What Russia Got Wrong
Can Moscow Learn From Its Failures in Ukraine?
"With the ancient is wisdom; and in length of days understanding."
Job XII, 12.
TROTSKY'S exile to a remote town of Asia by order of Stalin, the present master of Communist Russia, brings to memory how in Paris on April 5, 1794, the guillotine fell on Georges Jacques Danton, that greatest of revolutionists, the man who deposed King Louis and saved Revolutionary France by organizing resistance against the Coalition of Europe. The parallel is suggestive. Unquestionably Trotsky was the most picturesque figure in the Russian upheaval. As first Commissar for Foreign Affairs he elaborated the policy of World Revolution and led the war to an abortive end at Brest-Litovsk; later, as Military Chief, he built up the Red Army and organized victory over the so-called White movement, commanded by the old Generals and supported by the Powers. His fate, like Danton's, exemplifies a climax of "Revolutionary ingratitude."
Other members of the "Opposition" who shared Trotsky's downfall were also Communists of high rank: Zinoviev, head of the Third International; Kamenev, President of the Moscow Soviet; Rakovsky, only recently Ambassador to France -- not to speak of others. Obviously the banishment of these leaders is a development of first importance.
Rebellious outbursts were expected by some; Russia remained outwardly calm. The exile was interpreted by others as a sign that the Soviet Government was moving to the right, with Stalin heading a group inspired by moderate intentions; such views are not substantiated by facts. The present tendency of the Communist Government is decidedly to the left, towards more intransigent practices. Moreover there is no substantial difference in principle or creed between Trotsky and Stalin. Both are fanatical revolutionists, orthodox Communists. Here again is an analogy with revolutionary France -- one could scarcely specify just what divided Danton from his executioner, Robespierre. World Revolution, Socialist Economics, Dictatorship of the Communist Party -- on all these major subjects Stalin and Trotsky, those exiled and those who remain in power in Moscow -- are one. The differences are solely of a tactical nature, matters of method and procedure, shades of opinion such as have prevailed all through these years when Russian Bolshevism has faced the world in adamant unity of spirit and deed.
That unity is gone. This is the main fact. Bolshevism is torn by violent divisions. Community of purpose does not longer suffice to hold the party together. Personal ambitions are rife. Dictatorship by individuals or by party groups has become imperative.
Incidentally, the expulsion of Trotsky and his colleagues from the Communist Party occurred while Jubilee festivities were being held in Moscow to celebrate the Tenth Anniversary of the Soviet Government. It was on November 9, 1917, that the Bolsheviks forcibly seized power in Petrograd and established their rule over Russia. The prognostication at the time was that their Government would last but a few weeeks. The mistake then was to underrate the potency and the depth of the revolution. After ten years the Soviet Government appears outwardly as strong as ever. The Bolsheviks have survived famine, economic destitution, civil war, and at times the active hostility of the outside world. No wonder the present forecast of many is that the Communist mastery over Russia will be perpetuated. Nevertheless it may be said that the mistake now is to undervalue the working of social dynamics, to fail to grasp the substance of evolution in broad historical perspective.
The Russian situation is reputed to have been marked by puzzling inconsistencies. As a matter of fact, such inconsistencies are often of essence to the case. A basic contradiction pervades all the ten years of Communistic rule. It is revealed in a continual disagreement between Communist theory and actual achievement. On the other hand, it is related to certain features common to human upheavals in general. In every revolution there comes first the storm, the tidal wave that sweeps away dynasties, institutions, the existing order. This is the destructive phase, also the temperamental one, for it is here that vengeance, terror, all the gruesome passions are displayed. Then comes convalescence, recovery -- the stream of life is settling into new channels. In this "reconstructive" period common sense often prevails, and conscientious endeavor, as the groups in power strive to build a new life in accordance with their creed.
For Lenin governmental power was but a means to establish society on a collectivist basis. A Socialist State was the goal, clearly defined and fanatically pursued. What a stroke of historical irony, that now, after ten years, one realizes that the Bolsheviks were successful, and most notably so, when they acted as Revolutionists, that is, when they marshalled destruction and terror; but that the same Bolsheviks were a decided failure when they acted as Communists, that is, each time when they attempted to embody into life the principles of their faith. Yet, such is the fact that dominates all these years of Bolshevik rule. In spite of ruthless energy, no measure of practical socialism has actually taken root. Russia obediently let itself be led by the Bolsheviks into the fury of revolution; but the country grimly resisted every effort on their part to be saddled with collectivist precepts.
