The Russian revolution 100 years on. Review: E.H. Carr “The Russian Revolution from Lenin to Stalin 1917-1929”

 

 

Introduction:

Carr devoted thirty years of his life to writing the fourteen volume, two million words and arguably the definitive history of Twentieth Century Russia. This is his magnum opus distilled into two hundred pages and it is an excellent introduction to anyone looking for a brief account of what transpired. Carr, like Hobsbawn but unlike say, Conquest, had a leftist political perspective which needs to be factored in when reading this. By his own admission, Carr changed his mind on elements of the history he had written once the horror of what occurred under Stalin began to emerge. Nonetheless, this remains an excellent account of the factual details of what transpired. I found Carr especially informative at explaining the economic history of the USSR, which is mainly what I will concentrate on here.

Understanding the economic impact that communism had seems to me to offer an objective way to analyse why, ultimately, the Russian Revolution failed. The fact remains that it was the myriad socialist and communist economic policies which led to the near ruination of Russia and millions of her people.

 Economic history:

In 1919, lots of Russian people frequently volunteered to work for free on what became known as “communist Saturdays”, underscoring the early sense of collective optimism felt around Russia. There was a general sense of goodwill as she tried to rebuild herself in the aftermath of the disaster of World War One and the political upheaval at the time.

When the Bolsheviks nationalised the banks, the economy crashed which should have acted as a warning to not rush into further nationalisation but because the economists and planners were so ideologically driven, it was not heeded. There followed a “catastrophic decline of industry” as etatism continued at breakneck pace. The Bolsheviks attempted to centralise all of the food that was produced meaning that the farmers could not keep any that they made to feed themselves and their families. This resulted in Moscow’s population declining by 44% and Petrograd’s by 57% as people travelled from the cities to the countryside to get food directly from the farmers. The government failed in its most basic responsibility to allocate and distribute the food that it had collected under the promise of redistribution. It seems so obvious that people must be given autonomy over what they produce and be allowed to control their fate. The notion of any State controlling every aspect of life is ludicrous. There was also a complete lack of management in the factories and food did not get produced efficiently enough. The idealistic sense of there not being a need for any management, as everyone in the factories would be equal, was also a recipe for disaster.

As the crisis deepened and the food shortages worsened, Lenin recognised that a compromise had to be made. The government controlling everything was impractical and impossible. Consequently, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was unveiled in 1921 which allowed peasants to keep enough of the food that they had produced and send the rest to the government.  The policy reaped immediate benefits and production began to stabilise. This is the most damning indictment there can be of socialism in its most extreme form. It can be argued that the famine and civil war were greater causes of the food shortage yet these were both ongoing during the rollout of the NEC so the question then becomes, why did this policy work by itself? It was the liberalisation of the NEC that was the variable that changed. 

The NEC caused a backlash with the ideological Russian left at the time as the Party had begun trading with Germany in 1922, initially buying tanks from them. The Bolsheviks believed that the whole world would eventually become socialist and so the fact that they had to do business with the evil capitalists in Germany irked many puritans within the party.  Lenin had to work hard to bring everyone on board. It is easy to judge 100 years on, but the thought of refusing to trade with another country because they were capitalist seems naive at best. 

The NEC managed to stabilise the economy but that was about all it achieved and this was never going to suffice.   By 1923, it was renamed the “new exploitation of the proletariat” by workers as union officials were paid a lot but workers toiled for next to nothing. Six years on from the Revolution and the workers were worse off than before it. 

 The Planned Economy from 1925 onwards:

I thought 1917 to 1925 was ideologically driven. Whew! There followed the birth and rise of the USSR. This was preceded by a battle between the “geneticists” who thought they could use all available data to plan out the economy and the “teleologists” who believed that they could bend the economy to their will.  Carr wrote that “in practice, the teleologists tended to reject the rules of a market economy, and claimed to override them by positive action; and this meant they paid less attention to the conciliation of the peasant”. In essence, the poorest people suffered the most because central planners willed it so. 

Whilst planning an economy as enormous as the Russian one, the planners completely lost sight of the individual. As it was ideologues and not economists organising society, “no planning target (became) too high to attain”. Ludicrous goals of between 25% and 100% were set in different areas of the economy. Therefore, “planning (became) a political and not purely an economic activity”. This gets to the nub of why the USSR failed. The targets that were set were too political and idealistic and ostracised any economists that were not of a similar mindset. 

The situation worsened when the Party began to completely control the means of production. This essentially “meant large investment in heavy industry which brought no immediate benefit”.  As a result, the workers had to build canals and roads and were not producing food for people to eat. They could barely struggle to feed the population when they were solely focused on food production so when they began to build the means of production too something had to give. The Party then faced the dilemma of whether or not “prices go up or wages come down”. In a capitalist society, the equipment would have been bought and leased by specific companies designed to do these jobs.  As it was, prices skyrocketed so they “tried to force down retail prices by decree”. This compelled people who made goods to trade them on the black market as they could get higher prices there. Sadly, we have not learned that most basic of economic lessons and we can see the same thing happening in Venezuela today.  The poorest suffer the most. This remains the tragic irony of communism. Despite the noblest of intentions, no government can impose its will upon the people. Coercing equality, no matter how lofty the aim, will not work. 

When the planners discovered that they had to get the workers to build systemic structures from which there was no tangible return, it lead to “Rationalisation”. Essentially, the Party had to get more with less. The Russian peasants and middle class “Kulaks” as they were known, began to be squeezed for more. It baffles me when I hear leftists use the term “Kulak” in modern parlance. Carr himself says that the term “became one of abuse”.  The same problem that had gnawed at communism from the outset began to rear its head again, namely that the “large collective unit was more likely to provide a surplus for the market than the individual peasant working primarily for the needs of himself and his family”. In other words, like it or loathe it, if you are a peasant and you know that every single bit of food that you produce will be forcibly removed to go towards the State, then what motivation do you have to produce excess? There is none. You will not produce more. If you know that your work will feed your family and you can sell the excess, then you have a reason to work harder. 

