The euphoria of the USSR

In the fashionable cynicism of post-USSR times, it is difficult to recapture the sheer euphoria at the achievement of the USSR itself. In 1922, after long and difficult negotiations, the excitement could hardly be contained. Here is Stalin in December of that year when the new agreement was announced.

Here, in the world of Soviets, where the regime is based not on capital but on labour, where the regime is based not on private property, but on collective property, where the regime is based not on the exploitation of man by man, but on the struggle against such exploitation, here, on the contrary, the very nature of the regime fosters among the labouring masses a natural striving towards union in a single socialist family (Works, vol. 5, p. 153).

But, comrades, today is not only a day for summing up, it is at the same time the day of triumph of the new Russia over the old Russia, the Russia that was the gendarme of Europe, the Russia that was the hangman of Asia. Today is the day of triumph of the new Russia, which has smashed the chains of national oppression, organised victory over capital, created the dictatorship of the proletariat, awakened the peoples of the East, inspires the workers of the West, transformed the Red Flag from a Party banner into a State banner, and rallied around that banner the peoples of the Soviet republics in order to unite them into a single state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the prototype of the future World Soviet Socialist Republic.

We Communists are often abused and accused of being unable to build. Let the history of the Soviet power during these five years of its existence serve as proof that Communists are also able to build. Let today’s Congress of Soviets, whose function it is to ratify the Declaration and Treaty of Union of the Republics that were adopted at the Conference of Plenipotentiary Delegations yesterday, let this Union Congress demonstrate to all who have not yet lost the ability to understand, that Communists are as well able to build the new as they are to destroy the old (p. 161).

The simplicity and value of the idea of socialism in one country

Some would have us believe that Stalin suddenly introduced the thorough new idea of socialism in one country in the mid-1930s, thereby ‘betraying’ the Marxist tradition. This is yet another fiction. The idea runs a long way back, as Erik van Ree points out in Boundaries of Utopia (pp. 163-96): it predated Marx and Engels and was an assumed position among German and Austrian communists. Lenin too developed the idea, so much so that the ‘Great Debate’ over the question in the 1920s and then 1930s was really an articulation of positions that had already been settled.

So let us have another look at this much misunderstood idea. The core idea is simple: socialism can be achieved in one country but it will never be complete and secure unless global socialism and indeed communism takes place. It is clearly a doctrine at the intersection between local and international concerns, with the two dimensions intimately connected, although many leave out the international component. (I would add that it became a standard position that socialism may be established in one or more countries, but communism can happen only on a world-wide scale).

As for the development of Stalin’s thought on the question, the detail was first clearly articulated in a key document from 1925, a report on the results of the work of the fourteenth conference of the Communist Party (all references in my book on Stalin). It was restated without significant development on a quite a number of occasions afterwards. The doctrine turns on two contradictions, with the overcoming of one taking place in the context of the other. The first contradiction is internal, concerning the tensions between workers and peasants, between industry and agriculture. This contradiction, which runs back to pre-revolutionary activity, must be overcome if socialism is to be achieved in one country. Here lies the initial theoretical justification for the socialist offensive of the late 1920s and 1930s, with its industrialisation and collectivisation drives. Yet this internal contradiction must be understood and is indeed enabled by another, between socialism in Russia and global capitalism, which cannot be resolved by internal dynamics alone. Since a global socialist revolution will not take place soon, any country that has experienced a socialist revolution should not sit idly by but work to construct socialism as far as possible within the global framework of capitalism. However, such a country will never be entirely secure as long as capitalist states exist in the world. Security will come only with global socialism and then communism. In this definition we may see the distinction between socialism and communism in another form: socialism may be established in one country and perhaps a majority of countries, but communism can happen only on a worldwide scale.

Thus, Stalin warns his comrades that as long as capitalist encirclement exists, the danger of capitalist intervention and even restoration is always there. Much can be achieved in one country, such as driving away the landlords and capitalists, repelling imperialist attacks and beginning to construct a socialist economy, but this is not yet a ‘complete victory’. The reason is that the main contradiction between local socialism and international capitalism cannot be fully overcome by one country, for it cannot provide a guarantee against the danger of intervention. ‘Hence’, writes Stalin, the final victory of socialism is ‘possible only on an international scale, only as a result of the joint efforts of the proletarians of a number of countries, or – still better – only as a result of the victory of the proletarians in a number of countries’. In other words, the victory of socialism is the ‘full guarantee against attempts at intervention, and hence against restoration, for any serious attempt at restoration can take place only with serious support from outside, only with the support of international capital’. All of which means that socialism in one country is possible and impossible: possible in terms of overcoming the tensions between industry and agriculture; impossible in terms of the completion of the socialist and indeed communist project without a favourable international context. The stage of socialism, at least in one country, is determined by such a contradiction and its risk.

The world’s first affirmative action constitution

It was of course the constitution of the USSR. The constitution of 1924 contains this crucial declaration, indicating that one of the key factors involved ethnic diversity (or what it likes to call the ‘national question’):

The will of the peoples of the Soviet republics, who recently assembled at their Congresses of Soviets and unanimously resolved to form a “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” is a reliable guarantee that this Union is a voluntary association of peoples enjoying equal rights, that each republic is guaranteed the right of freely seceding from the Union, that admission to the Union is open to all Socialist Soviet Republics, whether now existing or hereafter to arise, that the new union state will prove to be a worthy crown to the foundation for the peaceful co-existence and fraternal co-operation of the peoples that was laid in October 1917, and that i t will serve as a sure bulwark against world capitalism and as a new and decisive step towards the union of the working people of all countries into a World Socialist Soviet Republic (Stalin, Works 5, p. 404).

