another world is possible

I have commented a number of times on one of the deep paradoxes of Stalin’s era in the Soviet Union: he was in many respects the architect of the world’s first and – until now – most ambitious and far-reaching affirmative action program. I have now read carefully Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action EmpireThis is a 500 page book, peerless in its use of archival material and chock full of insights. It has its shortcomings, especially in the theoretical area, thereby missing some of the complexities and dialectical tensions at work. All the same, he argues persuasively that the Soviet Union was not a nation-state, not a federation, nor indeed an empire (despite the title). Instead, its ‘imagined community’ was the friendship of the peoples, or ‘international nationalism’. (As someone suggested to me recently, China too is a new form of the state, developing further the experience of the Soviet Union.) What Martin does not do is use this to develop a Marxist theory of the state based on actual practice, but then he is not so interested in Marxist theory.

Let me return to the question of affirmative action, for not a few will be a little sceptical: sure, the Soviet government may have made many statements concerning affirmative action, and Stalin may have made many speeches to that effect and even shaped the 1936 constitution, but what about actual experiences? What happened on the ground? An extraordinary amount, as Martin shows. One small example comes from the Harvard Interview Project of 1950-51, which interviewed displaced persons – 250 Ukrainians, Belorussians and Russians – after the Second World War, from Smolensk and Leningrad.

The interviewers did not ask direct questions concerning ethnic conflict. Instead, they asked respondents to list the ‘distinguishing characteristics’ of Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Georgians, Armenians, Kalmyks and Tatars. To the astonishment of the interviewers, many of the respondents replied that there were no ethnic differences whatsoever. The interviewers pressed their case, but the respondents (as Martin points out) determined that there were two very different issues at stake. First, did the Soviet government treat nationalities differently, even persecuting them as the Nazis did? The responses: ‘Politically and in living standards, no. In national customs, yes'; ‘Yes, the Jews have the first place in the Soviet Union’. Second, the respondents inferred an interest by the interviewers in popular prejudice in the Soviet Union. In response: ‘Yes, of course there are [national differences]. But the nationalities are not enemies because of that'; ‘But that does not mean there are necessarily antagonistic feelings between us’.

Even more, many of the respondents connected the absence of popular prejudice and conflict to state policy. In response to the question concerning ‘distinguishing characteristics’, a dozen respondents asserted that the absence of open national prejudice was due to the very severe punishments for racial-hate speech. The responses are worth noting:

No, that is impossible. Everyone must love everyone in the Soviet Union … It is against the law to have national animosities.

There is no chauvinism. You can get ten years for it.

In the army, a soldier got seven years for calling a Jew ‘Zhid.’

All are alike. You cannot tell somebody that he is a Ukrainian and brag that you are a Russian or you would be arrested.

It is strictly forbidden by law to offend any member of any nationality, regardless of whether he is a Russian, Ukrainian, White Russian, or anything else.

If you cussed out a member of a minority group, there was serious trouble.

If you call a Jew a ‘zhid’, he can go to the police and you will get a prison sentence.

A primary school teacher told a personal story of how she had used a Russian proverb, ‘An untimely guest is worse than a Tatar’, and almost lost her job.

Martin observes, ‘When one considers that the interviewers neither asked about national prejudice nor about state policy, these spontaneous responses are impressive testimony to the success of the Soviet campaigns against great power chauvinism and in favor of internationalism and friendship among the Soviet peoples’ (p. 390).

What about the 1936 ‘Stalin’ constitution’s guarantee of national equality for all peoples? How did respondents see it? They initially opined that it was a complete fraud and not worth the paper on which it was written, but then pointed out, ‘correct’, this guarantee is observed; ‘in this case there is no conflict between the text of the constitution and reality'; ‘all nations have the same rights’. What a contrast with Russia now.

Bear in mind that these positions were also voiced in the context of immediate memories of Nazi racial theory and practice. And that they arose from the same period as the extensive purges of the 1930s – part of my investigation of the practical contributions to a materialist doctrine of evil, if not a thorough revision of Marxist theories of human nature.

