All the Tsar’s Men
Why Mobilization Can’t Save Putin’s War
The extent of human life is but a point; Its substance is in perpetual flux.
THE word in vogue today regarding Russia is "evolution." That impulses toward recovery are at work appears to be a generally accepted fact, but there is less unanimity in interpreting the import of the movement, in particular in defining the very nature of the "evolution." It is often assumed that the original creed is being abandoned and that there is a drift toward more moderate doctrines. The process, when viewed in this light, might indeed be termed the "evolution of Bolshevism." The fault of such a diagnosis lies in confusing cause and effect. A change for the better in Russia is an indisputable fact. The country is recovering from the epidemic, albeit slowly, and is exhibiting signs of hopeful vitality. The revival, however, is not to be credited to a varying in the dogma of the Communist party. Communism has not tempered its essence. It has only adapted itself to circumstances. The "shift" is a temporary expedient, adopted to weather a passing condition, and not an abnegation of principle dictated by evolution of conviction.
It is only fair to say that the Communists themselves have never tried to mask the main issue. "We are revolutionists from head to foot," said Trotsky, addressing the Ukrainians in April, 1923; "revolutionists we were; revolutionists we are; revolutionists we shall remain until the very end."
The real source of change in Russia is life,--life conquering regardless and in spite of the Communist rule,--life asserting itself through common sense, through economic law, and the habits of human nature. The process can be best described as "assertion of life." Just as a convalescing organism overwhelms the noxious bacilli by the infinite resources of the recuperating cells, so Russia gives evidence of an "evolution of life" contrary to the "evolution of Bolshevism." It is not Communism repentant, taking the lead in a promising transformation. Communism, impenitent, is forced to yield to life triumphant.
The analysis of Russia's internal situation should begin in the economic field, for there the forces of life have been most apparent and have produced the most fruitful results. The central feature in the present situation is a catastrophic disparity between agriculture and industry. It is revealed in the continuous rise in price of manufactured goods and the precipitous decline in value of agricultural products. The accompanying chart gives an illustration of the movement up to the time of the 12th Communist Congress in April, 1923. The criss-cross of manufactured and agricultural prices illustrates the term "scissors," used in Bolshevist vernacular to describe the condition.
The opening of the "scissors" meant the depreciation of the value of peasant agriculture and entailed an inability on the part of the farmer to purchase much needed goods. The Izvestia of September 11, 1923, spoke of Soviet warehouses stocked with agricultural implements which, due to prevailing prices, were out of reach of the peasants. A plow, priced before the war at 30 rye units, at present costs 140. Comparative prices, measured in units of rye, were given in the Izvestia of November 7, 1923, as follows: Salt--1913, 14 units; 1923, 248 units. Textiles--1913, 7.2 units; 1923, 63 units. Sugar--1913, 6 units; 1923, 52 to 63 units.
"Close the scissors," has been the slogan for the past year. Another expression is "link city and land." "The present crisis is far deeper than any Russia has passed through before," said Rykoff, Soviet Commissar for Industry, addressing the Moscow Red Directors on November 18, 1923. "It has developed in the most vital point not only of our economic but also of our political system, as it does not allow the carrying out of the aims of the Soviet State in the realm of relations between classes." Rykoff refers to the bearing of the crisis on the problem of handling the peasant, which is the crux of the situation. "In the final account," said Lenin in his message to the 12th Communist Congress, "the fate of our republic will depend upon whether the masses of the peasantry will go hand in hand with the working class." So important, indeed, is the peasant problem in the Russian situation, and so little is it understood, that a detailed analysis of it appears in order.
The Nep, or New Economic Policy, was inaugurated in March, 1921, at the 10th Congress of the Communist Party. In the realm of high politics it was an expedient called for by the "slow tempo" of world revolution. Its real basis, however, lay in the failure of the Communists to master the peasant problem.
1918-20 was an epoch of unremitting effort to communize peasant Russia. Storm centers were created in the villages in the form of Committees of the Poor; the well-to-do peasant was to be displaced by the ne'er-do-well and the rural proletariat. A socialistic system of agriculture, with Communes and Soviet farms as features of the plan, was finally to link up rural production with the nationalized industries of the cities. Most important of all, a confiscatory socialistic tax was established--the prodrasverstka. The peasant was allowed to retain only a certain minimum of his crop and compelled to deliver the remainder to the state. This was to be his contribution to the Worker's Republic which was supposed to have given him "peace and land."
