Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Report From Moscow (1968)

From the January 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

In recent months a mass of articles has appeared in the press dealing with Russia today. But most of these give very little concrete information on the subjects which are of crucial importance—the class structure of Russian society and the living conditions of working men and women in that country.

The working class in Russia, like workers throughout the world, sells its labour power for a wage (usually paid monthly there). The state-decreed minimum has recently been raised by ten roubles to 60 roubles a month. At the official exchange rate of £1 = 2.50 (before devaluation), this is equivalent to a monthly salary of £24. Such comparisons, however, are of limited value; what is necessary is to illustrate what this means in terms of real wages by giving the prices of goods on sale in the shops. The following list was compiled during the first half of November 1967, from commodities being sold in the stores in Leningrad and Moscow. We concentrated mainly on clothes because these are a basic essential (along with food and housing). At the same time it is fairly easy to assess the quality of articles of clothing, unlike much food which is wrapped or in packets.

Man’s suit (poor quality)                                 64.00 roubles
Man’s suit (poor quality but better than above) 82.00r.
Men’s overcoats (various styles and qualities) 75-124r.
Men’s long-sleeved shirts (cotton)                         4.50-9.00r.
Man’s short-sleeved shirt (nylon)                         12.50r.
Women’s slips (nylon and various qualities)         10.00-17.00r.
Woman’s headscarf (cheapest)                         1.33r.
Women’s knitted suits                                         27.00-31.60r.
Child’s overcoat (4 year old)                                 22.85r.
Child's windcheater (nylon)                                   20.00r.
Children's frocks (for 2-3 years old various
qualities)                                                                 5.77-12.52r.

1 kilo (2.2 lb) apples or pears                                 1.00r.
1 kilo (1.1 lb) bread                                         0.15r.
Eggs (sold in tens)                                                 0.90r.
1 kilo (12 lb) cheese                                         3.00r.
2-course meal at student's restaurant                 0.40r.

Bicycle (very poor quality)                 54.50r.
       c. 17" screen                                 234.00r.
       c. 20" screen                                 401.00r.
Motor cars (vary according to size & comfort) 2500-5000r.

It is clear from the above that workers in Russia have to be just as adept as those elsewhere in the art of eking out their wages. But, however much they may skimp and scrape, there are many luxury commodities on sale in the shops which they can never reasonably hope to buy. For example, just off Red Square in Moscow there is a store specialising in expensive shoes. Among the footwear displayed in its window were a pair of very elegant lady’s suede ankle-boots, selling at fifty roubles. When it is remembered that this sum represents nearly a month's wages for the lowest paid, it is obvious that the Moscow working man stands about as much chance of buying these shoes as a worker in London does of purchasing a Savile Row suit.

The question arises—who are the people, then, in a country like Russia who can afford such prices? One who springs to mind is Nikita Kruschev, the ousted first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Living in retirement, he has a five-roomed flat in Moscow as well as a country house on what used to be Prince Golytsin’s estate. Standing in seven acres of grounds, this building has four bedrooms and two reception rooms, while the Kruschevs are looked after by a staff of servants (two cooks, two chauffeurs, maid, gardener). As the Sunday Times put it: “Kruschev has 550 roubles a month, and with virtually all his bills paid by the State he lives at a level that could only be matched in the West by someone with a comfortable private income." [1]

It might be objected that we are relying here on Western newspapers which are inclined to distort the situation in Russia. But such reports on the easy life of the ruling class there and the other state-capitalist countries of eastern Europe are confirmed by information that can be gleaned from their own official sources. Thus the Belgrade Evening News (20 December, 1961) talked about individuals in Jugoslavia who have an annual income reaching 70 million dinars 'about $100,000 at the official exchange rate). [2]

