1980s >> 1982 >> no-940-december-1982

Russia: the left-wing fantasy

Sixty-five years ago a myth was born. A Dictatorship of the Russian Proletariat had been set up amid the chaos of World War 1. The simple slogan Peace, Land and Bread echoed from the cities to the remotest villages.

As the dust settled, facts emerged. The peasants had seized whatever land they could while the landlords, rightly fearing a repetition of the French Revolution, packed up and fled. Peace broke out as far as Russia’s involvement in the World War was concerned but only temporarily: civil war was to follow. Bread was to be very scarce for a long time. The workers’ councils, the Soviets, had no real power. The Bolshevik Party were in power and they meant to stay there. Within weeks the Cheka took the place of the Tsarist Okhrana — with unlimited powers. This was not a dictatorship of the proletariat, it was a dictatorship over the proletariat, and shortly over the peasants too.

The myth of a classless society — as socialism will indeed be — was widely publicised. Yet the reality was a society split by irreconcilable antagonisms. The Bolsheviks were desperate for food for the starving cities and sent raiding parties to rob the peasants, who fought back.

This conflict came to a head sixty years ago. The winter of 1920-21 was terrible; food in the cities was very scarce, rationing was arbitrary and chaotic, many workers fled the cities to join relatives in the countryside while those who remained starved on wages which were less than 10 per cent of the 1913 level.

The Kronstadt revolt highlighted real grievances, demanding better food supplies and new elections. “The Communist Party, master of the State, has detached itself from the masses . . . Countless incidents have recently occurred in Petrograd and Moscow which show clearly that the Party has lost the confidence of the working masses. [1] . . . Our cause is just. We stand for the power of the Soviets, not for that of the Party. We stand for freely elected representatives of the toiling masses. Deformed Soviets, dominated by the Party, have remained deaf to our pleas. Our appeals have been answered with bullets.”[2]

At the same time, peasant risings showed opposition to grain procurements. Lenin did a U-turn. In 1921, within weeks of Trotsky’s massacre of the Kronstadt garrison, he instituted the New Economic Policy. The collapse of Russian agriculture was halted and grain harvests increased through the twenties until the first Five Year Plan brought compulsory collectivisation and attacks on so-called kulaks. Food production nose-dived in the years 1928-32 and peasants slaughtered their livestock. Millions were liquidated or disappeared to concentration camps, others fled the hungry, terrorised countryside for the overcrowded cities. The gap between theory and practice widened:

  “From their bloodstained platforms they shout that the soil belongs to the peasants and the factories belong to the workers . . . [But] a new Communist serfdom arose. The peasant in the Soviet farms became a slave, and the worker in the factories a day-labourer.” [3]


From the time of the first Five Year Plan, which ended 50 years ago, we may date the completion of Russia’s capitalist revolution. This was the third Russian Revolution. The first, in February 1917, toppled the Tsar and brought about a liberal bourgeois government under Kerensky; the second was the November coup by the Bolsheviks with promises of “Peace, Land and Bread”. Between 1927 and 1932, the number of wage-workers in Russia increased by 30 per cent and the expropriation of the peasants proceeded by leaps and bounds.


Marx wrote of the “primitive accumulation” of capital — the process by which a landless proletariat is brought into being, with no means of livelihood except the sale of their labour power, renting themselves out for hire by the hour, the day or the week for wages. He pointed out that everywhere the methods employed “all employ the power of the state, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hothouse fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition “[4]. This ruthless, enforced process, was as cruel in the steppes of Russia as in the Highlands of Scotland. For Highland Clearances, read “de-kulakisation and collectivisation.”


But Russia, it was claimed, was different. There was no exploitation — it was illegal for individuals to own factories or mines, or to enrich themselves by employing a workforce. If there were no individual capitalists, there could be no capitalist class. Therefore this was not capitalism.


But. as Marx, Engels and Bukharin explained earlier, the wages system does not require individual capitalists. The capitalist class as a whole collectively exploits the working class as a whole. This can be done by means of institutional or corporate ownership of the land, factories, mines and so on as had already happened in the 19th century. (When Bismarck nationalised the railways, this had nothing whatever to do with socialism, as Engels pointed out.) Lenin’s view was that in Russia what was needed was state capitalism, on the Prussian model. Yet to this day, it is generally believed that Russia’s nationalisation is characteristic of socialism in practice. Later, Khrushchev tried to explain away the so-called “dictatorship of the proletariat”. This, he said, had been superseded by a “government of the whole people”: there was still to be coercion “but not in a class sense, since it was no longer necessary to suppress entire social layers and classes, but only criminals and individuals who violated Soviet laws.”[5]


Now. however, this policy is disavowed in Moscow. On a recent visit to Russia we were invited to take part in a discussion with two official spokesmen at the Marx-Engels Institute. In response to this point — that Russia had developed beyond the dictatorship of the proletariat and had become a classless society, a “government of the whole people” — the official spokesmen were anxious to reassure all present that nothing so terrible had happened. Khrushchev, he scoffed, talked a lot of twaddle. Yet this position had been endorsed as part of the CFSU’s programme at the 22nd Congress (1961): “(the party had) transformed the state of the proletarian dictatorship into a state of the whole people[6]. Evidently, the CPSU also talks twaddle.