The scheme proved to be a complete failure. Class war in the villages destroyed the stability of land tenure and rendered cultivation impracticable. The Communes and Soviet farms withered. In the main, the peasant did not share in the enthusiasm for a Communist state and refused to surrender his crop voluntarily. So taxes were collected by forcible requisitioning, often in a merciless manner.
The result was peasant insurrection. All through 1919 and 1920 Russia flamed with peasant uprisings, eventually culminating in guerrilla warfare known as the "green movement." A further answer of the peasant was to stop producing. There being no incentive to cultivate beyond the minimum required for existence, peasant production shrunk to a bare "consumption rate," leaving no surplus. It is not sufficiently understood, even to this day, that the real cause of the famine of 1921-22 lay primarily in this reduction of peasant agriculture. In normal times local deficiencies were made up by the surplus in other regions. With the down areas cut in half the calamity of famine was unavoidable.
The effort to communize peasant Russia resulted thus in a complete paralysis of peasant production, accompanied by revolt, which culminated in the Kronstadt uprising of February, 1921. No government, however well intrenched, could face such a situation. So there came about the "surrender," announced in Lenin's famous speech of March, 1921, justly regarded as a turning point in the Russian revolution. "We know," he said, "that only an understanding with the peasant can save the social revolution until the revolution is ready to break out in other countries. . . . The situation is now this: either we must satisfy economically the peasant of the middle group, or it will be impossible to maintain the power of the proletariat in Russia." So it came to pass that this mass of inarticulate humanity, seemingly so helpless, succeeded in winning a victory over what had been until then triumphant Communism.
Naturally the most far-reaching measures of the Nep related to peasant life. Its two outstanding features were a new system of land tenure and a new form of taxation.
Various measures with regard to land holding, introduced step by step, were finally codified in October, 1922. The new Land Code maintained the principle of nationalization; it did not recognize private ownership, nor permit the sale, renting or inheritance of land. Nevertheless it did away with most of the socialistic experimentation. It provided for necessary incentive by establishing life-long tenancy. A peasant family now gets a portion of the land in the initial distribution and is allowed to hold it for good.
The confiscatory prodrasverstka was replaced by the prodnalog, an ordinary tax in kind, which meant a complete reversal of the previous conception. The peasant is to deliver to the state only a certain fixed percentage of his produce; the rest is left at his disposition.
Another interesting feature was the abandonment of the direct administration of land tenure from Moscow. The power to dispose of land was transferred to local institutions. In particular, local councils now choose the system of land tenure, whether communal or on the basis of individual possession, on lines practically identical with the famous Act of 1906 known in Russia as the Stolypin laws. This symbolizes quite an important development in the relations between the central Communist authority and local peasant life. In a way it is a "hands off" policy, not a surrender to democratic ideas. "We do not promise freedom nor democracy," said Lenin in November, 1921. "We do not tell the peasants that they can choose between us and democracy. We are ready within limits to grant them concessions, so as to retain power in our hands. All the rest is non-sense, the purest demagogy."
The determination to maintain unrestricted authority in Moscow is unchanged. But realizing that the hope of gaining direct control over the peasants is futile, the central authority has adopted a kind of compromise, whereby it continues to govern the country through its hold on the cities and the railroads, while leaving the peasants on the outside to wrestle with their own affairs.
In this manner it has gradually come about that Communism has actually withdrawn from or has been elbowed out of the villages. A kind of rudimentary local peasant government has come into being, apparently as part of the Soviet system, but in fact quite self-dependent. The village does not openly challenge the central authority. Revolts have subsided. Resorting to his tried weapon of passive resistance, the peasant has asserted himself with quiet but grim determination. Life goes on in these self-contained peasant units, with their own authority and judiciary, with their own code and their own notions of right and wrong. A striking expression of this fact is shown in the yearly elections provided for by the Soviet constitution. These elections are held in stages,--beginning with the village council, called the sel-soviet,--then the volost, a township embracing some tens of thousands of people,--then the uesd, or district,--and then the gubernia, or province, which sends delegates to the Central Soviet in Moscow. The elections, viewed as a whole, are a comedy. Machine control, however, comes into operation only at the higher stages. The Communists bar all opponents from the central and city assemblies but are unable to extend their control into the villages. As a result, for instance, in 1922 out of more than 400,000 elected members of the sel-soviets, less than seven per cent were Communists. Over ninety-three per cent were non-partisan--a term applied to anyone opposed to the existing system of government. "It is an indisputable fact," said the Izvestia of August 23, 1923, "that while the commanding heights in the provincial districts and municipal centers have been conquered by the Communist party, the rural Soviets continue to flounder in the swamps of non-partisanship. . . . We are menaced by the non-partisan wealthy peasantry who have acquired a powerful influence in the rural districts and in some places hold the entire lower Soviet machinery."