In contrast to Kruschev's town and country residences, working class housing in general conforms to the twin standards of cheap and nasty. Despite the vast blocks of new flats which have been built since the war, some of the slums in Moscow can rival those of the East End of London for squalor and ugliness, while many of the tenements in Leningrad are without baths and date from the nineteenth century. The usual features of inadequate accommodation can be seen everywhere—children playing in gloomy backyards, washing hung from windows because there is nowhere else to dry it, buildings dilapidated and unpainted. No doubt, the occupants of these dwellings would be interested to learn that:
The Soviet state is very successfully solving its housing problem.
or that:
Though the current five-year plan period will not yet satisfy the housing needs of all the Soviet people, even the sceptics agree that the tiresome housing problem is nearing its solution. [3]
As in Britain, it is quite possible for families to buy their own apartments and, in fact, they are encouraged to do so: reports indicate that state credits for housing loans will be expanded by 200-300 per cent during the present plan. A normal flat costs from 2,000 to 6,000 roubles—depending on size and facilities—and deposit/repayment arrangements are strangely reminiscent of those in England. An initial deposit of forty per cent of the price is required, while the remaining sixty per cent is covered by monthly instalments spread over ten or fifteen years. This makes it clear that although the better-paid Russian worker can often manage to buy his own flat, it is just as much an uphill struggle for him to do so as it is for his counterpart in the West.

In addition, something needs to be said about the very low rents which are common in Russia, and which are always stressed in the government’s propaganda material.
  . . .  the monthly rent usually makes up less than four per cent of the wages earned by the head of the family and is actually a symbolic cost only.
The Soviet Union has the lowest rents in the world. (their emphasis). [4]
In reply, it is worth repeating what Kuron and Modzeleswski had to say on this before they were expelled from the Communist party in neighbouring Poland.
  As a rule, the worker has the advantage of living very inexpensively in a government-owned building. His lodging is therefore part free. But to live and produce he must stay somewhere. At any rate, his apartment rarely has any luxuries and in most cases not even the elementary comforts. It is part of his subsistence minimum, supplied to him in addition to his wages.
   The workers receive medical care free and can buy medicines at a discount, but these are necessary in order to preserve his labour power: they are ingredients of his subsistence minimum. If free medical care were abolished and rents increased, the worker's wages, would have to be raised in proportion to the increase in his necessary expenses. These non-returnable benefits and services are a necessary purl of the worker’s subsistence minimum, a wage supplement as necessary to the worker as the wages themselves, and therefore a constituent of production cost. [5]
Transport in the cities is another subsidised service. The standard price on the metro and buses is only 0.05 roubles, while trolley-buses or trams are even cheaper. This is necessary because only a few highly paid workers can afford motor cars and therefore most working men rely on public transport to get them back and forth from work. In the same way, most long-distance travelling in Russia is by rail and here there is a very rigid system of classes in operation. In contrast to capitalist Britain with its first- and second-class seats, "socialist” Russia finds it necessary to have four divisions— ranging from wooden benches upwards. It is certainly a strange experience in “the proletarian countries” to see workers standing in the corridors of trains, outside half-empty first class compartments, because they cannot afford the price of a decent seat. Laurens van der Post recalls a similar situation when he was travelling in a Russian steamer on the Black Sea.
   Pacing up and down the deck before dinner I saw old ladies with black shawls round their heads looking for a sheltered place for themselves and their bundles on the boards against the iron bulwarks. I saw them looking out of patient, peering eyes through the windows at the stewards in white, starched jackets laying the tables in the first-class dining-saloon, candlelit, sparkling cut glass for white and red wine as well as water, ornate silver cutlery and peaked napkins spotless as Arctic snow by each place . . .  Later I saw them lying on the hard deck, heads propped against their bundles, sleeping more peacefully than I was to sleep in my de-luxe cabin that night . . .  I remembered Fitzroy Maclean’s account of a Black Sea cruise—it might very well have been in this very ship—telling how, as the passengers were nearing Odessa, the loudspeakers suddenly called: "Olga Ivanova, we are calling Olga Ivanova. This is to inform Olga Ivanova that her car and maid are waiting on the quay for her." [6]
The Russian working class, then, is subject to all the stresses and indignities which workers everywhere experience under capitalism. Some of this is recognised by the Russian authorities and the conventional explanation is that the standard of living of the people is continually improving and that this trend will be maintained until eventually a system of free access to wealth will be instituted. Any ruling class defends its privileges with an ideology and the Russian bureaucracy is no exception. A cornerstone of its "theory" is that before the transition from "socialism” to "communism" (this is a Leninist perversion of Marxism, anyway) can be effected, a new type of communist man must emerge. This peculiar creature must be completely unselfish, must always put the interest of the community above his own personal welfare, must he continually prepared for hard work, and so on. In other words, this is the very antithesis of revolutionary thinking—with socialism reduced to utopian and mystical terms.