One of the enjoyable aspects of heading off a cycling tour or mountain-hiking (in Australian lingo, it’s ‘bush-walking), is the absence of any internet or even phone contact. Increasingly, the pleasure applies at home. The internet has been off since Saturday – until now. I have not been troubled by email, the desire to blog, what passes for news, or even the temptation to waste time on other useless web-based pursuits.

The Occupy Movement – with its slogan ‘we are the 99 per cent’ – may perhaps not be willing to acknowledge the origin of that idea. But it comes from none other than Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili, more commonly known as Joseph Stalin. In his lengthy report to the sixteenth congress, in 1930, of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik), he observes:

The share of the kulaks and urban capitalists was in 1927-28—8.1 per cent; in 1928-29—6.5 per cent; in 1929-30—1.8 per cent.

Meanwhile, what was happening to the 99 per cent, or more exactly, the 98.2 per cent?

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.)

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 U.S.S.R. 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. (Works, volume 12, pp. 301, 308-9)

Yes, this is Stalin’s definition of ‘cultural revolution.’

In the midst of the frenetic enthusiasm of the collectivisation drive, Stalin published his famous article, ‘Dizzy with Success’. It called on comrades not to get carried away with enthusiasm, not to run too far ahead and damage the process. At one point, even village church bells appear:

I say nothing of those “revolutionaries”—save the mark!—who begin the work of organising artels by removing the bells from the churches. Just imagine, removing the church bells—how r-r-revolutionary! (Works, vol. 12, p. 204)

While working through this material, it is becoming increasingly clear that Stakhanovite enthusiasm is the framework in which the waves of purges of the 1930s should be understood. These purges are not merely cynical eliminations of rivals, nor are they merely the manifestation of fears (both real and unreal) of plots to overthrow the government. They are a major dimension of Stakhanovite enthusiasm, in which people threw themselves with extraordinary energy into the revolutionary changes taking place. The upshot is that those who lagged behind or who actively resisted the process became the focus of another and more negative dimension of that enthusiasm.

Stalin icon 24

Stalin and women: this conjunction usually evokes salacious details of Stalin’s somewhat active life as a young man, leaving a number of offspring across Russia. But in this he was no different from many other young Georgian males.

Far less known is the way he came to see, later in life, the importance of socialism for women. On many occasions, he addressed women’s congresses, let alone framing the Constitution of the USSR (1936 revision) to address explicitly equality of the sexes. Article 132 of what has been called an ‘affirmative action’ constitution reads:

Women in the U.S.S.R. are accorded equal rights with men in all spheres of economic, state, cultural, social and political life. The possibility of exercising these rights is ensured to women by granting them an equal right with men to work, payment for work, rest and leisure, social insurance and education, and by state protection of the interests of mother and child, prematernity and maternity leave with full pay, and the provision of a wide network of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens.

They often struggled to live up to ideals expressed and often acted hypocritically, as Alexandra Kollontai points out, but you can’t fault the ideals. Needless to say, the USSR is usually written out of the history of feminism – as with so many other matters. As the constitution was in its final stages of being formulated, Stalin addressed a gathering of collective farm women shock workers. His speeches at earlier women’s congresses may have been somewhat patronising, but here the issue of socialism and women gains clear expression:

Comrades, what we have seen here today is a slice of the new life we call the collective life, the socialist life. We have heard the simple accounts of simple toiling people, how they strove and overcame difficulties in order to achieve success in socialist competition. We have heard the speeches not of ordinary women, but, I would say, of women who are heroines of labour, because only heroines of labour could have achieved the successes they have achieved. We had no such women before. Here am I, already 56 years of age, I have seen many things in my time, I have seen many labouring men and women. But never have I met such women. They are an absolutely new type of people. Only free labour, only collective farm labour could have given rise to such heroines of labour in the countryside. (Works, vol. 14, p. 85).

This picture comes from the gathering itself:

Stalin and women 17 (320x271)

Not a few posters were produced on a similar theme, such as this one for the actual congress:

Stalin and women 16 (219x320)


And more:

Stalin and women 15 (320x220)

Stalin and women 12 (320x242)

Stalin and women 06 (320x162)

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.

Five-Year Plans 02

Five-Year Plans 06

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).

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