Sunday, January 26, 2014

News and views about Russia (1919)

Book Review from the July 1919 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Six Weeks in Russia in 1919" by Arthur Ransome. (Paper, 2s. 6d. I.L.P., S.L.P., and George Allen & Unwin, Ltd.)

This interesting work by an observer who has recently returned from Russia consists of a series of short sketches descriptive of the situation there during February and part of March this year.

The position of our Party in relation to the Russian insurrection receives in this book a good of justification. Much of the work consists of interesting though brief accounts of the personalities of prominent characters in the revolt, and their opinions upon various phases of the situation confronting them.

The industrial difficulties which face the Bolsheviks are dealt with, but so also are the valiant efforts being made to overcome them. Railways and roads are under construction; the Baltic-Volga canal system has been improved to admit the movement of large ships; power-stations on a peat fuel basis are in process of building, and improvements in textile production have been made enabling the utilisation of the abundant supply of flax which is available. There is a great shortage of transport, fuel, and food, but the last two items have become more plentiful since the acquisition of the Ukrainian supplies.

In the control of industrial establishments technical and managing experts are appointed by a central authority instead of being, as formerly, elected by workers in the concern—an important modification.

The most important problem in Russia, is, however, that of agriculture, and this is, unfortunately, all too briefly dealt with. One thing is made clear—the utter impossibility of land socialisation for a long period to come is now recognised by the Soviet Government. Let us quote Ransome:
In the afternoon I met Sereda, the Commissar of Agriculture. He insisted that their agrarian policy had been much misrepresented by their enemies for the purpose of agitation. They had no intention of any such idiocy as the attempt to force the peasants to give up private ownership. The establishment of communes was not to be compulsory in any way; it was to be an illustrative means of propaganda of the idea of communal work, not more. The main task before them was to raise the standard of Russian agriculture, which under the old system was extremely low. By working many of the old estates on a communal system with the best possible methods they hoped to do two things at once: to teach the peasant to realise the advantage of communal labour, and to show him that he could himself get a very great deal more out of his land than he does. "In other ways also we are doing everything we can to give direct help to the small agriculturists. We have mobilised all the agricultural experts of the country. We are issuing a mass of simply written pamphlets explaining better methods of farming." (Page 99-100. Italics mine.)
According to some of our critics the Russian moujik needs neither force nor persuasion to acquiesce in the socialisation of the land, but those in Russia know different. Philips Price, in his pamphlet "Capitalist Europe and Socialist Russia," tells us that: "the decree on land, issued by the Bolshevik Council of the People's Commissaries, instantly quieted the peasants. They knew that the land would indeed be theirs if the land committees, which they controlled, had the handling of it." But, we may add, "theirs" in a different sense from that the Bolsheviks intended, for on January 23rd, 1918, they passed the new land law which declared, according to Price, "All private property in land, minerals, water, forests, and the forces of Nature within the limits of the Republic are abolished for ever, and "the land without any compensation to the owners (open or hidden) becomes the property of the whole people to be used for objects of common utility." (Italics mine.)

How does this decree square with the statement of Sereda as to the non-interference with private peasant property? This is one instance of what Ransome in more than one place refers to, namely, that many of the fine sounding Soviet decrees exist largely or wholly on paper owing to the difficulty of enforcing them: "the spirit is willing" but the materials are damned rotten.

Does not the idea of model communes and propaganda pamphlets remind us of the work of Owen, Cabet, and the other Utopians who hoped to banish capitalism by "good examples"; by demonstrating the "superiority" of communism with "model factories" and co-operative colonies. Of course the conditions are vastly different, for the experiments in Russia are undertaken with the assistance of the State authority, but even so, to convince tens of millions of semi-barbarian, grossly superstitious, illiterate and intensely conservative peasants by such means is a colossal, an insuperable, task.

Ransome reports the continuation of his conversation:
I told Sereda I had heard that the peasants were refusing to sow more than they wanted for their own needs. He said that on the contrary the latest reports gave them the right to hope for a greater sown area this year than ever before, and that even more would have been sown if Denmark had not been prevented from letting them have the seed for which they had actually paid. I put the same question to him that I put to Nogin as to what they most needed; he replied "Tractors." (Page 100.) 
The first part of Sereda's statement looks like an exaggeration. It probably means more has been sown than during the past four years, which should be pretty obvious seeing that the millions of peasants drawn from production for the Imperial army completely disorganised agriculture and almost brought it to a standstill. But if Sereda means literally what he says: "more than ever before," this would not be surprising, for after centuries of impoverishment both in land and products, the poorer peasants would indeed be fools if they did not use to the full their present opportunity to raise their level of subsistence.

