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.


Is life better under communism? On the economic crisis in post-Soviet states

Never waste a good economic crisis.

The problem is that the Right has been making hay in the latest one, especially in Eastern Europe. Faced with the vestiges of public assets – public transport, medecine, education and so on – the Right has aggressively offered the spurious claim that these are the source of ‘sovereign debt’ and has been jumping in to turn these dreadfully unprofitable ventures into sources of profit. And what better way than to force the sale of those public assets to your cronies in organised crime the business world. But it turns out to be the latest phase in a consistent assault of over two decades.

As Rossen Vassilev points out in ‘The Tragic Failure of “Post-Communism” in Eastern Europe‘ (10 March 2011):

In Romania:

Romania is mired in a severe recession and its battered economy is expected to decline by at least 2% in 2010, after contracting by 7.1% the previous year. Instead of trying to assist the unemployed and the socially weak, the Bucharest government, which is reportedly riddled with corruption, cronyism and nepotism, has slashed public-sector pay by one-quarter and trimmed all social expenditures, including heating subsidies for the poor as well as unemployment, maternity, and disability benefits. At the same time, the national sales tax was hiked from 19% to 24%, as the authorities are striving to hold the national deficit down to 6.8% in order to meet the stringent fiscal requirements of the European Union (EU), which Rumania had joined in January 2007.

In the Czech Republic:

20,000 hospital doctors were quitting their jobs en masse to protest the decision of Prime Minister Petr Necas’s cabinet to cut all public expenditures, including healthcare spending, by at least 10% in order to keep the country’s troubled finances afloat. These mass resignations were part of the “Thanks, We Are Leaving” campaign launched by disgruntled physicians across the country aimed at putting pressure on the Prague authorities to increase their low wages and provide better working conditions for all medical workers. Confronted with the worst healthcare crisis in the ex-Communist country’s history which was endangering the lives of many patients, the Czech government threatened to impose a state of emergency which would force doctors either to get back to work or face harsh legal and financial penalties.

In Latvia:

Latvia’s conservative government borrowed heavily from the EU and IMF on punishing repayment terms that have imposed such harsh austerity policies that the Latvian economy shrank by 25% (neighboring Estonia and Lithuania have experienced an equally steep economic decline) and unemployment, currently running at 22%, is still rising. With well over a tenth of its population now working abroad, Latvia’s guest-workers send home whatever they can spare to help their destitute families survive. Latvian children (what few of them there are as the Baltic country’s marriage and birth rates are plunging) have been thus “left orphaned behind,” prompting social scientists to wonder how this small nation of 2.3 million people can survive demographically. These are the results of post-Communist austerity budgets that have cut ordinary people off at the knees while international creditors and local bankers are bailed out.

In Bulgaria:

Official statistics show that both the annual gross national product (GNP) and the per capita income of the population have plummeted, the social-safety net has disintegrated, and even the physical survival of many impoverished Bulgarians is in peril. The immediate effects of market-oriented “reforms” have been the destruction of Bulgaria’s industry and agriculture, unemployment, inflation, flagrant inequality of incomes, crushing poverty, and even malnutrition. Organized crime and endemic corruption in the form of nepotism and cronyism, graft on the job, embezzlement, bribe-taking, influence-peddling, smuggling, protection rackets, illegal gambling, prostitution and pornography rings have exacted a heavy toll on post-Communist living standards and livelihoods. Another unfortunate effect is the widespread neglect of the economic and social rights of ordinary Bulgarians, for many of whom the 8-hour work day is now only a memory.

Right across ex-Soviet countries the story is the same:

Sharp government cutbacks in social welfare, education, healthcare, public transportation, and other basic social-infrastructure spending threaten to undermine economic security, long-term development, and political stability across the ex-Soviet bloc countries, young people are emigrating in droves to better their lives rather than suffer in an economy without any employment opportunities. The citizens of the ex-Communist nations now have to pay out of their own pockets for all previously free, government-provided medical services even though they also have to pay income, real-estate, and sales taxes—something they did not have to do under the Communist regimes. There is also the monetization and/or privatization of the previously free educational services, especially in higher education and the new private schools, colleges, and universities where students have to pay for their training, including many fees that each student must pay for taking entrance exams and other mandatory tests required at every level of schooling. Government subsidies for everything from healthcare, education, and legal representation to housing, energy, and public transportation are disappearing in the scramble to slash social spending and trim budget deficits, making it even harder for ordinary people to survive in their daily struggle for existence.

Who has gained from all this?

A new breed of rapacious and ruthless plutocrats with insatiable appetites for wealth and power has pillaged—through an unjust and corrupt process of privatization—the assets of the formerly state-owned economy.

In other words, capitalism as usual.