This feature has been manifested from the very beginning. Communism had little to do with the Bolsheviks coming to power. The demoralized soldier mob of Petrograd cared nothing for Communistic ideas when they did away with the Kerensky Government. The eruption of the human volcano had its sources deep in the ignorance, poverty and social hatred bred by centuries of oppression under the old régime. The trials and dislocations of the war fanned these broodings into frenzy. The other groups tried, although in vain, to keep the revolutionary spell within bounds. The Bolsheviks were the only ones, and therein lies the secret of their success, to take it upon themselves to encourage and incite further the rage of the people. Mobs are always subject to fear, conscious of possible chastisement. Lenin's triumph was in the sanctioning of violence, in legalizing ravage and lust. Future historians may term that a pact with Satan. But whatever the price, the Bolsheviks got what they wanted. They solidly entrenched themselves at the head of government, with an efficient police system and a host of well-disciplined Red Guards to protect them. Thus there came to be a stronghold of Communist power, which persists until now.
The revolutionary sweep made quick work of all that could incite social hatred and class antagonism in Russia. The landowning gentry, the social basis of autocracy, was wiped out. The middle classes were deprived of their property and hunted into seclusion or exile. The war stopped abortively. For a while the wildest passions raged without any restraint. But human orgy never lasts. The wilder the outburst, the shorter. The hurricane began to subside. Exhausted and disheartened, the people were looking for peace and yearning for a resumption of normal life.
It was at this cross-road, early in the annals of the Bolshevik rule, that the chasm opened between the populace, tired of the revolutionary storm, and the Communist Government, for whom "Revolution" had only begun. Indeed the Government was applying itself with all ruthlessness to harnessing Russia with "direct Communism." Some future historian may write a narrative, tragic and fascinating, of how the Communists attempted to rebuild Russia in immediate, if naïve, conformity with their faith. That was the epoch of so-called Militant Communism, a period lasting about four years. The attempt was a cataclysmic failure. The whole edifice of organized life crumbled; industries and transportation were paralyzed; the peasant stopped cultivating and resisted forcible confiscation of foodstuffs with wide-spread guerrilla warfare. The experiment ended in the famine of 1921. Such was the reaction of life against collectivist enactments. But strange to say, even at this period, amidst chaos and destitution, the country responded to Bolshevik leadership, when "Revolution" and not "Communism" was the issue at stake. It was then that the Red Army was reforged by Trotsky and inspired to victory against the "Whites." At times an alleged threat of "foreign danger" would prompt an outburst of genuine national feeling, the people rallying to the Government which was supposed to be standing for national defense. Again how similar to 1792, when ragged France met the challenge of anti-Revolutionary Europe.
In the face of economic disintegration and the open hostility of the peasant the position of the Communist Government became untenable. Lenin was forced to yield. The year was 1921. Militant Communism was scrapped; the New Economic Policy (the NEP) was inaugurated. Thus ended the first act of the Bolshevik Drama.
The second period, that of the NEP, has lasted until this day. It has been marked by gradual and at times energetic recovery. In fact, Russia of 1928 is very different from Russia of 1918. Ten years ago the country was all horror, destitution and chaos. It now presents the features of a regularly functioning State, with Government re-established, industries operating, human activity resumed in most walks of life. The signs of convalescence are so numerous and apparent that the fact of Russia's survival, the certainty of her ultimate recovery, should be accepted beyond peradventure.
Let it be clear. The adoption of the NEP did not repudiate Communism. It carried no fundamental change in aim or principle. It was a tactical expedient meant to save the country from economic ruin and to preserve at the same time governmental power in the hands of the Communists. But sufficient adaptations of principle were enacted in the direction of individualistic economics and usual governmental practices to arrest disintegration and stimulate recuperation.
The biggest concessions were made to the peasant. Land was returned to the cultivator for permanent tenantship, taxation was restored to usual forms, and private trade was allowed within certain limits. Life thus was infused into peasant agriculture. The tilled area rapidly increased and by now has about reached the pre-war level.