In 1923 the Communists undertook to get possession of the lower Soviet apparatus. No complete figures are available at this writing, but partial results are indicative. The Izvestia of December 5, 1923, quotes the returns up to December 3rd. Of 273,332 members elected to the sel-soviets (57.1 per cent of the total) the Communists constituted only 8.3 per cent. The picture changes sharply in the higher stages of government. The volost assemblies are 18 per cent Communist; the volost executives, 48.6 per cent; the uesd assemblies, 67.8 per cent, and so on. The control of the party is still absolute. But the attempt to subdue the peasant has again failed.
It should not be imagined, however, that peasant life has become easy. Far from it. Civil war, requisitioning and famine have depleted stocks. Tilling land often presents an insurmountable problem. Taxation is oppressive. It was admitted at the 12th Communist Congress that the state budget was founded entirely on the peasant and that the bonds of taxation had been tightened to their limit. Notwithstanding this, the effect of the Nep legislation in rural economics has been notable. With individual production stimulated, the area cultivated in 1923 has risen to 59 million desiatines.[i] Compare this figure with the figures for other years (in millions of desiatines): 1916--79.2; 1917--79.0; 1920--60.5; 1921--53.2; 1922--43.8. The increase is striking.[ii] No wonder the Government was jubilant in proclaiming the beginning of a general economic revival. The agricultural surplus was to revitalize the internal economic situation and provide for a profitable foreign trade. At the climax of expectations, in the early summer, the crop was estimated to be over three billion poods,[iii] exceeding the crop of 1922 by a million and allowing for an export of more than two hundred million poods. All through the country there was a wave of hope.
Time has shown that the hopes were illusory. In the first place, the expectations regarding the crop did not materialize. The Economic Life of September 2, 1923, gives the following figures for the yield in poods per desiatine: 1921--31.1; 1922--50.8; 1923--42.2.
The shortage is nowhere so acute as it was during the last two years, and in many places there is a local surplus, but for the whole of Russia, according to the Economic Life of October 31, the crop of 1923 is below that of 1922. So Russia is again headed for famine, only this time it will be the cities that will be most affected. The situation is aggravated by the fact that foreign assistance has been withdrawn; one can scarcely expect foreign relief after the Government has been lavishly exporting grain. Strangely enough, at the moment little is said about the impending calamity, but a month or two will dispel the haze.
Attention is now focused on the general economic situation illustrated by the "scissors." "The essence of the present crisis," says Rykoff, "is that we are unable to dispose of the products of our industry and our agriculture in general." This situation, revealing a general collapse of exchange, has its roots in the very essence of the Nep, and primarily in the varying degree of the "surrender" made in peasant agriculture and in the fields of industry and trade.
While certain limited avenues were opened to private initiative in local trade and in small industry, principally of the workshop and coöperative type, the Nep uncompromisingly maintained State ownership of large industries and a State monopoly of foreign trade. The situation was to be met without yielding anything in political power and without weakening the general hold over the resources of Russia. For this purpose, what were figuratively called the "commanding heights" were to be retained. The "commanding heights" meant in politics the dictatorship of the party, in economics the state control of industries and the monopoly of foreign trade. Government ownership of industries was to be coupled with methods encouraging production. Thus originated what is called "state capitalism." Industries were to be managed by special bodies--"trusts"--administered by Government appointees but operated on commercial lines.
At first a certain betterment was apparent. In fact, any orderly system could not fail to be better than the social chaos of the preceding period. But it became evident later that the scheme was a failure. While in certain "light" industries a substantial increase in production was reached, the basic industries remained at a very low level. The following table, showing the production of recent years in comparison with that of 1913, is taken from the Izvestia of November 7, 1923:
The fact is, however, that quantity of production is in no way indicative of the real situation. No matter how disorganized they may be, the industries can still produce more than the country is able to buy.
