Anatoli Lunacharsky, poet of the revolution

Perhaps my favourite person in the Russian Revolution is Anatoli Lunarcharsky, known as the the ‘poet of the revolution’. Often more radical than Lenin, a sometime ‘God-Builder’ who wrote a two-volume work, Socialism and Religion, he was appointed the Commissar for Enlightenment in the new government. In his new program, Narkompros (Narodnyi Kommissariat Prosveschcheniya), he appointed all manner of poets, artists, writers, and the highest number of women in any of the major commissariats of the new state. A prolific writer of plays, essays and book-length works, he was widely regarded as the most educated and intelligent of all the education ministers in the world at the time. His work on Marxism, literature and art are still well worth a read, especially since they have largely been forgotten.

But why did Lenin appoint him and keep him on, despite all their differences? As Lenin put it to Viktor Shulgin:

I advise you also to be fond of him. He is drawn towards the future with his whole being. That is where there is such joy and laughter in him. And he is ready to give that joy and laughter to everyone.


Towards a more balanced assessment of Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili

Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, or Stalin as he is known, is so often the subject of either demonisation or veneration. The result is that few rigorous and balanced assessments can be found. Let us see if we can make a small beginning with the following.

Let me be clear, Stalin made plenty of mistakes, but was also responsible for at least two significant achievements.

The first was the collectivisation drive in the early 1930s. Collectivisation? Yes, since it was unfinished business from the revolution.

For the sake of the ‘civil’ war and the need to get the Soviet economy kicking, as well as come up with the bare modicum of grain needed to ward off the worst of the famines produced by the ‘civil’ war, Lenin relinquished his desire for collectivisation. So, when the NEP was winding down in the late 20s, Stalin issued an order in 1927 that collectivisation was to restart. Why? Grain production was falling short by about 20 million tons, needed to feed Russia itself, largely due to old peasant methods of agriculture that were becoming increasingly inefficient. However, the order was ignored and the shortages got worse, kulaks (rich peasants) began stockpiling grain and pushing up the prices, so the next year Stalin announced collectivisation would be enforced. In response, the peasants burned crops and barns and killed their animals. Stalin followed Lenin’s path for a short while, allowing small-hold production to continue. But in 1932 he lost patience and ordered full enforcement. By the end of the year, 67% of farms were collectivised, but peasants continued to burn crops and stockpile. Famine got worse in 1932-1933, so the Politburo got serious: kulaks were rounded up and – following the tried and true Russian method of more than two centuries – were sent off to populate (and perish in) Siberia. Meanwhile, by 1939, 99% of Russian farms were collectivised, modernised and were using machinery.

So was it a failure? Let’s look at the following statistics:

In 1928, 73 million tons of grain were produced.

In 1933, at the height of the struggle, 69 million tons  were grown.

However, by 1937, the yield was 97 million tons.

In other words, on the eve of the Second World War, production had increased by more than 24 million tons, or by about 33%. Along with twin industrialisation drive – both part of the socialist offensive – this put the USSR in a very strong position to resist Hitler’s attack in 1941.

Before we get to that, however, let us look at the political situation. By the late twenties, Stalin was still following Bolshevik policy outlined by Lenin: avoid violence and allowing the peasants to keep small-hold farms and use old methods. In opposition were Trotsky and Zinoviev, who urged collectivisation. But now Stalin outfoxed the left opposition, taking over their policy with gusto. They were left with no room to move.

What about the war? I have already posted on this, but now a few more details. We can thank the man with the fried egg on his forehead, Gorbachev, for this one, since he opened the archives to foreign historians. Since then, they have been rewriting the history of World War II, since the Soviets kept far better records than anyone. Up until then, three factors had influenced the understanding of the war. First, Churchill in his ‘history’ had played down the Soviet involvement, arguing that the war was won on the western front (Churchill appropriately won the Nobel Prize for ‘literature’ – it was largely a fabrication). Second, western historians relied on what the German generals told them. Good move that one, since we got fables about the Russian rabble, unarmed soldiers, machine-gun fodder and so on. And they stressed Hitler’s mismanagement, the size of the Red Army, and that their supply-lines were too long. Incidentally, the USA employed former Wehrmacht officers to provide them with information on the new Cold War enemy. One of them, Franz Halder, was Hitler’s chief of the Army General Staff from 1938 to 1942 and was complicit in the effort to wipe out Jews, gypsies, gays and communists. After the war, he was head of the project on the USSR in the US Army’s Historical Division. And for his wonderful contribution, John F. Kennedy gave him the Meritorious Civilian Service. Third, Krushchev is at fault here as well, since in his famous speech in 1956 he blamed Stalin for everything, with the result that Soviet historians came up with their own version of the war: despite Stalin’s idiocy, the good, solid Russian people won the war on their own.

