another world is possible

Accounts of the Great Depression (1929 to the late 1930s) usually use terms such as ‘worldwide’ and ‘global’. Trade declined by 50%, heavy industry came to a virtual standstill, unemployment went as high as 33% and so on. Obviously, for such accounts the USSR was not part of the ‘world’ and ‘globe’ at the time. The first and second five-year plans had an extraordinary effect, industrialising a ‘backward’ economy in a way that makes every other industrial revolution pale by comparison. Agriculture was mechanised and collectivised, and output, employment, and standard of living grew by staggering proportions. While many at the time prophesied the imminent economic collapse of the Soviet Union – ‘mediaeval fossils to whom facts mean nothing’ (Stalin) – others were willing to give honour where honour was due. For example, the English capitalist, Gibson Jarvie, president of the United Dominion Trust, wrote in 1932:

Now I want it clearly understood that I am neither Communist nor Bolshevist, I am definitely a capitalist and an individualist …. Russia is forging ahead while all too many of our factories and shipyards lie idle and approximately 3,000,000 of our people despairingly seek work. Jokes have been made about the five-year plan, and its failure has been predicted. You can take it as beyond question, that under the five-year plan much more has been accomplished than was ever really anticipated. … In all these industrial towns which I visited, a new city is growing up, a city on a definite plan with wide streets in the process of being beautified by trees and grass plots, houses of the most modern type, schools, hospitals, workers’ clubs and the inevitable crèche or nursery, where the children of working mothers are cared for. … Don’t underrate the Russians or their plans and don’t make the mistake of believing that the Soviet Government must crash. … Russia today is a country with a soul and an ideal. Russia is a country of amazing activity. I believe that the Russian objective is sound. … And perhaps most important of all, all these youngsters and these workers in Russia have one thing which is too sadly lacking in the capitalist
countries today, and that is—hope!

Talk about unleashing the forces of production! Obviously, the USSR did not experience the Great Depression. All of which leads me to ponder whether there was not a connection between that Depression and the huge and disruptive processes underway in the Soviet Union. Such a massive shift in a place like the USSR was bound to have an effect globally.

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Did Stalin have an idea to which the USSR was striving? It may be called the vision of the future commune, based on the massive collectivisation drive of the late 1920s and 1930s. In between the lines, we may catch a glimpse of the idea that communism is a state of becoming rather than being, although he does tend to the latter.

The future communes will arise out of developed and prosperous artels. The future agricultural commune will arise when the fields and farms of the artel have an abundance of grain, cattle, poultry, vegetables, and all other produce; when the artels have mechanised laundries, modern kitchens and dining-rooms, mechanised bakeries, etc.; when the collective farmer sees that it is more to his advantage to get meat and milk from the collective farm’s meat and dairy department than to keep his own cow and small livestock; when the woman collective farmer sees that it is more to her advantage to take her meals in the dining-room, to get her bread from the public bakery, and to have her linen washed in the public laundry, than to do all these things herself. The future commune will arise on the basis of a more developed technique and of a more developed artel, on the basis of an abundance of products. When will that be? Not soon, of course. But it will take place. (Works,vol. 13, p. 360).

I’ve been meaning to post this one for a while. It is from the Siberian Times, which has the intriguing slogan, ‘What happens in Sibera stays in Siberia … unless it is covered by The Siberian Times’. This is a great piece, called ‘S Novym Godom! In pictures, how the USSR marked the happy times at New Year,’ concerning celebrations of New Year in the USSR. Surprise, surprise, people enjoyed themselves.

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We tend to call it plunder or loot when boots crash through doors, heads are separated from shoulders, women and children are carried off, and the produce of the land is appropriated. We prefer to speak of tribute or tax when tax gatherers replace soldiers, heads remain on shoulders, and fewer women and men are raped.

Unfortunately, it is still fashionable is some parts of the global Left to write off the USSR, especially the period under Stalin. So it is useful to remind ourselves of what was achieved. Here are some details from the report to the 16th congress in 1930, after a decade of furious transformation and unleashing of productive forces. Note that all this was achieved in less than 10 years:

In the advanced capitalist countries the share of the exploiting classes in the national income is about 50 per cent and even more, here, in the USSR, the share of the exploiting classes in the national income is not more than 2 per cent.