In the realm of industry, the NEP did away with direct labor control, and introduced "State Capitalism." The purpose was to preserve political dictatorship by maintaining government ownership of industry, transportation and foreign trade. So Russia became a gigantic structure of economic étatism. The factories and mines, confiscated from the former owners, were turned over to "industrial trusts" -- bodies appointed by the Government to manage the plants on behalf of and for the benefit of the State. Compared to the primitive anarchy of militant communism this was a great improvement. The following figures show the movement of industrial production:[i]
|Annual Production||Percentage in||Percentage of increase|
|(Millions of pre-war||comparison||over preceding|
Roughly speaking, the pre-war level has been reached. The recovery was rapid in 1925-26. Since then progress has been slow. This fact is in no way due to lack of demand. On the contrary, it is well known that Russia is suffering from an acute goods famine. Stocks were depleted during the war and the revolution; imports still are not over 40 percent of pre-war figures; moreover, the highly industrialized regions of Poland and the Baltic are no longer within the confines of Russia. On the whole, the industrial supply of the country is quite inadequate and further expansion of industrial production is urgently needed. The difficulty lies in the demand for further "capital investment." The recovery so far has been accomplished principally by putting the old plants into operation, that is, by utilizing what the Communists inherited from the former owners. These possibilities are about exhausted. New industries (and even the upkeep of the existing plants) require vast amounts of new capital. Such capital is lacking.
The laws of Tsarist Russia were not any too favorable to industrial development, but such was the vitality of the country that life was rapidly advancing. In each decade between 1883 and 1913 the production of coal, iron and copper doubled.[ii] The output of 1927 is equal to that of 1913. What is claimed by the Communists as a meritorious accomplishment proves in reality to be a ten-year setback.[iii]
In the eyes of the people at large the merits of a social system are measured by the abundance of everyday commodities and above all by their price. In this respect the socialized industries have not been a success. Under government ownership and operation the cost of production seems inevitably to rise to unreasonable heights. This situation can no longer be ascribed to revolution. Every possible endeavor has been made by the Communists to sell goods cheaper. But the prices obstinately hold.
The peasant is particularly affected. For him the price of manufactured goods is the exchange value in units of agricultural products. The peasant compares what he used to get for a bushel of grain in the way of shoes, textiles, etc., with what he gets now. He finds that the present cost is from two to three times more than before. In other words, economically the peasant is from two to three times worse off. As for the laborer, only recently have his wages reached or slightly exceeded the pre-war level, and in 1921-22 they amounted to about one-third.[iv] Thus, from the economic point of view Communism has been of no benefit to the toiling masses, either rural or urban.
Most illustrative of a country's condition is its demographic balance, i.e., the relation between birth rate and death rate. During the epoch of militant Communism the population of Russia was decreasing. The turn, actuated by the NEP, came in 1923. Since then births have exceeded deaths. In fact, at the present time the birth rate is higher than ever. No other fact proves more convincingly the general recovery of Russia.[v] On the other hand, the demographic progress is not balanced by a corresponding economic expansion. The requirements of the country are growing faster than the means to satisfy them. The productive forces under Communism are not keeping abreast of the country's natural development.
This situation is particularly unsatisfactory in the field of agriculture, where progress is quite slow.[vi] It is rural Russia which shows the greatest increase in population. The slacking up of agricultural development results in what the Bolsheviki qualify as "rural over-population." Every year thousands of able-bodied youths come to manhood without finding any opportunity for work. In vain they crowd the cities, where unemployment has long since exceeded the million figure.
Capitalistic countries are known to suffer from over-production. The ailment of Russia under Communism is under-production. The nation is experiencing an acute need for manufactured goods. The land is able to produce an immense agricultural surplus for export or additional consumption. Man power, eagerness to work, natural resources -- all are there. But the policy of government-operated industries and foreign trade monopoly prevails . . . and nothing moves. Communism has brought the economic forces to a stalemate.
The enactments of the NEP saved the country from ruin. Whatever openings the NEP offered are by now exhausted. The NEP, as devised and practiced heretofore, is fettering development. New departures become imperative -- some kind of a "Newest" Economic Policy, which would substantially reduce government control and allow room for unhampered private initiative. As the commands of economic law are usually inexorable one may reasonably assume that the change is not very far off, even if for the moment the tendency is to enforce socialism more strictly.