But really Sereda's evasive reply does not settle Ransome's pertinent query at all. The point is, can the Soviet Government assure a constant and automatic supply of agricultural products as food and raw material whilst retaining the system of peasant farming and, at the same time, socialising the industries of the towns?

Sereda's last point is significant—"Tractors." Without machinery, and the consequent abolition of the primitive, individually used tools of production true socialisation is impossible. The manufacture or importation of agricultural machinery in sufficient quantities and its practical use embodying the destruction of the traditional mode of production and social relations in Russian rural life is the only solution—and this will take years to accomplish.

In an account of a conversation with Lenin Ransome says:
We talked then of the antipathy of the peasants to compulsory Communism, and how that idea had also considerably whittled away. I asked him what were going to the the relations between the Communists of the towns and the property-loving peasants, and whether there was not great danger of antipathy between them, and said I regretted leaving too soon to see the elasticity of the Communist theories tested by the inevitable pressure of the peasantry.
Lenin said that in Russia there was a pretty sharp distinction between the rich peasants and the poor. "The only opposition we have here in Russia is directly or indirectly due to the rich peasants. The poor, as soon as they are liberated from the political domination of the rich, are on our side and are in an enormous majority." I said that would not be so in the Ukraine, where property among the peasants is much more evenly distributed. (Lenin) "No. And there, in the Ukraine, you will certainly see our policy modified. Civil War, whatever happens, is likely to be more bitter in the Ukraine than elsewhere, because there the instinct of property has been further developed in the peasantry, and the minority and majority will be more equal. (Pp. 150-151.)
Now, without pretending to any detailed knowledge of the situation, is not the support of the poor and the opposition of the rich peasantry due to the fact that the Bolsheviks support the aspirations of the poor peasants for larger allotments even at the expense of the richer peasants, and that the latter are prevented from employing wage labourers and thus cultivating and making a profit upon whatever surplus land was them, in addition to having to bear a heavy taxation? The support of the poor peasants does not mean they are in favour of land socialisation, but that they have received land from the Soviet regime which was hitherto denied them, as well as backing against their would-be exploiters.

It has been repeatedly stated in this journal that the Bolsheviks do not draw their power from a class-conscious working class. The above bears evidence of that, but Mr. Ransome's book contains even more definite information on the point. He states that the discontent engendered by hunger and cold was so great and widespread, though unorganised, that the non-Bolshevik parties could, were they not afraid of reactionary invasion, use it with such effect as to overthrow the Communist Party. Now were the workers conscious supporters of Communism it is obvious that they would easily recognise their impoverishment to be due to causes outside the control of any political party, and that neither the Social Democratic reformers nor the Socialist Revolutionary Anarchists can materially alleviate their hardship. The evidence, on the contrary, shows that the Bolsheviks have proved far better organisers politically and economically than any of their predecessors in power, and that whatever improvement has occured is, in a measure, due to them.

Most of the Bolshevik leaders seem to think that England is on the verge of a Socialist revolution, and Lenin in an amusing sentence quoted by Ransome declared that "Ramsay Macdonald will try to (stop it) at the last minute." We here, however, know only too painfully how mistaken the Russian revolutionaries are. Let those who think it possible for a minority of workers here to seize political power in the way the Bolsheviks successfully adopted in Russia, ponder over the words of Meshtcheriskov, quoted by Mr. Ransome on page 58 of his book. This old Siberian exile, who has recently visited England, says:
In the West, if there is revolution, they will use artillery at once, and wipe out whole districts. The governing classes in the West are determined and organised in a way our home-grown capitalists never were. The autocracy never allowed them to organise, so, when the autocracy itself fell, our task was comparatively easy. There was nothing in the way. It will not be like that in Germany. 
The suppression and massacre of the Spartacists in Berlin, Munich, and elsewhere in Germany proved this judgement correct.

Let the revolutionary workers of this country continue their urgent task of agitation, education, and organisation for the day when, having full control of the armed forces of society through the only source of that power—the State machinery—they will be enabled to handle in no uncertain fashion the pro-slavery revolt of the present ruling parasites and their allies, and proceed with the only method of proletarian emancipation, the ownership and control by the community of the means of life.
R. W. Housley. 


Neither Keynes nor Hayek (2011)

The Cooking the Books column from the October 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 26 July Paul Mason, economics editor of the Tonight programme, chaired a debate at the London School of Economics between supporters of the doctrine of J. M. Keynes (1883-1946) and those of F. A. von Hayek (1899-1992). The Keynesians were represented by Keynes’s biographer, Lord Skidelsky, and an economist working for an international trade union federation; the Hayekians by George Selgin, professor at an American business school, and Jamie White, an eccentric philosopher. The debate was later broadcast on BBC Radio4 and is available as a podcast.