This, properly speaking, explains the striking fact that in the United States in 1922, according to the American bourgeois writer Denny “one per cent of estate holders owned 59 per cent of the total wealth,” and in Britain, in 1920-21, according to the same Denny “less than two per cent of the owners held 64 per cent of the total wealth” (see Denny’s book America Conquers Britain).

Can such things happen in our country, in the USSR, in the Land of Soviets? Obviously, they cannot. There have long been no “owners” of this kind in the USSR, nor can there be any.

But if in the USSR, in 1929-30, only about two per cent of the national income falls to the share of the exploiting classes, what happens to the rest, the bulk of the national income?

Obviously, it remains in the hands of the workers and working peasants.

There you have the source of the strength and prestige of the Soviet regime among the vast masses of the working class and peasantry.

There you have the basis of the systematic improvement in the material welfare of the workers and peasants of the USSR.

In the light of these decisive facts, one can quite understand the systematic increase in the real wages of the workers, the increase in the workers’ social insurance budget, the increased assistance to poor- and middle-peasant farms, the increased assignments for workers’ housing, for the improvement of the workers’ living conditions and for mother and child care, and, as a consequence, the progressive growth of the population of the USSR and the decline in mortality, particularly in infant mortality.

It is known, for example, that the real wages of the workers, including social insurance and allocations from, profits to the fund for improvement of the workers living conditions, have risen to 167 per cent of the pre-war level. During the past three years, the workers social insurance budget alone has grown from 980,000,000 rubles in 1927-28 to 1,400,000 000 rubles in 1929-30. The amount spent on mother and child care during the past three years (1929-30) was 494,000,000 rubles. The amount spent on pre-school education (kindergartens, playgrounds, etc.) during the same period was 204,000,000 rubles. The amount spent on workers’ housing was 1,880,000,000 rubles.

All this taken together, plus the introduction of the seven-hour day for over 830,000 industrial workers (33.5 per cent), plus the introduction of the five-day week for over a million and a half industrial workers (63.4 per cent), plus the extensive network of rest homes, sanatoria and health resorts for workers, to which more than 1,700,000 workers have gone during the past three years-all this creates conditions of work and life for the working class that enable us to rear a new generation of workers who are healthy and vigorous, who are capable of raising the might of the Soviet country to the proper level and of protecting it with their lives from attacks by its enemies. (Applause.)

As regards assistance to the peasants, both individual and collective-farm peasants, and bearing in mind also assistance to poor peasants, this in the past three years (1927-28 — 1929-30) has amounted to a sum of not less than 4,000,000,000 rubles, provided in the shape of credits and assignments from the state budget. As is known, assistance in the shape of seeds alone has been granted the peasants during the past three years to the amount of not less than 154,000,000 poods.

It is not surprising that the workers and peasants in our country are living fairly well on the whole, that general mortality has dropped 36 per cent, and infant mortality 42.5 per cent, below the pre-war level, while the annual increase in population in our country is about three million. (Applause.)

As regards the cultural conditions of the workers and peasants, in this sphere too we have some achievements, which, however, cannot under any circumstances satisfy us, as they are still small. Leaving out of account workers’ clubs of all kinds, village reading rooms, libraries and abolition of illiteracy classes, which this year are being attended by 10,500,000 persons, the situation as regards cultural and educational matters is as follows. This year elementary schools are being attended by 11,638,000 pupils; secondary schools – 1,945,000; industrial and technical, transport and agricultural schools and classes for training workers of ordinary skill—333,100; secondary technical and equivalent trade schools—238,700; colleges, general and technical – 190,400. All this has enabled us to raise literacy in the USSR to 62.6 per cent of the population, compared with 33 per cent in pre-war times.

The chief thing now is to pass to universal, compulsory elementary education. I say the “chief” thing, because this would be a decisive step in the cultural revolution. And it is high time we took this step, for we now possess all that is needed to organise compulsory, universal elementary education in all areas of the USSR.

Stalin, Works, volume 12, pp. 304-8.

While on the topic of tractors, we can’t forget Pasha Angelina (Praskovia Nikitichna Angelina). The story goes that after the first collectivisation wave, in 1933 Pasha organised an all-female tractor brigade in the Donetsk region. It exceeded its quota by 129%, producing more than any other team in their region. She became a new labour hero: young, strong, enthusiastic, from an ethnic minority.