Such arguments do not stand up to the facts. A visit to the Exhibition of Economic Achievements in Moscow makes it obvious that the technical basis for a Socialist society exists now. If the agricultural and industrial machinery on display there were applied to natural resources for the benefit of mankind as a whole, the principle of “to each according to his needs" would be an accomplished fact. What stands between the workers and such a society of abundance is the class monopoly of the means of production. In Russia this takes the form of state capitalism, with wealth concentrated in the hands of the state and the state controlled by a minority ruling class. Because of this, production today is not intended to satisfy the people's needs but instead is geared to defending and increasing the collective property of the rulers. Thus vast industrial complexes are given over to turning out murderous nuclear weapons of the type which were trundled through Red Square on 7 November. In the same way, factories are set up to build ingenious ticket machines which are then installed to prevent workers from freely using the underground railway and other services, although these are supposed to belong to the working class in the first place. In fact, the Russian government’s own statistics prove that production is carried on primarily in order to expand the means of production, which represent the class property of the bureaucracy. Already post-war industrial output has grown to 7.3 times the 1939 figure, [7]  while real wages today are less than six times what they were prior to 1917. [8] In this way the Soviet Union conforms to Marx’s general law of capitalist accumulation.
  It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse.
 If the working-class has remained “poor”, only “less poor” in proportion as it produces for the wealthy class “an intoxicating augmentation of wealth and power”, then it has remained relatively just as poor. If the extremes of poverty have not lessened, they have increased, because the extremes of wealth have. [9]
A socialist revolution, carried through by the working class, will be necessary for the overthrow of state capitalism and the construction of Socialism. The material conditions for this step have all been fulfilled in Russia, as in the rest of the capitalist world. What is needed now are working men and women equipped with socialist understanding. But the spread of Socialist ideas is bitterly opposed both by the state machinery and the Communist party in the Soviet Union. Apart from its efforts to emasculate Marxism, the CPSU does all it can to falsify historical facts, not least those relating to the Bolshevik revolution. A visitor to the Red Army museum in Moscow looks in vain for any reference to Trotsky, while in the Revolutionary Museum in Leningrad there is no mention, not just of Trotsky, but of such leaders as Bukharin, Zinoviev and Kamenev.

Despite all this an oppressed class cannot be kept in chains for ever simply by a repressive state or bureaucratic trickery. The collapse of the tsarist regime demonstrates this completely. It is the experience of workers under capitalism which in the end makes class-conscious socialists out of them and this applies as much to Russia as to any other capitalist country. When we remember the heroism which the young working class in Russia displayed in the bourgeois revolution of 1917, we can be sure that the Russian proletariat will not be missing from our ranks when the workers of the world decide to overthrow capitalism and build a world socialist community.
John Crump

[1] Sunday Times. 16 July, 1967.
[2] Is Jugoslavia a Socialist Country? Peking. 1964.
[3] Housing Construction. Moscow. 1967.
[4]  Ibid.
[5] An Open Letter to the Party. Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski. London. 1967.
[6] Journey into Russia. Laurens van der Post. London. 1964.
[7] Material ami Moral Incentives under Socialism. Mikhail Laptin. Moscow. 1966.
[8] How the Exploitation of Man by Man was Eliminated in the USSR. Leon Onikov. Moscow. 1966.
[9] Capital. Vol. 1, pp. 645, 652. Moscow. 1961.

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