The end of totalitarianism: working in a socialist state

I have been reading what is called the ‘resistance genre’ of histories of the Stalin era – Fitzpatrick, Viola, Edele and others. They tend to follow a social history approach, focusing on everyday life in the 1920s and 1930s. People, they argue, engaged in ‘subaltern strategies’ to counter the various planning initiatives and to make ends meet. Quotidian realities were therefore the key, and the economic and social situation quite chaotic. Most of this stuff is deeply liberal, focusing on another aspect of ‘dissent’, with the agenda of showing that the government had little or no support. However, it also undermines the totalitarian hypothesis, for a government that exercises at best haphazard control is hardly a totalitarian one. The problems with such an approach are that they make no sense of the massive popular support for Stalin and the government after Hitler’s attack. Wouldn’t people simply abandon the government and support the Nazis, as they did in parts of western Ukraine?

However, Losurdo offers an intriguing interpretation of the situation. He notes all of the data used by the social historians and points out that this is what it is like working in a socialist economy. Workers and peasants now have immense autonomy, so they can down tools at will and have a discussion. They can take half a day off if needed for important personal matters. They are free to express their opinions and act on them. For a capitalist system, such insubordination is simply unacceptable. Workers need to be disciplined and kept in line so that profits can be made. On this matter, Stalin himself equivocates, at times calling for greater efficiency and discipline, but at other times noting the benefits:

At the Ford plants, for example, which function efficiently, there may be less thieving, nevertheless they function for the benefit of Ford, a capitalist, whereas our enterprises, where thieving takes place sometimes, and things do not always run smoothly, nevertheless function for the benefit of the proletariat. (Works, volume 7, p. 314).


2 thoughts on “The end of totalitarianism: working in a socialist state

  1. And from the very beginning:

    There was not a man among us who could imagine that an intricate and subtle apparatus like banking, which grew out of the capitalist system of economy in the course of centuries, could be broken or transformed in a few days. We never said that. And when scientists, or pseudo-scientists, shook their heads and prophesied, we said: you can prophesy what you like. We know only one way for the proletarian revolution, namely, to occupy the enemy’s positions-to learn to rule by experience, from our mistakes. We do not in the least belittle the difficulties in our path, but we have done the main thing. The source of capitalist wealth has been undermined in the place of its distribution. After all this, the repudiation of the state loans, the overthrow of the financial yoke, was a very easy step. The transition to confiscation of the factories, after workers’ control had been introduced, was also very easy. When we were accused of breaking up production into separate departments by introducing workers’ control, we brushed aside this nonsense. In introducing workers’ control, we knew that it would take much time before it spread to the whole of Russia, but we wanted to show that we recognise only one road —changes from below; we wanted the workers themselves, from below, to draw up the new, basic economic principles. Much time will be required for this.

    From workers’ control we passed on to the creation of a Supreme Economic Council. Only this measure, together with the nationalisation of the banks and railways which will be carried out within the next few days, will make it possible for us to begin work to build up a new socialist economy. We know perfectly well the difficulties that confront us in this work; but we assert that only those who set to work to carry out this task relying on the experience and the instinct of the working people are socialists in deed. The people will commit many mistakes, but the main thing has been done. They know that when they appeal to Soviet power they will get whole-hearted support against the exploiters. There is not a single measure intended to ease their work that was not entirely supported by Soviet power. Soviet power does not know everything and cannot handle everything in time, and very often it is confronted with difficult tasks. Very often delegations of workers and peasants come to the government and ask, for example, what to do with such-and-such a piece of land. And frequently I myself have felt embarrassed when I saw that they had no very definite views. And I said to them: you are the power, do all you want to do, take all you want, we shall support you, but take care of production, see that production is useful. Take up useful work, you will make mistakes, but you will learn. And the workers have already begun to learn; they have already begun to fight against the saboteurs. Education has been turned into a fence which hinders the advance of the working classes; it will be pulled down.

    1. Or on the state bank:

      The big banks are the ‘state apparatus’ we need for bringing about socialism, and which we take ready-made from capitalism; our task here is merely to lop off what capitalistically distorts this excellent apparatus, to make it still bigger, still more democratic, still more all-embracing. Quantity will be transformed into quality. A single State Bank, the biggest of the biggest, with branches in every volost, in every factory, will already be nine-tenths of the socialist apparatus. That will be nation-wide bookkeeping, nation-wide accounting of the production and distribution of goods, that will be, so to speak, something in the nature of the skeleton of socialist society (Collected Works, vol 21, p. 260).

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