“Local Boy Makes Good”
A very great war produces, out profound social tragedy, its mordant satirical humorists. This one is no exception; in adding to biting ironists of the Nat Gubbins school, “Yaffle,”and others, we may now acclaim one Reginald Bishop as the wittiest cynic of the day. With elephantine solemnity, Mr. Bishop has turned out a little booklet on “Soviet Millionaires” (“Soviet Millionaires,” Russia To-day, pamphlet, 2d.), in which he playfully pretends that he “explaining” that they are the result of socialism in Russia in 1034” (p. 12).
The result is funniest piece of satirical writing since this war broke out. For this we thank him very much.
How to do it! Mr. Bishop chides those who are shocked to hear of millionaires in Russia, and “to whom the very word millionaires represents an evil influence in society.” He points out that Russian millionaires are “only” rouble millionaires; they do not possess the equivalent of a million of pounds sterling (p. 3). “But even were a rouble millionaire possessed of as much money as a sterling one, it would still not be anti-socialist … because in the Soviet Union the millionaire has acquired his roubles by his own toil” (p. 3).
“In all countries the law smiles upon the acquisition of wealth,” says he (p. 3).
It all started when the Society for Cultural Relations with Russia published that troublesome little pamphlet reporting how a few rich farmers and priests had “presented” (or lent) millions of roubles to the Russian Government. “One, Berdyebekov, was publicly acclaimed as a millionaire” (p. 4). “Perhaps it is easier to understand how Soviet millionaires are made by studying the career of Berdyebekov than by any amount of abstract and theoretical discussion” (p. 4).
Just as simple as that! Like those physical culture adverts before the war –“You, too, can have bulging biceps in 10 minutes; send 2s. 6d.”
In the new “Bishop” version of the classical figure of bourgeois political economy – the imaginary single individual – the Robinson Crusoe, who on his uninhabited isle, becomes a “self-made” man. That same “Robinson Crusoe”, who is the butt of Karl Marx’s scornful lash in Vol. I of “Capital”– not that Mr. R. Bishop would know anything about that!
And our Soviet millionaire really started from nothing. He was “an agricultural labourer” (p. 4).
It is rather handy that we’re not having any nasty old “abstract,”“theoretical” discussions, because on the next page (p. 5) “17 other Kayak farmers also made similar gifts”– that is seventeen more millionaires have popped up in the same neighbourhood, “who twenty-five years ago were more poverty stricken than the Russian themselves” (p. 5).
However, we’ll stick to Millionaire No. 1 – Berdyebekov. This is how he did it. “In 1929 his village organised one of the earliest collective farms in Kasakstan” (our italics) (p. 4). “They (he and his family) have been collective farmers for close on fourteen years” (p. 4).
“The family had worked hard; the farm is prosperous; the family had accumulated savings, entirely the fruit of their own labour.” (p. 4).
But on the same page: “In part, this prosperity has been due to the work and initiative of the farmers themselves, and in part, too, to the enterprise of the Soviet State, which developed cotton growing in that territory to an enormous extent” (p. 4).
So you see, the “Revolution gave them the land,”“the village organised the farm” and “the Soviet State developed cotton growing” (p. 4) –that is, the Government supplied the machinery and equipment, transport, etc., produced by social labour of the Russian working class –but – the one million of roubles is STILL the fruit of the millionaire and his family’s own labour – just like Henry Ford, Tommy Lipton, and Lord Nuffield.
No wonder Joe Davies, the American Ambassador, liked it so much!
Mr. Bishop says the Berdyebekov family have been farmers (really cotton growers) “close on fourteen years.” Let’s give ’em fifteen years and see how much they’ve accumulated per annum. One million divided by 15 years amounts to 66,000 per annum which nearly 20 times as much as the average wage of an industrial worker per annum. (3,447 roubles in 1938 –Daily Worker, February 13, 1943.)