This gloomy picture of Russia's economic stagnation appears at first sight to be inconsistent with the manifestations of recovery. The fact is -- and therein lies the answer -- that the very process unfolding in Russia consists in an incessant struggle between two irreconcilable factors. On one side -- Communist theory, fanatically professed and practiced by the Government; on the other -- the Forces of Life, economic law, common sense, the customary dictates of human nature. Early in the period of Russia's convalescence, we diagnosed the case as a battle between life and dogma, describing it as the "Assertion of Life." Since then the essence has become obvious. Communism has not changed in principle or aim; but the Communist Government, pressed by necessity, has been yielding ground and making concessions to more moderate practices. These departures have at times prompted foreign observers to state that nothing was left of Communism in Russia but the name. That is not so. The mind and purpose of the leaders continue to be intransigently Communistic; the tentacles on practical life are still strong and most harmful. It may take years to obliterate their asphyxiating effects. But in spite of all, the inherent vitality of the nation is revealing itself in healthy and at times vibrant growth.
Every step in Russia's recovery can be traced to a retreat from collectivist practices. Take, for example, the rapid recovery of industries during 1924-26. This was due to Djerzinsky, who reëstablished in their position of authority the former managers, engineers and professional craftsmen; the very class of people whom he at one time, as head of the famous Tcheka, ruthlessly persecuted. The same thing applies to railroads, postal service, telegraphs, education, indeed to all branches of service. Russia is functioning as an organized state because within the last few years the old men have been re-instated and have gradually acquired authority and self-dependence. It is gratifying to learn, also, that life lately has come to have at least a minimum of security and freedom for scientists, artists, engineers and in general for the class of professional intellectuals. Hence the revival of cultural activities, in spite of the spiritual tyranny which continues to oppress the mind and soul of the people.
One may say in general that in her recuperation Russia is capitalizing the knowledge and experience which the nation acquired in the past through decades of apprenticeship. Here again is a feature common to all revolutions, one which might be termed "Continuity of Life." Revolutions may change the outward forms of life, build new institutions, open new avenues and possibilities. But revolutions do not and cannot create new substance. What finds expression in the new structure, what reveals itself in the new form of life, is the cultural inheritance, the accumulated treasure of knowledge and collective habit bequeathed from the past.
With regard to Russia, obviously one should not have in mind the old régime; little can be said in defense of the former autocracy. Rather one means that most promising and constructive evolution which signalized Russia's progress in the decades preceding the war. Strange to say, the essence of the situation was not very different from that of today. Then, as now, the people were under a government not of their choice and liking. But, step by step, in their struggle against the old bureaucracy the people were gaining their own. This evolution gained momentum particularly after 1905, when, following the war with Japan, the Tsar, yielding to popular pressure, convoked the Imperial Duma -- the first Russian Parliament. The mere fact of Russia having obtained at last the first nucleus of representative government had a most far-reaching effect. Agriculture, industry, banking began energetically expanding, shaking off antiquated forms and adjusting themselves to Western practices. The two particular problems which for centuries had been the curse of Russian life -- illiteracy and the land question -- were put on the road to being satisfactorily solved. Rural credits and other legislation were rapidly transferring land into the hands of the peasants, so that by 1914 less than 20 percent of the tillable area of European Russia remained the property of the nobility. In 1910 educational laws were enacted providing vast appropriations spread over ten years for the building of schools and for the training of teachers; the plan was to introduce compulsory and free education for every child by 1922. On the other hand, such was the measure of liberty already attained that in the Duma, under the Tsar, there was among other political parties a group of socialist deputies, with a Bolshevik faction, enjoying in accordance with the Constitution personal immunity and freedom of speech.
This constitutional evolution was accompanied by a spiritual renaissance and by an energetic manifestation of "state idealism." Scores of young scientists and engineers were enthusiastically working on pioneer problems of agriculture, reclamation, railroad building and other lines of constructive statesmanship. The visitor to Russia nowadays often expresses amazement at the lofty spirit pervading the Soviet undertakings in electrification or industrial planning. As a matter of fact, the problems, the men, the spirit are none of them new. After a lull of over ten years the same men are putting their hands to the same undertakings which inspired their enthusiasm before.