The planners had set capital growth at 110% whilst reducing costs by 40%. They increased wages and reduced prices. It does not take a PhD in economics to work out how that would pan out.  Interestingly, in 1929 the market collapsed across the Western economies and led to a great recession. Many at the time felt that Marx was right all along thus creating a false sense of confidence in the communist system that would lead to even more drastic consequences.

 Collectivisation:

It was not just the Kulaks who felt the squeeze. The peasants also bitterly resented having to hand over the means of production. On a practical level, it meant that they had to give their farmhouses, animals and tools over to the state for the greater good. You still hear modern Marxists opine about seizing the “means of production”. This is what it meant in Russia. You take from the poorest with the aim of the State dividing up the food for people. The mind boggles how seemingly intelligent people could not see the problem with “Collectivisation” and “seizing the means of production”.  The fact is that the ordinary peasants, who the Party claimed to represent in their fanciful “dictatorship of the proletariat” were the very people who “most resented the demand to hand over their animals. Many chose to slaughter these rather than hand them over”.

Collectivisation lead to the deaths of between 1 to 5 million people.

 This is the part that is critical to understand. It was not dictatorship or totalitarianism. It was the communist economic policy. Plain and simple.

In 1926, pre-collectivisation, the economy was 50% State owned and 50% privately owned. After the first five year plan, there was virtually no private enterprise.

 As the economy stumbled and people were working on building canals and railways, the Party realised that they had to demand more from the workers as there was less of them focused purely on the harvesting food. Once again, the weakest suffered the most. At this point, there was the option to liberalise the economy or use force to bend it to their will.  Sadly, the Party chose the latter option. As Anna Applebaum pointed out in her hauntingly insightful “Gulag: A History”, peasants and kulaks who refused to work “were taken most seriously of all. They ran counter to the entire ethos of the camp. After 1938 strikers were severely punished”. If you did not buy into the “Collectivisation” ethos, then you were thrown in the Gulag. Looking at the world now, it seems that the Nordic model is the way forward. Free market capitalism with a well-funded welfare State providing a safety net for people who cannot work.  As Carr noted, “the peasant – and not only the Kulak – was the victim of naked aggression”.

 Democracy:

Carr writes of the Bolsheviks that they “had no use for the Western principles of democracy and constitutional government”. This is why the Russian Revolution must be consigned to the dustbin of history and not lionised like some people still do today. Trotsky, for example, wrote in “Terrorism and Communism” that democracy was a “puerile illusion” and a “worthless masquerade”. He believed that the Party would speak for the working class. The conceit was obvious. Power can only come from the people. No doubt, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks had exquisite intentions. This did not give them the right to violently force their will on the Russian people.

Analysing the election results before the Bolsheviks took power is fascinating. In the election on 12th November 1917, the total leftist parties won 267 out of 520 seats in the Duma with the Bolsheviks winning 161 of these.  The people never wanted them. Knowing this, Lenin suspended all elections in January 1918.

At the first Communist International “Comintern”, Lenin “denounced bourgeois democracy and proclaimed the dictatorship of the proletariat” whilst Trotsky employed similar language in speeches he gave at the time. It is intriguing to read that some modern leftists still mythologise Lenin and Trotsky as their philosophy was not and is not compatible with democracy. They sneered at it. It remains a fact that the only way that we can legitimately organise ourselves as a species is through the will of the people in free and fair elections. Any deviation from this has the potential to result in the type of violent, despotic tyranny meted out to the innocent Russian people in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

Inevitably, people began to rebel, resulting in a long and bloody civil war. 1921 saw the infamous Kronstadt rebellion where the workers demanded free elections to the Soviet, freedom of speech, the right to elect a commission to review the fate of political prisoners and to equalise rations for workers etc.  All seemingly completely legitimate requests. On March 17th, 1921, the rebellion was brutally crushed and thousands of people were killed as the Bolsheviks deemed it acceptable to use force against their own people. It was Leon Trotsky who led the Red Army to quash the Kronstadt rebellion and famously exclaimed that the sailors were to be shot like partridges. People still cite Trotsky as a political influence in 2017. Ironically, when he was running for leadership of the Party in October 1923, he labeled the regime “unhealthy” and observed that it needed to be replaced with “Party democracy”. He thought democracy was important within the Party but not the country. Go figure. When this was not forthcoming, the obvious transpired. During the 1925 party congress, Stalin assumed power and immediately wrested control of the opposition newspaper, before proposing the removal of Trotsky and Zinoviev from the committee. This was “apparently carried out without a vote”.  Imagine the amount of lives that could have been saved it the Party and country were democratic.

 Conclusion

There is absolutely no doubt that the Russian Revolution was, as Carr points out, “the source of more profound and more lasting repercussions throughout the world than any other historical event of modern times”. The lessons are stark.

Planning an economy for a country and not giving autonomy to individuals in a society did not and does not work.

Democracy is an absolute must to prevent tyranny.

No violence must ever be used to control the citizens of any country.

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About Mick Gilbride

@orbital80
Aside | This entry was posted in 1917-2017, Book review, Books, communism, Democracy, E.H. Carr, History, Kronstadt rebellion, Leon Trotsky, Repression, russia, Russian Revolution, Stalin, Trying to make sense of it all, USSR, war, World War One and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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