Sunday, May 29, 2016

Should the workers fight for Russia? (1928)

From the April 1928 issue of the Socialist Standard

Before the Great War there were many workers in this and other countries who would have agreed without a moment’s hesitation that a working class movement should not support a capitalist war, and who, again without hesitation, rushed into the war when it came. This war, they said, was “different "; this was a “defensive” war; the workers must defend their homes, their wives, their liberties.

Since 1918 the vague sentiment against war has grown up again, and we are asked to put our trust in the illusory determination of the organised trade unionists to stop another outbreak. But those non-socialists who are most emphatic in their refusal to support another capitalist war are frequently to be heard expressing their willingness to fight for Russia, and their approval of the Russian military preparations. Thus the Sunday Worker (February 19th), shows a picture of a handsome Russian soldier in full fighting equipment, and under it the words: “Soviet worker in the Red Army ready to defend the factories and land of his class.”

We tell the workers of each capitalist nation that support for capitalist wars, offensive or defensive, is not in accordance with working class interests, for the simple reason that “their” country does not in fact belong to them but to the capitalist class. The factories and land of England do not belong to the workers but to their masters, and the same is true of Germany, America and other countries. What the workers have not got they cannot lose. What then does it matter to them if "their” country, which isn’t theirs at all, is taken away from the English section of the capitalist class by another section? Win or lose, the workers are still workers, and the kindly interest taken in them by English capitalists is precisely the same in kind as that of American, German, or any other exploiters, i.e., the desire to make a profit out of them.

So far the members and followers of (he Communist Party in this country would doubtless signify their agreement. But the next step in the argument is to consider whether Russian workers are in an essentially different position. Do the factories and land in Russia really belong to the Russian working class, and if not why should they defend interests which are not their own, but those of another class ?

Let us first take the land. In theory the land of Russia belongs to the State, as in this country all land is in theory held from the Crown; in fact the land belongs in Russia to the peasants as it belongs here to the landowners. Issuing decrees declaring that the land has been socialised is of no significance whatever except as an evidence of good intentions. The Soviet Government has not the machinery to carry out such decrees, nor the power enforce them. The consent of the peasants is unobtained and unobtainable, and the Government never did in fact seriously regard such a step as practical politics. No Russian Government would survive for a month if it endeavoured to dispossess the peasants of their land. They were the makers of the "revolution” and they would crush any Government which openly opposed their interests. Their seizure of the land preceded the Bolshevik coup d’etat and they will resist fiercely any change from Monarchists to go back or from Communists to go forward.

Mr. Arthur Ransome (Manchester Guardian, 2nd March) quotes from Pravda an article on this question in which it is shown from official records that whereas there were at the end of the Civil War between 15 and 16 million separate peasant holdings there are now 25 million. Peasant proprietorship is growing, not declining.

There are, it is true, some Soviet Government model farms run on up-to-date industrial lines and intended to undermine the barbaric individualism of the peasants and their methods of cultivation. As a means of raising the standard of cultivation they have had some success, but as the basis of social ownership of the land and a socially organised agriculture they are negligible. Out of a rural population of some 116,000,000 (see Statesman’s Year Book, page 1227) only “about 500,000 workers, of whom 45 per cent, are permanent workers, are employed in the Soviet farms and their dependent enterprises." (See Weekly Bulletin of the Anglo-Russian Parliamentary Committee, 23rd February 1928). That is to say that less than one-half of one per cent, of the rural population are employed on these model farms. The value of the output of the State Agricultural Syndicate and the Sugar Trust is only 5.5 per cent, of the gross agricultural output in 1926-27. (See above Bulletin.)

The land in Russia belongs not to the working class but to the peasants. It is privately owned and controlled by them and cultivated on an individualistic basis for private profit. The Russian working class have no more direct interest in the defence of peasant proprietorship, than have the French workers in the defence of peasant proprietorship in France. Peasant proprietorship is economically backward and socially reactionary. As sellers of farm products, as purchasers of manufactured goods, as employers of wage earners or exploiters of the unpaid labour of their wives and children, and finally as owners of land, the interests of the peasants are in direct conflict with those of the working class and are directly opposed to the movement towards socialism. The Russian workers emphatically do not possess the land of Russia. Why. then should they fight to defend what is not theirs?
Now let us consider the factories. Do the Russian workers own the Russian factories and workshops, railways and steamships, and industrial capital in general? The answer is plainly No! The Russian workers are wage-earners as in this country. Some are employed by Russian and foreign private capitalist undertakings, frankly carried on for profit. Others, as in our Post Office, are employed in State capitalist concerns, their general conditions of labour being governed as here by the general standard of living of the workers and by the need of the Government to pay; interest on borrowed capital and foreign credits, and to run the concerns at a profit on ordinary commercial lines. It has even happened that wages in the Russian State concerns have been lower than in outside industry. This, however, is due to special circumstances and is hardly likely to be more than temporary. It has been explained in Russian official quarters as being due to the willingness of State employees to take lower wages in order to build up capital reserves for the expansion of State industry. Workers in private concerns have, on the other hand, been directly encouraged to, stand out for higher wages among other reasons for the purpose of crippling their accumulation of reserves.