Mr. Bishop tells his readers that it is quite wrong to think that a class of rentiers is being created in Russia – because they have to lend their money to the Government on “hard” terms. These terms are that only one-third of their investment bears interest by way of lottery prizes – two-thirds is redeemed at face value (p. 8). Interest at two per cent. is open to organisations only, that is, collective farms, etc. But citizen Berdyebekov is the “chairman” of the collective farm, and therefore controls the funds invested by it. He also has personal investments to the tune of one million roubles. Mr. Bishop tells us that the number of subscribers to the State Loan has grown to 60 millions, they amount to 41,000 million roubles. Mr. Berdyebekov our millionaire, may draw interest at two per cent. on 300,000 roubles, that is 6,000 roubles a year. What chance a Russian factory worker has of investing in Government stock on a wage of under 300 roubles a month may be well imagined.
But Mr. Bishop, gifted artist that he is, saves his piece-de-resistance to the grand finale; brushing aside as mere trifling chicken-feed the “misunderstandings” about lieutenants in the Russian Army getting 200 times as much as private, and a colonel 400 times, “and so on for the higher grades” (p. 13) (maybe “Marshals” are millionaires!); you see: “it’s their careers” (p. 14). Yes, they’ve even got those in Russia, too, the “successful ones are entitled to move” (p. 14), just like home. Oh! and even a private in the Russian Army gets “free travel” (p. 13).
Why all this fuss about farmers, he says. “As is well known, the Bishops of the Orthodox Church … vied as to which could make the most generous contribution. But the contributions made by the Church dignitaries do not represent the only effort of the clergy” (p. 10).
Stevanov priest of the Moscow Church, donated his life savings (73,000 roubles) to the Defence Fund last year. He wrote to Stalin:
“As a shepherd of souls I deeply mourn the fate of our brothers and sisters … I have deposited 73,000 roubles in cash to the State Bank” (p. 11).
We must admit that Mr. Bishop has us there. After all, if a master cotton-grower can’t claim to have produced a million rouble worth of cotton by his own hands – who shall gainsay a “shepherd of souls” his 73,000 roubles. Perhaps he is a “Stakanovite” soul-saver, who has stepped up his output to world record heights during the war. Our “study” of the Soviet Millionaire does not seem to be very successful so far. Perhaps we’ve been studying the wrong book. Maybe if we leave the modern humourist Reginald Bishop – and turn to another satirical writer of the last century – who was sometimes “theoretical” and “abstract”– Karl Marx, it might help.
In the “Handbook of Marxism” published by Mr. V. Gollancz, and edited by one of Mr. Bishop’s colleagues, Mr. Emile Burns, we read in an extract from Vol. I of “Capital” on page 376:
“This primitive accumulation plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote of the past. In times long gone by there were two sorts of people; one the diligent, intelligent and above all frugal elite; the other lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how men came to be condemned to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and wealth of the few that increases constantly, though they have long ceased to work. Such insipid childishness is everyday preached to us in defence of property.”
There was a man in Russia once, generally known by the name Lenin, who wrote a little booklet (abstract and theoretical) called “The Teachings of Karl Marx,” wherein he quoted the following from Vol. III of “Capital”:-
“The transformation of rent in kind into money rent is not only necessarily accompanied, but even anticipated by the formation of a class of propertyless day labourers, who hire themselves for wages. During the period of their rise, when this new class appears but sporadically, the custom necessarily develops among the better-situated tributary farmers of exploiting agricultural labourers for their own account, just as the wealthier serfs in feudal times used to employ serfs for their own benefit. In this way they gradually acquire the ability to accumulate a certain amount of wealth and to transform themselves even into future capitalists. The old self-employing possessors of the land thus gave rise among themselves to a nursery for capitalist tenants, whose development is conditioned upon the general development of capitalist production outside of the rural districts.” (“Handbook of Marxism,” p. 558.)
Lenin said that this theory of Marx, “of the evolution of capitalism in agriculture,” was of “especial importance in its bearing on backward countries such as Russia” (p. 558, “Handbook of Marxism”). It might even apply to cotton growing in Kasakstan.
We agree with the Daily worker, wherein Mr. W. Holmes averred that Reg. Bishop has done very well in dealing with statements by “Hyde Park spouters,”that in Russia to-day the social system is one based on wage-labour and capital. The “Hyde Park spouter” is the Socialist Party platform, and Mr. Bishop’s pamphlet is so good that it can be confidently recommended to any political sap who still swallows the guff about Socialism in Russia.