All of that is now so much rubbish. While the Left has been focusing on politics and avoiding Stalin, the war historians have been providing a completely different picture of Stalin during the war. David Glantz, Mark Harrison, Nikolai Litvin, Anthony Beavor, Catherine Merridale, Rodric Braithwaite, Omer Bartov, Wolfram Wette (who has showed that German officers in general and not merely the SS freely engaged in murder and genocide), Christopher Browning, Saul Friedländer, Richard Overy, Evan Mawdsley, Geoffrey Roberts and Norman Davies – all have been using the wealth of material now available.

The result: it was Stalin’s war and he won it. Over 400 divisions battled on a 1600 km front for four years, compared to 15 each for the Germans and allies on the western front at its most intense time. 88% of German military dead fell on the eastern front, and the battle that broke the Wehrmacht was Kursk, in July and August of 1943. Here the Russians showed everyone how to beat a blitzkrieg – with a meticulously planned, flexible and in-depth defence. By comparison, the British, American, Australian, Canadian etc contribution on the western front was a sideshow.

However, Stalin didn’t start off well, trying to run the whole show himself, misjudging German attacks in 1941 and 1942, and launching ineffective counter-attacks. Then he sat back, puffed through a few pipes full and had a good think. The result was a transformed man: he called on his most creative generals, engaged in extraordinary efforts to rally the people, and became adept at high diplomacy. For example, at the end of the war at the Yalta Conference (4-11 February, 1945), he had obtained information that the good Winston Churchill didn’t mind a tipple or three. So Churchill was plied with grog, got plastered, and Stalin got a very good deal indeed.

Meanwhile, back in 1942, a well-organised, equipped, supplied and trained Red Army began winning battles, from Stalingrad onwards. They waged increasingly sophisticated ‘deep operations’, namely, rapid, multiply-arms advances that pushed deep into the Wehrmacht’s rear, inflicting creative and utterly debastating defeats, much greater than any army in the war. And the responsibility for these stunning succcesses was Stalin’s. He fostered and was part of a dynamic, flexible and innovative team, discussing, debating and planning each move. So much so that historians now use phrases such as ‘awesome military achievement’ and ‘greatest military victory in history’.

Was the Russian Revolution a Success? Part 2

Last night I had a long discussion with a person who seemed quite intelligent, but still she trotted out the standard line concerning the Russian Revolution that has been propagated by Western media and exiled Russian bourgeois critics since about 1918 – now filled out with all manner of gory details of unmitigated disaster. The revolution was a palace coup undertaken by a small band of intellectuals, Lenin was a sectarian autocrat, Stalin a monster, Russia sank into a new age of barbarism, with massive famines, industrial chaos, rampant killings and decades of sheer terror for the people.

It is reasonably easy to attribute such a narrative to the ingrained ideological and economic fabric of the West’s own justification for existence, especially by those keen to defend a dodgy project. But it is less forgivable for those on the Left to do so. To be sure, the narrative on the Left it has its refinements. I am reading Lenin Reloaded, a collection that seeks to offer a corrective to the perception of Lenin as an autocratic and doctrinaire thug bent on power. But then you get the standard ‘Fall narrative’: at some point the revolution lost its way, retreating first under a disillusioned Lenin in his last years, then completely waylaid by a paranoid Stalin, and then cementing the place of an autocratic new ruling class under Brezhnev.

The problem is that such a Fall narrative has difficulty dealing with some developments during the USSR. To begin with, as Norman Davies argues in his recent Europe at War, 1939-1945,  a key reason why the USSR under Stalin’s leadership won the Second World War was the reorganisation of economic and social life under communism. Leave aside the fact (which I have mentioned before) that he brilliantly led the war effort and drew together the best generals and strategists of the War – Zhukov, Chief of Staff Alexander Vasilevsky, and Chief of Operations Aleksei Antonov, all men of penetrating intelligence, exceptional abilities, and extraordinary character, and all encouraged to be dynamic and innovative, to argue, debate and counsel Stalin himself. Aside from that, the USSR underwent what Davies calls a ‘miraculous’ economic recovery in the midst of the war and after Hitler attacked in a mode of unprecedented viciousness and extermination. Such a recovery was possible only under the reorganisation brought by a communist system.

Further, as George Hallam pointed out in a comment to my earlier post on the Russian Revolution, biometric analysis of data from the time shows that children began to grow taller and weigh more. This is a telltale sign of increased nutrition, more physical activity and healthier lives.

Closely related to this development was kukharka: mass education for women and men. As Robert Allen shows in a recent study (From Farm to Factory, 2003), before the revolution Russia had the same demographic pattern as, for example, India – a high death rate and a higher birth rate. However, the USSR did not have the same population explosion. Why? It had nothing to do with the ‘civil’ war, Second World War or even the famines that came as a result. It was due to the massive increase in education and opportunity for women, who were instrumental in reducing the birth rate at the same time that children became healthier. A crucial factor was the communist feminist movement. If education had been restricted to men and the economic reorganisation had proceeded more slowly, the USSR’s population would have exploded, with dire economic consequences.

A final factor was the more open attitude to sexuality, which makes the West look like a breathless latecomer to the party. That’s the topic for another post, but these developments make the narrative of unmitigated disaster look decidedly untenable.