The trouble lies not in the quantity but in the cost of production. State-controlled industry has proven to be commercially unprofitable. "Prices for manufactured goods are from two to three times higher," said Trotsky, addressing the 12th Communist Congress, "and in spite of that our industry is not commercially profitable. At the same time, every private small industrial or merchant, notwithstanding the very unfavorable conditions under which he works within the Soviet system, continues to operate and succeeds in making a profit." This confession clearly betrays the source of the trouble. We have one more demonstration of the impracticability of government-controlled economics. Most illuminating is the fact that all through the Nep, whenever private initiative succeeded in taking root it managed to live. It seemed to be able to grow in the soil of a convalescing country. As an instance we may cite the case of the so-called State Bank, a semi-private bank of issue operated on commercial principles, which succeeded until recently in maintaining its notes within reasonable limits of stability. It seems as though any undertaking containing a degree of common sense is likely to grow in the atmosphere of general betterment, while every artificial plan dictated by communistic sophistry withers.
The 12th Communistic Congress convened last April in an atmosphere tense with expectancy. The urgency for solving the deadlock was evident and important departures were anticipated. Speculation centered around the alleged split in the party between the irreconcilable fanatics and the moderates. But the looked-for factional contest did not materialize. Face to face with realities, every Communist realized that further departure from principle meant actual surrender and that abandoning the "commanding heights" was tantamount to ending the Communist party's control over the destinies of Russia. As a matter of fact, there does not as yet exist any faction within the party which is prepared to take such a step. "Moderates" there are; but their moderation is only a frame of mind, an inclination to face economic realities, which has not matured into a programme, still less into a policy of practical accomplishment. Krassin alone suggested extending the autonomy of industry. The party as a whole held to uncompromising doctrines; no "newest" economic policy was adopted; the assembly ended in wordy appeals to party loyalty, discipline and devotion. In general, it may be said that at present the "lefts" have the upper hand. There is what one might call a "Communistic reaction."
All this is but further evidence that Communism cannot evolve. There is no bridge, no way of gradual transition between the Communist and the Individualist points of view. These are two sets of mutually antagonistic and irreconcilable ideas. As the Chinese proverb says: "He that rides a tiger can never dismount."
In the meanwhile the country continues to linger in its economic paralysis. The effect on the Government itself is gradual impoverishment. In the past there existed gold and stocks of goods. Now that these are practically exhausted the only sources of revenue are taxation and foreign trade. The hopes for large grain exports have not materialized. The Pravda of November 20, 1923, figures actual shipments at 42 million poods out of 60 million contracted for. Moreover, one may judge that the operation has not been profitable; the overhead charges in transportation and handling seem to have consumed the expected profits. As for taxes, they depend wholly on national productivity. Altogether, the Soviet treasury is experiencing heavy deficits. According to the Soviet Financial Messenger, the budget for the fiscal year ending October 1, 1923, had receipts of only 562.6 millions (in gold rubles) to offset expenditures of 1240.3 millions. The estimated deficit thus was 54.6 per cent. Actually, for the first half of the year the deficit was 57 per cent. Of this deficiency less than 10 per cent was to be covered by loans, leaving the balance to be supplied by the printing press. No wonder the rapid fall of the Soviet ruble continues.[iv]
Budget deficits continue in spite of every endeavor to curtail expenditures. Obviously such functions as police, army, and the Cheka cannot be restricted, so retrenchment affects chiefly the non-political, constructive departments. Education suffers first of all. According to Lunacharsky,[v] the number of schools has been reduced to 53 thousand. This may be compared with the 64 thousand in 1916 and the 70 thousand at the much advertised "peak" in 1921. Appropriations for educational purposes in 1923 were 41 million gold rubles, as compared with the 314 million of the pre-war régime. To illustrate further this wholesale dismissal of employees one may quote Dzerzhinsky's report[vi] that the number of railroad men has been reduced from 1,700,000 to 750,000. Scores of intellectual-professionals have been thrown out of the non-political departments. Increased bureaucratic efficiency is in itself a most laudable aim; the tragic part is that there is no employment at present in Russia outside of government work.