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Invited to the Kremlin, elected to the supreme soviet of the USSR, organiser of even more women’s tractor teams, winner of the Stalin Prize in 1946 … still, she preferred to drive tractors. As this article puts it, she became a symbol what might now be called Soviet feminism – except that by now such feminism was almost half a century old.

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There is even some rare footage of Pasha at the Kremlin, with Stalin and the others.

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You can watch it here, with subtitles, or watch this compilation news item:

Of course, there’s a down side to all of this. Her husband didn’t know how to relate to a strong woman, eventually leaving and drowning his sorrows in vodka (any excuse, really). And a lifetime working with tractor fuels and oils destroyed her body’s ability to clear the toxins, so she died at 46.

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Some of the most fascinating material in Stalin’s Works (from volume 11 onwards) concerns the theoretical debates over collectivisation. The campaign, of course, remains the butt of much anti-communist ranting, with assertions that it ’caused’ the famines of the 1930s, that it curtailed the natural incentive of private property and farming, indeed that it was nothing more than a return to medieval patterns of indentured labour, if not outright slavery.

All of that avoids dealing seriously with the actual issues at stake. To begin with, the furious process of industrialisation in the 1920s had to do so in a new way. The USSR was unable to plunder colonies for industrialisation, as had happened in Western Europe, and it did not wish to rely on foreign loans (it pretty much couldn’t anyway, since it had simply annulled the debts racked up by the tsarist autocracy). So the whole industrialisation process had to rely on internal, or socialist accumulation. Large-scale industrialisation needs massive injections of funds. But where to get those funds? The government decided to set higher prices for manufactured goods, as a type of super-tax that would flow back into industry. This was despite the increasing abundance of such goods. Meanwhile, prices on agricultural goods were set lower, even if there were occasional shortages. Obviously, this went directly counter to the supposed ‘iron law’ of supply and demand. Obviously, it led to not a little speculation by the kulaks, or wealthy farmers, among others. Most importantly, it produced the first layer of economic contradiction.

The second layer was between the rate of industrial change and the rate of agricultural change. The furious pace of industrialisation (the proverbial unleashing of productive forces) left agriculture far behind, so that an ever larger gulf opened up between them. The ‘super-tax’, or ‘scissors’ approach would not hold out forever in such a situation, so something had to be done in relation to agriculture. Stalin toyed with the idea that the small farmers should be fostered, since their approach had been tested over centuries. But in the end, he and the government opted for the very Left approach of collectivisation as a way of dealing with the growing contradiction between industry and agriculture.

As some have suggested, and as the editors of Stalin’s Works also point out, the collectivisation drive was the most difficult task since the conquest of power. In short, it really was an other revolution, a massive undertaking never quite seen before, achieved in a breathtakingly short period of time and not without a few unexpected side-effects.

In this context, Stalin reflects on such revolutionary changes in a letter to Gorky from 1930. He is discussing the responses of young people to the turmoil:

It cannot be the case that now, when we are breaking the old relations in life and building new ones, when the customary roads and paths are being torn up and new, uncustomary ones laid, when whole sections of the population who used to live in plenty are being thrown out of their rut and are falling out of the ranks, making way for millions of people who were formerly oppressed and downtrodden—it cannot be the case that the youth should represent a homogeneous mass of people who sympathise with us, that there should be no differentiation and division among them. Firstly, among the youth there are sons of wealthy parents. Secondly, even if we take the youth who are our own (in social status), not all of them have the hardiness, the strength, the character and the understanding to appreciate the picture of the tremendous break-up of the old and the feverish building of the new as a picture of something which has to be and which is therefore desirable, something, moreover, which has little resemblance to a heavenly idyll of “universal bliss” that is to afford everyone the opportunity of “taking his ease” and “basking in happiness.” Naturally, in such a “racking turmoil,” we are bound to have people who are weary, overwrought, worn-out, despairing, dropping out of the ranks and, lastly, deserting to the camp of the enemy. These are the unavoidable “overhead costs” of revolution (Works, vol. 12, p. 180).

Arkady Plastov - Collective-Farm Festival,   1937 (320x195)

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