Another Leftwing fantasy is that in Russia there is no unemployment. But with deportation to Siberia, pass laws which fix where any individual is allowed to live, black-listing of the system’s critics, a paternalist state, gross waste of human resources in the overmanned and hopelessly inefficient farms, large scale unemployment would be unlikely. Yet there are unemployed workers in Russia.


Workers may be sacked for absenteeism or other infringements of the Labour Code. They may be sacked and blacklisted for complaining or protesting against abuses by management [7]. The only difference is that in Russia, unemployed workers cannot get any unemployment benefit and there are no published statistics. In any case, with or without unemployment, the wages system exploits workers.


If Russia is Utopia, it is Utopia only for the Male Chauvinist Pig. On my first visit, twenty-five years ago, I saw Moscow in sweltering summer. All the people queueing with buckets for water at standpipes were women — never men: This year I visited three cities (Moscow, Kiev and Leningrad) in the winter. In each city, snow was being shovelled off the pavements by women and only by women. I asked why such hard work is done only by women and why women do not reach the higher decision-making strata. The official response: “We don’t like our women to be put under stress”!


Russia is said to represent a “transition stage’’, not capitalist (no individual capitalists) but not yet communist. But how long can a transition be expected to last? This one qualifies for the Guinness Book of Records: sixty-five years is an awful long time to be in transit.


The claim that in Russia there is no class struggle is fraudulent. In 1956-57 there was a wave of strikes (especially “Italian strikes”, a form of go-slow); in 1962, the Army machine-gunned demonstrators, including children, protesting at food prices and work norms; and about ten years ago, 30,000 workers struck at the Kiev car factory. What has developed is a form of capitalism where most capital is state property.


As Engels wrote: “State ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict . . . The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage workers — proletarians.” [9]


The history of Russia in the last fifty years has demonstrated the truth of this proposition.


Workers have learned to associate Marxism and socialism with a totalitarian dictatorship, ruthless and corrupt. The damage done by this to the socialist cause is immeasurable. Yet there is some cause for hope. Moscow’s magicians find it harder to support the illusion of a Workers’ Paradise. In the last twenty-five years, the publication of samizdat material has become well established. The early critics wrote poems and novels. Later came scientists, historians, economists and engineers, and in the last decade a number of shop-floor workers. These usually follow Sakharov, who described the system as state capitalism. as in the 1972 leaflet:


   It is not towards communism that we are heading: all that is idle talk. Our system is state capitalism — the very worst, the most wretched political system possible . . . The Kremlin bosses and their hangers-on live better and richer than many Tsarist noblemen did before the Revolution — and yet they call themselves ‘the vanguard of the Soviet people’, its servants! [10] 

Just as forthright are the comments of Pohyba arguing for independent trade unions: “ultimately it is the state which is the exploiter along with the State-party bourgeoisie which is in its service and which is the one wielding real power in the country . . . Our country is actually a State capitalist society with a totalitarian form of government’’. [11]

How can Left-wingers explain the existence of profits in what they claim is a socialist society? The Kremlin’s tame economists worry about new methods of measuring “the true rate of profit for each enterprise” (Nemchinov), and Liberman’s Kharkov plan stipulated that a factory’s rewards should be linked to the profits it could earn on its capital investment. [12] If there are profits, they can only come about by the exploitation of the working class. Profits arc part of our unpaid labour. Yet the myth of this “socialist state” confronts us still and debunking it is still a necessary chore for every socialist speaker or writer.

Charmian Skelton

1. 1st issue of Kronstadt Izvestya (3 March 1921) — see Ida Mett The Kronstadt Uprising.
2. Final Kronstadt appeal (same source).
3. Kronstadt Izvestya, quoted by Kautsky Bolshevism at a Deadlock (1930).
4. Capital I ch. xxxi (Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist).
5. Pravda, December 1964.
6. Quoted by Gollan in C.P. Pamphlet Socialist Democracy — some problems (1976) from The Road to Communism — The Proceedings of the 22nd Congress (Moscow, 1961).
7. See Workers Against the Gulag (Pluto Press 1979).
8. Censorship rules ban publication of information on accidents, epidemics and unemployment.
9. Socialism Utopian and Scientific.
10. An Underground Leaflet, June 1972. published in full in Socialist Standard. January 1973.
11. Cf. Nove, An economic History of the Soviet Union.