The disorganization of finances also has had its effect on industries. With state industries operating at a loss, their continued functioning depends on the steady replenishment of deficits from the state treasury. During 1923 alone direct subsidies of this sort exceeded 156 million gold rubles. Many factories were closed and production was concentrated in a few of the best equipped plants. The result was increased unemployment. The number of registered unemployed on February 1, 1922, was 88,000 and on December 1, 1922, 540,000.[vii] Figures for 1923 are supposed to pass the million mark.
Beginning last July Russia was swept by a wave of strikes. That labor has protested against a government which in theory is dedicated to the toiler was recently openly admitted in the debates over what is called the "democratization" of the Communist party. This movement appears to be most serious. It is of comparatively recent origin, but for weeks the Soviet press has been almost wholly devoted to it. It is not a division between leaders as to the best practical course, but rather is born of the estrangement between the rank and file and the ruling center. The governing class has become a privileged aristocracy, acting at its own discretion. It has little in common with the Communist workman who remains at his bench. The latter cannot escape the influence of his surroundings; he breathes the same air as the striker and the unemployed. In consequence a powerful protest has arisen from below. The Communist work-men demand actual participation in the government; they wish equality within the party; they wish freedom of discussion and a free press. Not that this means more moderate ideas. So far it is the other way. They speak of the dictatorship of the proletariat as against the autocracy of the party leaders. The work-man is usually the honest fanatic. He accuses the leaders of having betrayed Communism and charges the recent vicissitudes to the concessions made by the Nep. A few prominent leaders,--Trotsky, Radek, Piatakoff--seem to have become associated in some way with the schism. As these words are written the party steam-roller has managed to quell the uprising. The fundamental sources of the division, however, are not removed.
So much for the city. The greatest difficulty remains with the peasant. "The 'scissors' are opening more and more," reported the Pravda of September 29, 1923. "Now, at the height of the season, we are facing a crisis of exchange with no light ahead of us. It is immaterial, in the final account for the peasant, whether he cannot sell or buy because trade is not permitted or for such reasons as face him at present. . . . Confronting the disillusionment of the peasant at this time, when the sowing period is approaching, it is imperative for us to 'link' manufactured goods and grain at any cost. Above everything we have to show the peasant that he did not till and sow in vain."
By a curious irony of fate, what is going on at present is a repetition of what came to pass in 1921 and led to the first "surrender" or the Nep. Then the peasant stopped working on account of the land laws and taxation. At present the deadlock is because he cannot sell or exchange.
So far no way has been found out of the situation. In fact, there is no escape without the abandonment of Communism. Russian production can be revitalized only by the complete denationalization of industry and trade, by swinging the doors wide open to individual initiative. That demands a surrender of the "commanding heights."
That the demands of life are inexorable, and that Communism in final account is doomed, is admitted by every outsider. It is futile and out of place to speculate as to "how and when." It also is futile to discuss what might be the role, in bringing about the next stage, of factions within the Communist party or even of ambitious individuals who are prepared to turn their skins. The essential fact is the necessity and the inevitability of a fundamental change, manifesting the end of Communism and the dawn of a new era. Bolshevism cannot be transmuted beyond a certain point. It has to pass away, no matter in what manner and regardless of whether the obsequies carry features which the public might term "evolutionary." History teaches that apparent power of organization and armed resistance are of no avail to a cause psychologically undermined. "Revolutions," as a matter of fact, are primarily psychological phenomena. Instead of the usual query,--Who is able to challenge the Bolsheviki and drive them to retreat?--the question in broad historic perspective should be put the other way,--The Communists have challenged life; has that ever been done with impunity?
A few further remarks should be devoted to discussing certain changes in the realm of political and psychological dynamics, especially in connection with the spectre of anarchy (often evoked by the prospect of the passing away of the present government), and the observation that there is no articulate group or "strong person" to inherit the guidance of the ramshackle Ship of State.
In any talk of impending chaos one should bear in mind the rudimentary forms of local government which the peasants have succeeded in establishing. This post-revolutionary formation is a frame-work for the future peasant democracy of Russia. It has grown up under the shell of Bolshevism just as a chicken matures within the confines of an egg. It reflects, moreover, a substantial change in mentality. The peasant has learned not to rely on assistance from without, but to walk on his own feet. Socially he is conservative. He wishes to keep his land and enjoy the fruits of his labor. For generations institutions of government were to him an outside factor, for which he cared little. Destitution and suffering have taught him that established ways of government, symbolizing safety, law and stability, should be maintained and cherished. The much-reported orderliness of village life has little to do with the "center." It is a reflection of the new notions and psychology of the people.