A constitution is always a work in progress, so the 1936 version (sponsored by Stalin) extended affirmative action to women, religion, education and so on:

Article 122. 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.

Article 123. Equality of rights of citizens of the U.S.S.R., irrespective of their nationality or race, in all spheres of economic, state, cultural, social and political life, is an indefeasible law. Any direct or indirect restriction of the rights of, or, conversely, any establishment of direct or indirect privileges for, citizens on account of their race or nationality, as well as any advocacy of racial or national exclusiveness or hatred and contempt, is punishable by law.

Article 124. In order to ensure to citizens freedom of conscience, the church in the U.S.S.R. is separated from the state, and the school from the church. Freedom of religious worship and freedom of anti-religious propaganda is recognized for all citizens.

Incidentally, article 124, which Stalin included in the face of stiff opposition, eventually led to the rapprochement between Stalin and the church during and after the Second World War. The church petitioned for churches to be re-opened, religious personnel to be admitted to jobs, and religious candidates ran in the 1937 legislative elections.

By 1977, the revised constitution summed up the affirmative action position as follows:

Article 34. Citizens of the USSR are equal before the law, without distinction of origin, social or property status, race or nationality, sex, education, language, attitude to religion, type and nature of occupation, domicile, or other status.

The equal rights of citizens of the USSR are guaranteed in all fields of economic, political, social, and cultural life.

Article 35. Women and men have equal rights in the USSR.

Exercise of these rights is ensured by according women equal access with men to education and vocational and professional training, equal opportunities in employment, remuneration, and promotion, and in social and political, and cultural activity, and by special labour and health protection measures for women; by providing conditions enabling mothers to work; by legal protection, and material and moral support for mothers and children, including paid leaves and other benefits for expectant mothers and mothers, and gradual reduction of working time for mothers with small children.

Article 36. Citizens of the USSR of different races and nationalities have equal rights.

Exercise of these rights is ensured by a policy of all-round development and drawing together of all the nations and nationalities of the USSR, by educating citizens in the spirit of Soviet patriotism and socialist internationalism, and by the possibility to use their native language and the languages of other peoples in the USSR.

Any direct or indirect limitation of the rights of citizens or establishment of direct or indirect privileges on grounds of race or nationality, and any advocacy of racial or national exclusiveness, hostility, or contempt, are punishable by law.

Needless to say, constitutions express certain ideals that are not are always practised in reality, but in its initial articulation it was the first affirmative action constitution in the world.

How to deal with one’s opponents and critics – gently!

So how did Stalin deal with dissenters, critics and opponents? Expel them, exile them to Siberia, even kill them? Apparently not. Actually he was constantly warning others not to do so, both at home and in the international communist movement. As he wrote concerning the German Party’s propensity for dealing harshly with critics:

I am emphatically opposed to the policy of kicking out all dissenting comrades. I am opposed to such a policy not because I am sorry for the dissenters, but because such a policy gives rise in the Party to a regime of intimidation, a regime of bullying, which kills the spirit of self-criticism and initiative. It is not good when leaders of the Party are feared but not respected. Party leaders can be real leaders only if they are not merely feared but respected in the Party, when their authority is recognised. It is difficult to produce such leaders, it is a long and arduous process, but it is absolutely essential, otherwise the Party cannot be called a real Bolshevik Party, and the discipline of the Party cannot be conscious discipline. (Works, col. 7, p. 45)

The new Soviet woman, or, Soviet feminism

The real achievements of the Bolsheviks are usually written out of any history of feminism, since as we all know, it is really a Western phenomenon. The catch is that the likes of Kollontai, Zetkin and others did not like to be known as feminists, since they saw it a distinctly bourgeois phenomenon. So perhaps Marxist or materialist feminism is a better term.

Already in the world’s first ‘affirmative action’ constitution from 1936, we find Article 132:

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.

This is by no means the first time questions of gender arose; Here is Stalin’s statement on International Women’s Day in 1925:

There has not been in the history of mankind a single great movement of the oppressed in which women toilers have not participated. Women toilers, the most oppressed of all the oppressed, have never kept away from the high road of the emancipation movement, and never could have done so. As is known, the movement for the emancipation of the slaves brought to the front hundreds of thousands of great women martyrs and heroines. In the ranks of the fighters for the emancipation of the serfs there were tens of thousands of women toilers. It is not surprising that the revolutionary working-class movement, the mightiest of all the emancipation movements of the oppressed masses, has rallied millions of women toilers to its banner.

International Women’s Day is a token of the invincibility of the working-class movement for emancipation and a harbinger of its great future.

If the working class pursues a correct policy, they can and must become a real working-class army, operating against the bourgeoisie. To forge from this reserve of women toilers an army of working women and peasant women, operating side by side with the great army of the proletariat—such is the second and decisive task of the working class.

International Women’s Day must become a means of transforming the working women and peasant women from a reserve of the working class into an active army of the emancipation movement of the proletariat.

Long live International Women’s Day! (Works, vol. 7, pp. 48-49).

Time and again, we find discussions (at some length and often with local people) of the new Soviet woman, released from the restrictions of pre-revolutionary social and economic life and now involved in everyday working life, in the factories, collective farms and management of Soviet work. Older traditions of Russian life may still influence the attitudes of some men, so much so that they laugh at the new women, but Stalin reminds them of the crucial role of women in the socialist offensive, with an increasing number at the forefront of management and congresses. In an address to women collective farm shock workers in 1935, Stalin reflects on the extraordinary changes he has seen. He compares the women of old Russia, enslaved as they were to men at all stages of life, to the new emancipated and independent women of the collective farms who are in control of their own lives. These ‘heroines of labour’ represent a ‘slice of the new life’, of ‘socialist life’:

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).