indispensable commodities. Hence the exceptional concentration of the First Five-year Plan . . . on a rapid expansion of the “heavy industries,” by means of which things can be made, or troops transported, instead of seeking directly to increase the making of the household commodities desired by the people.” So this is Socialism!
The new civilisation looks remarkably like the one we are all too well acquainted with. Even the extensive State control is in no sense new for Russia. Towards the latter end of the last century “ The government was not only by far the largest landowner in Russia, it was by far the greatest capitalist and the greatest employer of labour. Its railways, its mines, its factories of many different kinds, were in every part of the country ” (“Economic History of Russia,” James Mavor, vol. 2, p. 152, J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.). Going still further back the same author tells us, “When Peter (the Great) came to the throne there were no large factories in Russia; when he died there were 233 State and private factories and foundries. These establishments were either founded by the State and managed by the State officials, or they were subsidised by the State, and afterwards were handed over to private firms. Throughout the 18th century, the great industries in Russia were carried on primarily for the benefit of the State ” (“Economic History of Russia,” vol. 1, pp. 124, 535).
What is the difference between the “Socialism” of Stalin and that of Peter? Simply this, that the latter’s undertakings were manned by serf-labour; the former’s are based on the exploitation of wage-slaves.
Peter, however, had not heard of Marx, and could not try to cover up his proceedings with a display of “proletarian” phraseology.
Is this to say that no progress is made? By no means. The break-up of mediaeval forms in Russia, as elsewhere, is rendered inevitable by the advance of capitalistic methods of production. That Russia has had a spell of Bolshevik rule is no more surprising than that Britain and other countries should have occasional Labour Governments.
The administration of capitalism by people who have sprung from the working class is not Socialism. It does but demonstrate that within their servitude the workers are developing in the direction of political maturity.
Contemporary conditions in Russia have given a curious twist to the ideas of Marx and Engels, just as conditions in Germany in the first half of the 19th century gave a similar twist to revolutionary ideas from France. The stability of the existing regime in Russia cannot be eternal, and it behoves workers to beware of accepting the assurances of “intellectuals,” like the Webbs, concerning Russia or Socialism. They are authorities on neither.
In a note to the Editorial Committee of The Socialist Standard, with respect to the review copy, Mr. S. Webb writes: —
“You may say, if you like, the arrangements might possibly be made presently for a ‘limited’ edition at the same price (5s.), strictly confined to members of such organisations [of workers as were allowed to have the original 5s. edition], if their executive committees wish to take the matter up, and that, accordingly, anyone wishing to take advantage of such an arrangement should write to his E.C. on the subject.”