Profit and interest only come from the exploitation of wage labour, and capitalism in Russia is no exception. That is not to question the sincerity or good intentions of the Bolshevik administrators of Russian capitalism. But whatever their intentions may be there is in essentials only one way of administering capitalism, that is in the capitalist way. The policy of the Soviet Government is dominated by the solid resistance of the peasants to any attempt at socialisation, by the need to produce manufactured goods cheaply and by the necessity of paying for the capital which they must borrow at home or abroad.

The peasants already complain of the fact that they are compelled to buy home produced manufactures at prices well above those ruling abroad. As their knowledge increases so they will press more and more strongly for the destruction of the State control of foreign trade, for the right to sell their products in the dearest market and the right to buy manufactures in the cheapest market. To meet this the rulers of Russia will in turn be compelled to introduce all the modern capitalist methods of speeding up in the endeavour to make their employees produce goods cheaply enough to compete with goods produced in Germany, England and elsewhere. The Russian workers are wage-earners like any others, living under capitalist economic conditions and exploited like any other wage-earners.

The issue of the Sunday Worker from which we quoted above gives very pointed evidence of this.

Under the heading “Big Chance for Investors,” it spreads the glad tidings that a Russian Government Railway Loan for £6,000,000 has been placed on the English market, offering a total actual return of over 11 per cent. The Sunday Worker says: “High yielding loans are usually not available for public subscription, especially with the security this offers. The profits on the railways last year would cover the loan four times.” Here we have our old familiar enemy capitalism in all its nakedness. The Russian workers have no more interest in defending Russian capitalism than we have in defending English capitalism.

But, we are told, surely the control of the Russian Government by the Bolsheviks makes a difference; as also the numerous and important improvements in wages and conditions of labour which have been introduced. Should the Russian workers not be willing to fight in defence of these gains?

Let us clear the air, by stating one or two facts. First, it is evident from the more reliable accounts that the condition of the Russian workers is better than before the war, as measured by the amount of real wages. Second, it can readily be admitted that the “sympathetic” and enlightened administration of the capitalist system can bring certain definite but limited gains to the workers. For example, it is plainly better for the workers to be protected by Factory Acts than not to be protected, and probably better to be scientifically exploited by a Ford or a Cadbury than to be brutally and unscientifically sweated by some unintelligent early Victorian who has not realised that it pays to have healthy and contented workers. But while this may be admitted to be true that is no sufficient cause for the workers to sacrifice their lives. In the first place, the difference of degree is small and certainly not worth fighting about, and more importantly, the workers will not lose these small advantages by any action or inaction of theirs, because the motive is not at all the welfare of the workers. The changes in methods of exploitation are due to the development of capitalist industry itself. It is not kindness but necessity which compels the factory owner to raise the standard of living of the coolie when he takes him from his field work and introduces him into the more exhausting factory system. Russia, whether ruled by Bolsheviks or as an adjunct of a British-American Banking trust, cannot compete with foreign highly developed capitalist industry unless it gives its wage-slaves approximately the same physical standards and inducements to work. Carrying the argument to its logical extreme, the conquest of Russia by America, might result in the Russians being forced to accept the American more developed system of intensified exploitation based on the payment of those higher wages of which we hear so much.

There is of course the possibility that the Russian Government might come to be controlled by a peasant party, openly hostile to and ignorant of capitalist industry and its needs. (This is in Trotsky’s view the present tendency.) Should that happen capitalist industry and incidentally the care of the workers as profit-producing agents, would be neglected. This is no doubt the reason why Factory legislation, health and unemployment insurance, etc., are so backward in France with its largely peasant dominated parliament, as compared with Germany. But that danger in Russia would point to the need of the workers endeavouring to protect themselves against the encroachments both of the peasants and of the capitalist class and not to the fatal policy of lining-up under the national flag in the pathetic belief that they have an interest in defending their "country.” Their county, like our "motherland” and the German “fatherland,” belongs not to them but to classes with interests opposed to those of the working class. The chief enemy of the working class is the capitalist class and the task of the Socialist is to overthrow the capitalist system in Russia as elsewhere.

In conclusion, it may be as well to point out that this is in no sense a condemnation of the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 Our criticism was and, is that they claimed to be able to achieve the impossible. Certain definite tasks lay before them and have been achieved. They brought Russia out of the war, exposed the purely capitalist nature of the conflict to the workers in both camps, and hastened the building of capitalism in Russia at a time when there was no other party with sufficient experience or determination to tackle so great an administrative work. They cannot, however, by legislation solve the fundamental conflicts between contending classes in Russia. They cannot permanently make the working class content with the capitalist economic system, and it would be better that they should recognise before it is too late that if they remain in office the discontent of the workers will come to be directed against them.
Edgar Hardcastle

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