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.
Was there a goal 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 always a work in progress:
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).
As part of his typology of useless Bolsheviks, Stalin speaks of the bureaucrat, the red-tapist, the big-wig and the wind-bag. Here is the characterisation of the windbag:
I have in mind the windbags, I would say honest windbags (laughter), people who are honest and loyal to the Soviet power, but who are incapable of leadership, incapable of organising anything. Last year I had a conversation with one such comrade, a very respected comrade, but an incorrigible windbag, capable of drowning any live undertaking in a flood of talk. Here is the conversation:
I: How are you getting on with the sowing?
He: With the sowing, Comrade Stalin? We have mobilised ourselves. (Laughter.)
I: Well, and what then?
He: We have put the question squarely. (Laughter.)
I: And what next?
He: There is a turn, Comrade Stalin; soon there will be a turn. (Laughter.)
I: But still?
He: We can see an indication of some improvement. (Laughter.)
I: But still, how are you getting on with the sowing?
He: So far, Comrade Stalin, we have not made any headway with the sowing. (General laughter.)
There you have the portrait of the windbag. They have mobilised themselves, they have put the question squarely, they have a turn and some improvement, but things remain as they were. (Works, vol. 13, pp. 378-79)
In 1929, Elena Mikulina published a work called Emulation of the Masses and Stalin provided a forward. The work was written by a young, unknown writer, and caused many among the intelligentsia to mock the work. In reply, Stalin writes (with a biblical allusion or two):
We have hundreds and thousands of young and capable people who are striving with might and main to rise to the surface and contribute their mite to the common treasury of our work of construction. But their efforts are often unavailing, because they are very often kept down by the vanity of the literary “lights,” by the bureaucracy and callousness of some of our organisations, and, lastly, by the envy (which has not yet evolved into emulation) of men and women of their own generation. One of our tasks is to break down this blank wall and to give scope to the young forces, whose name is legion. My foreword to an inconsiderable pamphlet by an author unknown in the literary world is an attempt to take a step towards accomplishing this task. I shall in the future, too, provide forewords only to simple and unassuming pamphlets by simple and unknown authors belonging to the younger forces. It is possible that this procedure may not be to the liking of some of the snobs. But what do I care? I have no fondness for snobs anyhow . . . (Works, vol. 12, p. 120)
I am reading a fascinating interview of Stalin, made by Emil Ludwig on 13 December, 1931. The interviewer asks some searching questions and draws out of Stalin some revealing answers and even contradictions. The interview begins with this question concerning Peter the Great:
Ludwig: Today, here in the Kremlin, I saw some relics of Peter the Great and the first question I should like to ask you is this: Do you think a parallel can be drawn between yourself and Peter the Great? Do you consider yourself a continuer of the work of Peter the Great?
Stalin: In no way whatever. Historical parallels are always risky. There is no sense in this one.
Ludwig: But after all, Peter the Great did a great deal to develop his country, to bring western culture to Russia.
Stalin: Yes, of course, Peter the Great did much to elevate the landlord class and develop the nascent merchant class. He did very much indeed to create and consolidate the national state of the landlords and merchants. It must be said also that the elevation of the landlord class, the assistance to the nascent merchant class and the consolidation of the national state of these classes took place at the cost of the peasant serfs, who were bled white.
As for myself, I am just a pupil of Lenin’s, and the aim of my life is to be a worthy pupil of his. The task to which I have devoted my life is the elevation of a different class-the working class. That task is not the consolidation of some “national” state, but of a socialist state, and that means an international state; and everything that strengthens that state helps to strengthen the entire international working class. If every step I take in my endeavor to elevate the working class and strengthen the socialist state of this class were not directed towards strengthening and improving the position of the working class, I should consider my life purposeless.
So you see your parallel does not fit.
As regards Lenin and Peter the Great, the latter was but a drop in the sea, whereas Lenin was a whole ocean.
Works, volume 13, pp. 106-7.