The upshot:

Nearly all of these twenty-eight Eurasian countries have experienced a long-term economic decline of catastrophic proportions (only Poland has thus far surpassed its Communist-era GDP). Grave economic setbacks, deep-rooted corruption, and widespread popular frustration with the hardships and deprivations of the seemingly endless post-Communist transition are undermining the prestige of the new authorities and even the population’s belief in Western-style democracy and market-based capitalism.

So is communism really better than this? As a 68-year old retired Romanian mechanic said:

I regret the demise of Communism—not for me, but when I see how much my children and grandchildren struggle. We had safe jobs and decent salaries under Communism. We had enough to eat and we had yearly vacations with our children.

In another time and in the same place, Lenin and the communists turned an economic crisis in a very different direction.

(ht tp)

Lenin in Siberia

I have just completed the 600-page work by Lenin called The Development of Capitalism in Russia (vol 3 of the Collected Works), written while he was in exile in Shushenskoye village in eastern Siberia. Nothing like ‘exile’ for some productive work! Before a few wayward comments on this text, I realised when reading it that I have been in this area, on the Trans-Siberian train. Shushenskoye is in the region of Krasnoyarsk and that city is a stop on the railway line. It’s a long way from Petersburg:

Here’s the house, or rather shack, in which he lived for three years, from 1897-1900:

And today:

Not bad, really, although it gets a little chilly in winter:

Not quite the same village, but you get the picture.

But travelling through the area, it strikes you that the infamous ‘exile’ to Siberia, often for mere misdemeanours, was actually a large-scale resettlement program. Begun in the 18th century, the populous west was encouraged by whatever means to move to the sparsely-populated east. For example, during World War Two, whole populations, industries and universities were moved to Siberia, out of harm’s way and a big boon for resettlement. The result: in 1709 the total population was 230,000; now it is over 36 million. And cities such as Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Omsk and Perm  have populations of a million or more each.

As for the book, it covers in very sober detail (minus Lenin’s usual polemic and love of exclamations) the shifts in agriculture, handicraft and manufacturing that manifest the growth of capitalist relations. I must admit to being intrigued by discussions of the ‘melon crisis’, ‘pulling squirrels’, Lacanian-style diagrams, the measuring of horse-shit in ‘poods’ (as a feature of the economy), and the tendency to classify peasants as no-horse, one-horse or many-horse, so much so that he uses the intriguing term ‘horse employments’.

But above all a very Hegelian Lenin appears in this book, even before he had systematically studied Hegel (he knew Marx back-to-front by this stage). Hegelian? Like a bass-line, an underlying dialectical theme keeps re-emerging: capitalism is the best and worst thing that happened to Russia. So we find statements like:

Capitalism for the first time broke down these purely medieval barriers – and it was a very good thing that it did (p. 316).

Alongside assessments of working conditions:

People have to work in a stifling atmosphere filled with the harmful vapours emanating from accumulated horse-dung (p. 420).

The agricultural workers … travel on foot, since they lack the money for a rail fare … The journey takes from 10 to 12 days, and after such a long tramp (sometimes undertaken barefoot in the cold spring mud), the travellers’ feet swell and become calloused and bruised (p. 242).

How to make sense of such a contradiction?

Recognition of the progressiveness of this role is quite compatible (as we have tried to show in detail at every stage in our exposition of the facts) with the full recognition of the negative and dark sides of capitalism, with the full recognition of the profound and all-round social contradictions which are inevitably inherent in capitalism (p. 596).

Wouldn’t be bad reading in today’s Russia, it seems to me, although a post-script would need to be added on the transition from communism back to capitalism…

Lenin’s immediate theoretical targets in the book are the Narodniks, liberal romantics who saw the development of capitalism as completely evil. These Narodniks stressed the uniqueness of Russian history (which Lenin counters), the evils of multi-national industry, the value of small producers, communal bonds in villages and towns, the attachment of people to place, the great boon of cottage industries and mutual co-operation between master and servant. In short, they espouse locality, family, moral economy, virtuous elites and common popular customs – just like Alasdair Maclagan and the Red Tories.

The European Exception

The European tendency to make the constitutive exception a key philosophical concept gives voice to the semi-conscious awareness that Europe itself is an anomaly in world history. It may be Freud’s unconscious, Lacan’s Real or objet petit a, Žižek’s dialectical inversions, Badiou’s event, Benjamin’s or Jameson’s rupture, Agamben’s exception or Negri’s kairos, or … (fill in the blank), but they all trade on the constitutive exception. I would suggest that this is an ideological trace of history itself. For, as Diakonov argued in his little read The Paths of History, European economic history is an anomaly in terms of world history, a crucial anomaly, but an anomaly nonetheless. However, this constitutive exception has also produced a fundamental problem, if not a gross error, for the European path has been taken as the norm of world history. Only now, with Europe and its satellites trying to hang onto a mythical golden age now suddenly in the past, is Diakonov’s insight being realised.