The advance of self-asserting life is not always smooth. The pendulum swings to and fro. From time to time there is a relapse of terror, a tightening of the Communist screw. Just at present "class war" is revived in rather an acute form against the bourgeoise intellectuals and the well-to-do peasantry. The recent arrest of the German engineers is connected with an alleged conspiracy on behalf of the capitalistic interests by the managers and technicians of the plants. The purpose was to systematically sabotage and disorganize Soviet industries and thus incapacitate Soviet Russia to meet the coming foreign intervention.[vii]
For a while the Communists withdrew their influence with peasant life. The countryside was left to manage itself in its own ways. Speaking in general, as time progressed the Communists were forced to cater more and more to the whims of the peasants. Stalin, in particular, proved to be a clever politician. His differences with Trotsky were partly due to insistence upon a policy which would keep the peasant satisfied and help to " link" the village with the proletarian city.
"The murmur of the people has strange weight,"
says Agamemnon to his brilliant but somewhat injudicious wife, in Aeschylus' immortal tragedy.
At present Stalin seems to be indulging in the course which he so long resisted. The slogan now is "Down with the Kulak," the well-to-do peasant who seems to have gained control of village affairs, particularly as regards the disposal of surplus grain. Under the trade monopoly the Government buys the grain from the producer. Last autumn, supposedly under the influence of the Kulak propaganda for better prices, the peasant did not wish to sell. Rykoff estimates that grain collections fell off over 30 percent. Exports had to be stopped and there was a serious threat to the food supply of the cities and the army.[viii] The Bolsheviks turned to requisitioning by force and persecuted the reluctant peasant by applying anti-sedition laws. These forcible measures, which revived memories of militant Communism, were for once successful. The Government got the grain. But the question now is whether these policies may not have the same effect as did the requisitioning of 1918-1920, when the refusal of the peasant to sow led to the catastrophe of 1921. The Communist Press reflects the prevailing nervousness over this issue, remembering well that it was the decrease in peasant cultivation that forced militant Communism to capitulate. So every effort and appeal is made to stimulate the productivity of the poorer peasant and to revive, just as in 1918 and 1919, collectivist farming.
It may take more than one agricultural cycle fully to reveal the workings of economic laws. One may be certain, however, that the present policy directed against the thrifty peasant and the professional intellectual, who together with the private tradesman constitute the basis of future Russia, will not last. Life will again prove the stronger. Little rivulets are gathering into a mighty stream, slow but majestic.
What, then, is the meaning of the Communist mastery of Russia in the broad light of historical evolution?
In the great popular upheavals of history, in France, England or elsewhere, one always finds the Revolutionary party, the group whose daring energy is in consonance with the revolutionary fervor of the people. This Revolutionary party usually professes a fanatical doctrine; only fanatical zeal is able to forge unity and inspire the strength to carry on through bloodshed and wanton destruction. Revolutionary parties differ, according to country and period. Jacobins in France; Puritans in England. The substance of their creed does not matter. It is not their ideals that put the rudder into their hands, but their spirit, their energy. They succeed as revolutionists, not as builders. History is merciless with these fanatics. A decade or two, and every vestige of their enactments passes into oblivion.
The fanatics are thrust into power by the rising tide. Usually for quite a period they exercise power in ruthless and dictatorial fashion. As the waves recede, they become isolated; after a while they are ridiculed and hated. The abating of the revolutionary wave is invariably signalized by a psychological crisis in the revolutionary party. Doubt and hesitation pervade the ranks. The possibility of success, of finally attaining the fanatical aims, comes into question. Internal strife arises. Leaders charge each other with betrayal of the "Cause." Unity goes. Then come dissensions, reprisals, banishments, eventually executions. Danton followed Hébert as the victim of Robespierre.
The banishment of Trotsky seems to mark an analogous crisis in Russia -- the sign of a coming spiritual disintegration of the Revolutionary party. For the Communists have played the rôle of the Revolutionists in the Russian transformation as their Jacobin antecedents did in eighteenth century France.
