A Short Story from the May 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard
It was a motley lot that boarded the Aeroflot jet for Moscow on April 13. There was the ex-Life-guardsman who bragged about sitting on his horse in Whitehall. Then the crazy little Spanish Communist waiter, who rushed around shrieking “These lousy Americans think they peeze da best Pale Ale’’. The dustman from Reading who had been in the National Front, then the SWP and now organises the CND in the local Conservative club. A lorry driver from Worthing. The daughter of Russian aristocratic exiles, born in China but now living in Sydney, talking more like Barry Humphries. A mixed-up American who was petrified “in case Reagan starts something while I’m still here”. Plus two Australian fellow-travellers, a retired Naval Officer, a pleasant young actor from the TV show Stalky & Co, a couple of retired teachers and two members of the SPGB, both with a reasonable command of colloquial Russian.
On reaching Moscow, our guide suddenly informed us that we were invited to a “round-table” discussion about the Soviet Union. The hall originally booked was unavailable and we were switched to the Karl Marx Museum, which gave us the chance to see the exhibits, which are unique. Two “experts” were there to enlighten us—the Russian Editor of Moscow News (the English Soviet Weekly) and a “sociologist”, apparently English. Little did they know that, before they were born, one of the Party members had lived in Moscow and the other had been there as a student.
The proceedings started off quietly enough. We were informed of the Soviet Union’s peaceful intentions. “Comrade” Brezhnev’s speech to the Russian Trade Union Congress, offering European arms limitation, was quoted. This brought further reference to the Russian Trade Union organisation. We were told it has two hundred million members and of its great achievements in organising production, protecting workers at work, and setting up Sanatoria and Sports Clubs.
The first break came with the question: “How can there be Trade Unions in a socialist society which, by definition, is classless?” This led to a series of “explanations” of the great difficulties Russia had faced, the disastrous effects of the war, the backwardness of parts of the economy, especially agriculture, and so on. Various members of the group then pointed out that Britain also has social security legislation; that the unemployed in Britain also get subsistence benefits; that in Britain Trade Unions also protect their members’ interests. The reporter then drew attention to what he called “workers control” in Soviet industry. The Russian factory manager, he claimed, was in an impossible position, between the devil of the requirements of the Plan and the deep blue sea of the workers’ demands. The Trade Union Committee discusses every aspect of the Plan and rejects what it does not like. “Why,” he proclaimed, “116 factory managers were sacked last year alone, as a result of trade union action ”.
This was the signal for a barrage of questions from the now thoroughly restive audience:
“How can the workers control production if the government does?”
“Are the workers allowed to go on strike?"
(“Well! No! there is no need to.”)
“Who appoints the factory managers?”
“Does the Communist Party control the trade unions?”
(“Only in the sense that they are the most active members.”)
“What about the obviously flourishing black market?”
“Why are there queues outside the food shops?”
"How can you call it socialism when there are wages?”
“Did not Karl Marx call for the abolition of the wages system?”
“Can you have a money system in a socialist society?”
By this time our experts were getting decidedly tetchy. A member of the SPCIB proceeded to outline the real nature of socialist society and point out that state capitalism operates in Russia. This apparently filled our hosts with the greatest respect. They called her “professor”, saying “With regard to the lady professor’s last question”, and “with great respect to the lady professor’s great knowledge of the subject . . .” Finally, the senior speaker climbed down and freely admitted that socialism had not been, and could not yet be, established in Russia because the problems of production had not been completely solved. But he claimed that the Russian people understood this, too. “We are working towards it”, he said.
It was pointed out, amid general agreement, that nobody underestimated the enormous achievements of the Russian people in turning a vast, barbaric feudal cess-pit into a modern industrial country in the shortest time in the world’s history. We realised the frightful toll of two world wars but we, like Lenin, had done our best to persuade the workers not to slaughter each other. To call the set-up in Russia socialism was untrue, and to claim to be “building socialism” while establishing state capitalism was dangerously misleading.
What our experts thought about all this, they did not say. They certainly looked as though they were thinking very hard. But that could have been indigestion.