Was the Russian Revolution a success? Part 1

After seven decades of unrelenting polemic against the USSR and the communist states of Eastern Europe – they were dictatorships, autocratic, undemocratic, brain-washed their people, callously allowed famines to decimate the people, consigned people to grinding poverty, imprisoned all and sundry and threatened the world with nuclear war – a new phase in the narrative emerged after 1989: communism in Eastern Europe and Russia has failed. The most astounding feature of this narrative is how vast numbers on the Left swallowed this story. All communism did was enable the rapid industrialisation of Russia and the Eastern Europe, they said. Or, it was not ‘true’ communism; or, if only Trotsky had outsmarted Stalin; or, Lenin and Stalin et al were merely new incarnations of the tsar; or, Lenin et al were no different from Hitler and the fascists; or, how can you expect communism to succeed in backward countries? (that one from an increasingly wayward and haughty Terry Eagleton); or, simply because communism came to an end, it was obviously a failure in those parts of the world.

Difficult it might be to push back against such an ingrained narrative (especially by bourgeois cynics and the fashionable left for whom the revolution is yet to come), but let’s see if we can do so.

To begin with, the Russian Revolution was the first successful communist revolution. With a mixture of extraordinary planning, unbridled optimism, sheer guts and good deal of luck, the communists succeeded in overthrowing the provisional government set up after the February Revolution of 1917. As Alain Badiou (to his rare credit) points out, that act inspired a century of revolutions. Lenin became the most read author of the first half of the 20th century, and revolutions won through in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, Vietnam and so on. They were the defining feature of the 20th century.

Further, the fact the communists were able to weather attacks from all sides in the so-called ‘civil’ war – USA, UK, France, Germany, Canada, Japan et al supported Kolchak, Denikin, Yudenich, Wrangel and others as they attacked in wave upon wave from all directions. At times the new RSFSR was a rump of its final extent, losing the Ukraine, the whole east, Belarus and much more. Any other army would have given in, but the new Red Army (built almost from scratch after the mass and undisciplined demobilisation of the Russian Army in the later years of the First World War). How did they manage? We can gain an insight by looking at Stalin during World War II. Stalin? Yes, Stalin has emerged in research as the key figure who won the war. How did he do so? Under immense threat from Hitler’s attack, he drew together the most creative and independent strategists and let them get to work. Meanwhile, he inspired people to draw on the deep social, culture and economic resources of communist restructuring, moved whole industries east and out of harm’s way and dug deep to repel the bulk of Hitler’s armies. Let me put it this way: Stalin saved the world for Jews, gypsies, gays and communists – all subject to Hitler’s exterminations.

What about ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’? Wasn’t the USSR a one-party state that allowed no opposition? In that respect, it was no different from any western state, which had variations on one pro-capitalist party. There was one huge difference, however: the Russian Revolution went past the arrested development of the bourgeois revolution, pushing through to a full communist revolution. What about dissidents and the Gulag? In any other country the act of plotting to overthrow the state is called high treason. But for some reason the capitalist world called them ‘dissidents’ in the USSR.

Still, what about ‘democracy’? I have little time for bourgeois parliamentary democracy, with its formal freedom in which you can choose variations on the same pro-capitalist party. Instead, Lenin and the Bolsheviks enacted an absolute freedom, the freedom to choose what type of state you want. And in the new Soviets, a far more radical form of democracy developed. The old bourgeoisie and aristocracy did not get a look in (as they shouldn’t), for this was a democracy characterised by the dictatorship of the proletariat. Even some fellow socialists were horrified. Karl Kautsky, of the German Social-Democratic Party, who had once been immeasurably influential on Lenin, was eventually seduced by bourgeois democracy into thinking socialist aims could be achieved in the formal freedom of the ballot box. Lenin saw through it and denounced Kautsky as a renegade.

Economics? Wasn’t the USSR a basket case by 1989? Didn’t people have to line up in queues for the odd loaf of bread, as the standard propaganda image would have us believe? I have little add here from my earlier post, which shows that, by and large, more than two decades of capitalism since 1989 have been disastrous for these places.

But didn’t the USSR finally fail in 1989, since it came to an end? Given the immense pressures from the capitalist world, the construction of the Cold War by the USA, the continued economic sanctions and drain on vital resources, it is a surprise that the USSR lasted as long as it did. Lenin and all those following dreamed of peace that would allow the building of communism. In the absence of that peace, their achievement was stupendous.

But probably the biggest success of the USSR and other communist states in Eastern Europe is that they gave us a sustained example of how difficult it is to construct communism after the revolution, how devilishly complex such a process is. To be sure, they made plenty of mistakes, only to learn from them and try something else. Until then, revolutionaries had dreamed, romanticised, formulated ideal blueprints, as they tend still to do today (especially in the West). Here was a moment when a revolution succeeded and communist construction began. As Jean-Jacques Lecercle put it, the USSR gave the capitalist world the biggest fright it ever had. I would add: at least until China.