There are more lessons to be learned from history. As time goes on, the revolutionists of the rank and file become disillusioned and disheartened. Prompted by fear, personal ambition, or sometimes out of honest conviction, these "revolutionists of yesterday" become instrumental in destroying the very edifice which they built and in which they worshipped. Only a few months separated Danton's death from the fall and execution of Robespierre. The Reign of Terror was ended by the coup d'etat of the 9th Thermidor (July 27, 1794). Thermidor was not a popular revolt. The people were helpless and terrorized in France just as they are at present in Russia. One finds as a feature common to most revolutions that the masses act as the principal character only in the initial stages of the revolutionary drama. In the closing acts the people are silent. Tired, exhausted, they yearn only for peace and reconciliation. "Events" unfold in the form of palace revolutions and political coups d'état, engineered and carried out by a few. And these few are usually not outsiders. They belong to the "revolutionists of yesterday." Robespierre fell a victim to his own colleagues, to members and agents of the Committee of Public Safety. The heroes of Thermidor -- Barras, Fréron, Tallien and the others -- shortly before were active terrorists. Another Thermidorian, Fouché, formerly the chief terrorist in Lyons, became famous later as Napoleon's Minister of Police, proud of the titles bestowed upon him by the Empire. In seventeenth century England, again, the Cromwellian Commonwealth was undone by the hands of General Monk, a general in the regicide New Model army. Such are the changes in political psychology, contagious, rapid and unexpected, which are wrought by the pressure and environment of life.
Let us glance at the picture of Communist Russia as it stands today after the banishment of the "Opposition." Not a man is left of international fame; scarcely any of the cosmopolitan revolutionary type who were reared in underground emigré quarters and combined fanatical conviction with learning and intellectual versatility. At the helm of affairs are men mostly of Russian origin, thrust to the front from out of the ranks. As a matter of fact, in the Russian upheaval, just as in other revolutions, there have come forward scores of "common men." Yesterday they were ruthless revolutionists, drunk with the slogan of the hour. Today thousands of them fill various government offices, dealing with the manifold practical problems of everyday life. Who knows what thought and deed will be theirs by tomorrow? The remnant of a revolutionary dictatorship is a frail thing. In the winter of 1794-95 the Jacobins Club of Paris, the very name of which was whispered with horror a few months before, was raided by a group of dudes (jeunesse dorée) who with whips and insults dispersed the former masters of France.
The Communist régime in Russia may last for a few years. And it may go, unexpectedly, at any hour. The object of this study is only to suggest the meaning of present facts in the light of history, to indicate the direction and character of the evolution now in course. The strength of a revolutionary dictatorship lies in fanatical unity. Unity springs from faith, morale. Once morale and faith are gone, once the source of fanaticism is exhausted, decay follows with astounding rapidity. There have been no organized enemies to challenge the Communist Government. The Bolsheviks have had to yield to the forces of life; but the concessions were gradual and in their retreat the Communists have kept up spirit and form. Now, however, the time has come when Communist fanaticism must face its inevitable foe -- a foe invisible, which cannot be fought by terror or by any of the weapons of arbitrary authority. This foe is disintegration from within, a foe which history teaches has been the Nemesis of all revolutionary dictatorships and has dealt the fatal blow.
[i] Rykoff and Bukharin in Izvestia, October 18 and 19, 1927. Figures given by different leaders vary. The figures relate to production as a whole. In the most vital field -- heavy metals -- Communist industry is still about 30 percent under the pre-war level.
[ii] J. Ellis Barker, "Economic Statesmanship," New York, 1920.
[iii] Dislocation in Russia's industries should not be ascribed to the effects of war. In many ways the war increased the purchasing capacity of the peasant. Also war industries improved the equipment of the plants. In spite of revolution the year 1917 on the whole still showed a production of over 75 percent of pre-war. The collapse occurred in 1918-20 under militant Communism.
[iv] Bukharin, Izvestia, October 18, 1927.
[v] The 1926 Census showed the population of Russia in her present confines to be 147,000,000 in comparison with 138,100,000 in 1914 and 135,900,000 in 1923. The increase of population per annum at present is 2 percent compared to 1½ percent before the war. The total loss of population from 1914 to 1923 is estimated at 21,000,000. (Izvestia, March 4, 1928.)
[vi] Kuibisheff figures the annual increase in the aggregate value of the nation's agricultural assets for the last three years at 3 percent. Izvestia, October 20, 1927.
[vii] Statement of the Soviet Attorney-General in Izvestia, March 10, 1928.
[viii] See Izvestia, March 11, and April 18, 1928.