The success of the USSR: The power of urban and rural workers

Unfortunately, it is still fashionable is some parts of the global Left to write off the USSR, especially the period under Stalin. So it is useful to remind ourselves of what was achieved. Here are some details from the report to the 16th congress in 1930, after a decade of furious transformation and unleashing of productive forces. Note that all this was achieved in less than 10 years:

In the advanced capitalist countries the share of the exploiting classes in the national income is about 50 per cent and even more, here, in the USSR, the share of the exploiting classes in the national income is not more than 2 per cent.

This, properly speaking, explains the striking fact that in the United States in 1922, according to the American bourgeois writer Denny “one per cent of estate holders owned 59 per cent of the total wealth,” and in Britain, in 1920-21, according to the same Denny “less than two per cent of the owners held 64 per cent of the total wealth” (see Denny’s book America Conquers Britain).

Can such things happen in our country, in the USSR, in the Land of Soviets? Obviously, they cannot. There have long been no “owners” of this kind in the USSR, nor can there be any.

But if in the USSR, in 1929-30, only about two per cent of the national income falls to the share of the exploiting classes, what happens to the rest, the bulk of the national income?

Obviously, it remains in the hands of the workers and working peasants.

There you have the source of the strength and prestige of the Soviet regime among the vast masses of the working class and peasantry.

There you have the basis of the systematic improvement in the material welfare of the workers and peasants of the USSR.

In the light of these decisive facts, one can quite understand the systematic increase in the real wages of the workers, the increase in the workers’ social insurance budget, the increased assistance to poor- and middle-peasant farms, the increased assignments for workers’ housing, for the improvement of the workers’ living conditions and for mother and child care, and, as a consequence, the progressive growth of the population of the USSR and the decline in mortality, particularly in infant mortality.

It is known, for example, that the real wages of the workers, including social insurance and allocations from, profits to the fund for improvement of the workers living conditions, have risen to 167 per cent of the pre-war level. During the past three years, the workers social insurance budget alone has grown from 980,000,000 rubles in 1927-28 to 1,400,000 000 rubles in 1929-30. The amount spent on mother and child care during the past three years (1929-30) was 494,000,000 rubles. The amount spent on pre-school education (kindergartens, playgrounds, etc.) during the same period was 204,000,000 rubles. The amount spent on workers’ housing was 1,880,000,000 rubles.

All this taken together, plus the introduction of the seven-hour day for over 830,000 industrial workers (33.5 per cent), plus the introduction of the five-day week for over a million and a half industrial workers (63.4 per cent), plus the extensive network of rest homes, sanatoria and health resorts for workers, to which more than 1,700,000 workers have gone during the past three years-all this creates conditions of work and life for the working class that enable us to rear a new generation of workers who are healthy and vigorous, who are capable of raising the might of the Soviet country to the proper level and of protecting it with their lives from attacks by its enemies. (Applause.)

As regards assistance to the peasants, both individual and collective-farm peasants, and bearing in mind also assistance to poor peasants, this in the past three years (1927-28 — 1929-30) has amounted to a sum of not less than 4,000,000,000 rubles, provided in the shape of credits and assignments from the state budget. As is known, assistance in the shape of seeds alone has been granted the peasants during the past three years to the amount of not less than 154,000,000 poods.

It is not surprising that the workers and peasants in our country are living fairly well on the whole, that general mortality has dropped 36 per cent, and infant mortality 42.5 per cent, below the pre-war level, while the annual increase in population in our country is about three million. (Applause.)

As regards the cultural conditions of the workers and peasants, in this sphere too we have some achievements, which, however, cannot under any circumstances satisfy us, as they are still small. Leaving out of account workers’ clubs of all kinds, village reading rooms, libraries and abolition of illiteracy classes, which this year are being attended by 10,500,000 persons, the situation as regards cultural and educational matters is as follows. This year elementary schools are being attended by 11,638,000 pupils; secondary schools – 1,945,000; industrial and technical, transport and agricultural schools and classes for training workers of ordinary skill—333,100; secondary technical and equivalent trade schools—238,700; colleges, general and technical – 190,400. All this has enabled us to raise literacy in the USSR to 62.6 per cent of the population, compared with 33 per cent in pre-war times.

The chief thing now is to pass to universal, compulsory elementary education. I say the “chief” thing, because this would be a decisive step in the cultural revolution. And it is high time we took this step, for we now possess all that is needed to organise compulsory, universal elementary education in all areas of the USSR.

Stalin, Works, volume 12, pp. 304-8.

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).

Socialist economics: the secret to Soviet success in World War II?

What was the deep source of Soviet success during the Second World War? A number of obvious factors played a role, such as Stalin’s leadership, excellent generals, German mistakes, tough discipline, good morale, and deal of luck. But underlying it all, as Geoffrey Roberts points out, was ‘a tremendous economic and organisational achievement’ (Stalin’s Wars, p. 163).

To set the scene: by the time of the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, the Germans occupied more than half of European Russia, about two million square kilometres. It was an area containing 40 per cent of the USSR’s population, about 80 million people. The occupied area covered 50 per cent of the USSR’s cultivated land, the production of 70 per cent of its pig iron, 60 per cent of its coal and steel and 40 per cent of its electricity. Still, by the end of 1942, the production of rifles had increased fourfold (to 6 million) compared to the previous year. Tank and artillery production increased fivefold to 24,500 and 287,000 per annum. The number of aeroplanes produced more than doubled from 8,200 to 21,700.

How was this possible? Roberts writes that it was due to the mass relocation of Soviet industry to the eastern USSR and out of harm’s way in 1941-2. One of Stalin’s first instructions after Hitler invaded was the establishment of an evacuation committee that arranged the move of more than 1,500 large industries to the east. With them went hundreds of thousands of workers and thereby the single most significant wave of resettlement in Siberia. It is not for nothing that you find cities in Siberia of more than a million people. On top of this, 3,500 new industries were established, most of them related to wartime production. It is no wonder that by the time of the battle of Stalingrad, the Soviets were able to field 90 fresh divisions, fully equipped with new weapons. Or indeed that after losing almost 5 million soldiers in the first months of Hitler’s invasion, they were able to field 11 million the following year. One million of those were women.

Initially, Roberts is in two minds on this achievement. He tends to sit on the fence, relating debates about wartime ‘free enterprise’ versus the planned economy. He mentions western aid (much emphasised in European and American accounts), but points out that it amounted to no more than 10 per cent of the total economy and that it came largely after the dire threat of 1941-2 and after victory at Stalingrad. In the end he comes down on the side of the planned economy. Stalin emphasised the need to keep the armies properly supplied, but otherwise he left the job to his economic managers. And they could do so only by means of ‘the mobilisation power of the Soviet economy’ (p. 163).

But what was that economy? Given the energetic collectivisation of farming in the late 1920s and 1930s and the Five Year Plans of industrialisation and economic transformation, the result was as full a communist economic system as one is likely to find. Does this mean that only a planned, communist economic system could have pulled it off? At the time, it seems so.

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.