Lord Skidelsky explained Keynes’s basic argument that once capitalism had got itself into a slump there was no automatic mechanism to bring about a recovery; on the contrary, without government intervention to sustain and increase spending, the economy would tend towards an equilibrium position well below full employment. At the start of the 1930’s slump Hayek had advocated “liquidate everything” – let failing businesses and banks go under – but, Skidelsky said, you can’t cut your way out of a slump.

Jamie White, who is rather more than a Hayekian (more an anarcho-capitalist), said that Hayek was right to have advocated liquidation as the way out of a slump; the businesses that survived would be more efficient and their investments would lead the recovery. To the applause of the claque of Hayekians in the audience, he said that Roosevelt’s spending policies had only prolonged the depression of the 1930s. You can’t spend your way out of a slump, he said, as had been shown in the 1970s and was being demonstrated again now.

The American business professor said that Keynes had had no theory as to why capitalism got into a slump in the first place. Hayek had; it was that government monetary policy promoting cheap credit encouraged an artificial boom which led businesses to invest in activities that were not sustainable and which would sooner or later collapse. This had happened in the 1920s and was the cause of the present slump when “over-investment” in housing and finance collapsed. Once this situation had been reached the only way out was to let liquidation take its course. There was no painless exit from a slump caused by an unsustainable boom bursting. The only way to avoid a slump was to avoid the preceding boom by not allowing the government to pursue a lax monetary policy. And the way to do this was to abolish central banking and let the market determine interest rates and bank loans.

It is true that Keynes had no truly coherent theory as to why capitalism got into slumps from time to time. On the other hand, the purely monetary explanation offered by Hayek is inadequate. Slumps are indeed caused by “over-investment” leading to overproduction but this comes about through the anarchic pursuit of profits that is part of capitalism. When a boom is underway the market is expanding; competing businesses assume that they will benefit from this and plan to expand their production; in the end production expands more than the market, resulting in overproduction, a financial crisis and then a slump.

When it comes to how to get out of a slump, the Hayekians have a point. Inefficient businesses have to be eliminated. Marx made the same point but from a different position, seeing slumps as part of a boom/slump cycle that was built-in to capitalism, as periods during which, precisely, unprofitable businesses were eliminated as a condition for capital accumulation to resume.

Unlike both the Hayekians (who say slumps can be avoided by governments adopting a laissez-faire monetary policy) and the Keynesian (who say that appropriate state intervention can end the boom/slump cycle), Marx held that there was no formula for steady growth without booms and slumps. For him these were endemic to capitalism, being in fact its “law of motion”.  They will keep on recurring as long as capitalism does and there is nothing governments could do to stop this.

Nationalism and Destruction in the Balkans (2014)

Film Review from the January 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