Another development is the gradual reintrenchment in non-political departments of the "specialists." In the administration of the railroads, the post office and finance, in agronomy and in medicine,--everywhere the Commissar is being elbowed out by the spets, the intellectual professional. The improvement in the little there is of railway traffic is entirely due to the increased authority of the railway men, who have come to enjoy a kind of autonomy and are working under a spell of revived "professional pride." The Communists have shrunk into a small, essentially political group, leaving all the serviceable and constructive functions of government in the hands of the outsiders. Such a fact is of great importance. The peacefulness of the March revolution of 1917, following the downfall of the Czar, is attributable to the circumstance that the functionaries, holding the government machine, had lost their devotion to the old régime.
As regards the general mental and spiritual transformation, one may say that a strong trend has developed throughout Russia towards decentralization and local self-dependence in politics together with a revulsion against collectivism and against state control in the economic field. The country has become violently individualistic. The lure of socialistic ideas, so strong in old days, has faded. As to reconstruction, the rebuilding of Russia is to be expected not so much from the directing agency of a central authority, of whatever kind, as through the gradual revelation of sane instincts and notions acquired by the nation in the fire of the upheaval. A prevalence of individual initiative would seem to be indicated. Moreover, the economic inheritance militates against a strong centralized rule. The recoil of the Bolshevist power is largely due to the impoverishment of the country. Centralized government means a costly apparatus of bureaucracy, armies, police, but an expensive administration cannot be maintained in a country with no production to allow heavy taxation. In the nearer future, authority, even though of the "strong" brand, is likely to repose principally in local institutions. Obviously, there will be a central government, but for a time it is bound to be comparatively weak,--more of a "government of service" than a "government of rule."
Another phenomenon to be noted is the new Russian patriotism. Out of the bleeding and humiliation there has arisen a young and vibrant nationalism, a colorful, spiritual result of the great trial, paralleled, it may be, by a rebirth of religious fervor. The Bolsheviki over and over again have made use of this national feeling, rallying public opinion under the pretext of danger from foreign attack or intervention. On the other hand, the Communists plagiarized from the language of nationalism in dealing with foreign affairs and eventually were forced to embrace directly the national tradition.
Life, besides, has wrought another victory. "Most and first of all we wish peace. We shall not send a red soldier outside our boundaries provided we are not provoked by force. Our peasants and workmen would not allow the Government to take the initiative in any military operations." So Trotsky declared to Senator King. Not many years have passed since militant Communism, intoxicated with initial success, entertained predatory ambitions. As has been pointed out, the peaceful pronouncements of today are mainly due to economic dislocations, but hardly less potent has been the spiritual factor, emphasized by Trotsky. The country is peaceful; the people do not wish war. They will defend Russia against aggression but have no instincts for offense. Europe has been spared many dangers by this self-assertion of life, expressing itself in the popular will for peace against a still entrenched, though morally undermined, authority.
Such is the picture of Russia today. Externally, Bolshevist rule continues as it was, apparently stable and unchallenged. Within, by the powerful forces of life, a new Russia is being born. Autocracy of the state, economic collectivism and internationalism are the bases of the system on which the country is governed today. But the movement of life is in the opposite direction--in politics, decentralization and self-dependence,--in economics, individualism, with its corollary of private property and freedom of initiative,--spiritually, a young vibrant nationalism. The present, no matter how overwhelming it appears to the outside observer, is but a point in the great process of transformation from the old régime to the future democracy.
[i] One desiatine equals 2.7 acres.
[ii] Figures are given according to such Soviet data as appear to be most reliable. In general, statistics vary.
[iii] One pood equals 36 pounds.
[iv] The circulation of the Soviet currency (in billions of rubles) was as follows:
|January 1, 1921||1,168|
|January 1, 1922||17,539|
|January 1, 1923||1,994,500|
|September 1, 1923||15,193,000|
[v]Izvestia, September 28, 1923.
[vi]Izvestia, November 7, 1923.
[vii]Izvestia, June 20, 1923.