We review a recent film about the break-up of Yugoslavia.
'The Weight of Chains', a documentary written and directed by Boris Malagurski (2010)
‘Who in their right mind would actually want to be a colony? ‘So begins The Weight of Chains, a documentary written and directed by Boris Malagurski (2010) which argues that the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s was orchestrated by Western powers in furtherance of imperial ambitions. Director Boris Malagurski, hailed by the Belgrade press as the ‘Serbian Michael Moore’, claims his film ‘takes a critical look at the role that the US, NATO and the EU played in the tragic breakup of a once-peaceful and prosperous European state’.
The film is narrated by Malagurski himself and begins with a whirlwind history of Yugoslavia: the country was first established as a kingdom in 1918, and encompassed people of various religions and ethnicities, including Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosnians (all of Slavic extraction), as well as sizeable Hungarian and Albanian minorities. The country was reorganised as a federation of six national republics in 1943, the Titoist ruling party opting for an economic model which mixed state and private ownership of capital. By the 1970s Yugoslavia came to enjoy levels of social and economic prosperity which rivalled even many of its avowedly capitalist neighbours.
The historical background thus set, Malagurski pinpoints the beginning of Yugoslavia’s decline to the early 1980s, when it took out an IMF loan to shore up its waning economy. Around the same time, Ronald Reagan issued a secret memo, National Security Decision Directive 133, which committed the US to widen its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe by aggressively promoting Western-style market capitalism in Yugoslavia. US-sponsored NGOs promptly began funding Yugoslavian opposition groups, journalists, free-market economists, and trade union activists. By the late 1980s, this ideological groundwork had paved the way for ‘privatisation through liquidation’: US-guided Yugoslavian bankers and legislators started implementing monetary and economic reforms which triggered the bankruptcy of thousands of state-run firms. This, explains Malagurski, deepened the state’s massive debt and led to runaway inflation and unemployment, cuts to welfare spending, and tension between the subnational governments. Foreign speculators snapped up failed companies at rock-bottom prices, and the federal government, cut off from further foreign credit, was forced to accede to American demands for ‘free’ multiparty elections in the constituent republics.
Lured by the promise of Western favour and financing for their individual republics, regional politicians sowed the seeds of ethnic discord; these in turn were eagerly cultivated by the impoverished workers who were searching desperately for someone to blame for their sudden misfortune. Malagurski aptly shows how the ensuing nationalist secessions brought their leaders into open and often very bloody military conflict over land and resources.
If any of this sounds familiar, it should – long-term readers of the Standard will recognise this part of Malagurski’s analysis of the Yugoslavian breakup and ensuing wars as much the same one we have always presented. Like Malagurski, socialists eschew the ‘ancient hatreds’ theory which holds that interethnic hostility is biologically innate and genocidal violence preordained. Instead, we observe how a faction of the ruling elite, when confronted with rivals to its privileged position as owners and controllers, is compelled to enlist masses of the working class to defend that position. One way of rallying this support is to seize upon some unimportant characteristic – say, religion, language, or ethnicity – which the workers share with the ruling faction, but not with the workers of the rival faction. By exaggerating such differences and ignoring or obscuring the more important commonalities, leaders convince the workers that they share a common interest with their masters, and to happily march off to war in support of it.
By this point in the film, therefore, Malagurski has set things up wonderfully for a scathing indictment of nationalism, irredentism, and capitalist warmongering. Unfortunately, this indictment never comes: as it turns out, Malagurski is just another nationalist, albeit one pining for the ‘good old days’ of pre-breakup Yugoslavia (which, rather tellingly, he himself is far too young to remember). While he correctly surmises that the new ‘Bosnian’, ‘Kosovar’ and other national identities are largely artificial distinctions, invented or overinflated by their respective governments in order to win the support of their electorate and of foreign powers, he ignores the fact that the same was true of the even more artificial ‘Yugoslav’ national identity they supplanted.
In support of its pan-Yugoslav agenda, the film devotes considerable screen time to documenting how the political and economic leaders of the newly independent states enriched themselves at the expense of the common people. Malagurski explains how they did this by cutting back social programmes, skimming foreign investment funds, and selling off entire domestic industries to foreign concerns. But what he fails to establish is how any of this could have been prevented had Yugoslavia remained united, nor why foreign private ownership of industry is any worse for the workers than local private ownership. Russia, for example, emerged from the USSR with a strong national identity and a much greater proportion of its industry in local hands, though its workers also experienced widespread poverty and massive social cutbacks. Of course, even Titoist Yugoslavia was never the paragon of social and economic equality Malagurski seems to think it was. The Yugoslavian nomenklatura may have avoided the conspicuous consumption typical of Western capitalists, but it remained a privileged ruling class which was just as keen to enrich itself through exploitation of its workers.
Many of the film’s flimsier claims and arguments can be explained as the work of a naïve but well-meaning patriot, but others cannot be so innocently excused. For example, Malagurski outright denies that the ethnic minorities in Serbia were oppressed, conveniently omitting any mention of the mass protests and general strikes that led to the revocation of their political autonomy in the late 1980s. In another segment, he paints Bosnian president Alija Izetbegović as a rabid jihadist, quoting from a thirty-year old Islamist manifesto which the man had long since repudiated. Most controversially, he presents the infamous Srebrenica massacre as a ‘stage-managed’ ploy by the Bosnians and Americans to justify NATO military intervention against Serbia. Whatever the plausibility of this theory, it’s particularly distasteful how Malagurski trivialises the village’s civilian death toll as ‘no larger than the number of Serbs killed’ in the surrounding area, without any pretence of distinguishing between combatant and non-combatant deaths.
Given this it is not hard to see why Malagurski’s detractors accuse him of being a pro-Serb whitewasher and historical revisionist. Are they correct?  With so many of the post-breakup events still under active historical and criminal investigation, it’s hard to say for sure. But at least one thing about Malagurski is clear: for all the effort he spends exposing and decrying the dishonest propagandising which fuelled the Yugoslavian implosion, he certainly has no qualms employing many of the same tricks when it suits his own agenda. Whatever that agenda may be, the conclusion is that he has a very low estimation of the intelligence of his audience.