Jenö Varga's Manuscripts from Before his Death

Some Facts about the Class Relations in the Soviet Union after the Second World War and the Role of Stalin (Part 3)

An analysis by a member of our editorial board Elisabeth Wagner

In the last two editions of RM we presented Varga's manuscripts from before his death. They contain a number of very remarkable facts about the relations of distribution in the Soviet Union. Beginning in the thirties, there developed enormous differences in consumption between the leaders of the party, state and society on the one hand, and the working class and the peasants on the other hand. However, we said that the conclusions which Varga drew were wrong and incompatible with Marxism. Relationships of consumption do not have their bases in themselves but in the final analysis they depend on the mode of production. The mode of production is the unity of the productive forces and the relations of production. The productive forces are the human abilities and skills in the production process as well as the objective means of production, the relations of production are the social relations which people enter into in the process of production. Varga, therefore, does not provide an explanation of the relations of consumption he describes, since he does not bring them into relationship with the mode of production. This is however precisely what we want to do.

The chain of the imperialist world system breaks where it is weakest

We begin with a quote from Marx: "Except as personified capital, the capitalist has no historic value... But, so far as he is personified capital, it is not values in use and the enjoyment of them, but exchange-value and its augmentation, that spur him into action. Fanatically bent on making value expand itself, he ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production's sake; he thus forces the development of the productive powers of society, and creates those material conditions, which alone can form the real basis of a higher form of society, a society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle." (Capital, Vol. 1, English edition, International Publishers, 1967, Chapter 24, Section 3, p. 592)

That is the progressive historical content of capitalism. It creates highly developed productive forces, on the basis of which communism for the first time becomes possible. A subjective thorn of this development is the pettiest desire for profit on the part of the capitalist, whose main reason for existence is not even his private consumption but the expansion of capital for its own sake.

However, what happens when the working class comes to power in a country in which capitalism has not yet done its work? When the productive forces for a "form of society in which the full and free development of each individual forms the ruling principle" have not yet developed? This problem can be posed and has posed itself because of the law of uneven development of individual imperialist countries. The prerequisites for the seizure of power by the working class therefore develop at different times in different countries. And they do not necessarily develop first where the productive forces and therefore the material prerequisites for socialism and communism have gone furthest. The chain of the imperialist world system breaks first where it is weakest, and there are a number of mostly accidental factors which together decide where it is weakest. In 1917 it was weakest in Russia.

What is to be done in a backward country?

The working class, led by the Bolshevik Party, seized power in a country whose population consisted mainly of peasants, in a country in which capitalism was still relatively weakly developed and in which it itself was therefore relatively weakly developed and represented basically a small minority of the population. The bourgeoisie in February, when the tsar was overthrown, had had its chance to take power, but it proved itself unable to use this chance in a durable manner. The immediate reason was that, based on its class interests, it could not satisfy the demand of the broad masses for bread and peace. The deeper reason was that it was not durably in a position to win the peasants as an alliance partner: in other words to hitch them to their wagon. The reasons for that did not develop only in 1917, but long before, but it would take us too far afield here, to go into this further.

Now it had to be seen whether the working class could achieve what the bourgeoisie had not achieved, namely to remain durably in power. The first and most pressing question had to be how the working class could bring about an alliance with the peasants. This was anything but easy, since the class interests of the workers and the peasants by no means coincided. The Mensheviks (who corresponded to the Western Social-Democrats, that is the opportunist wing of the workers' movement) had been of the opinion, that in a backward country like Russia the working class could not take power. Correspondingly, the Trotskyites said that if the revolution was not victorious in the western industrial countries, the working class could not remain in power. Logically, they refused to seek an alliance with the peasants. It did not matter to them that they were disregarding the interests of the peasants, and if the Soviet power had thereby foundered this would also have been fine with them. That was their schematic, mechanistic falsification of Marxism. The majority of the Russian workers and the Bolshevik Party had another idea. Logically, the question of the policy with regard to the peasants was for a very long time at the center of the inner-party discussions, because this question would be for a long time the main problem of the Russian revolution.

In this context we want to refer to a remarkable publication of the year 1993, namely a book by Karuscheit and Schröder From the October Revolution to Peasant Socialism (VTK Publishers, Post Office Box 202038, 80020, Munich, [Germany,] ISBN 3-88599-029-6, 396 pages, 28 DM). The authors examine the development of the Soviet Union on the basis of the thesis that the peasant question, or rather the policy of the workers' party in relation to the peasants, was the decisive turning point of this development. Since this question is indeed by far the most important particularity of Soviet development, they come in many ways to correct analyses and results. Certain points, which we will only briefly sketch here, are discussed and developed there in detail. The greatest shortcoming of the book is that the analysis of this particularity is not treated in its generally valid manner, as part of those problems and laws which are always present in socialism, that is the transition to communism. Specifically, the authors do not examine the class differences between the workers and the ruling strata, or to the extent that they do, it is only from the point of view of the peasant question. Therefore, this work is based on a false theory of socialism. Accordingly, the authors also come to the false view, that although under Stalin's leadership the workers achieved what they could, at no point were the relations socialist. This view rests on the fact that socialism is not consistently regarded as a transition society which, besides the seeds of communism also contains elements of the old society. (Even if the elements of the old society in a backward country necessarily must show up in much harsher ways than they would in a country that had already been highly industrialized at the time of the seizure of political power by the working class.) The shortcomings of the book must be evaluated, however, based on the fact that the historical experience of socialism that had taken place in the meantime had not yet been generalized in a satisfactory manner to a theory of the transition society, which corresponds to the height of the time. Work must still be done on this task.

But back to the development of the Soviet Union.

At first the problems of the socialist revolution that were particularly connected to the peasant question, only appeared in a limited fashion. With the victory of the working class, the large landowners were expropriated and the land in practice became the property of the peasants. The peasants therefore gained immediate advantages from October. In the following years, the young Soviet power had to assert itself against the military aggressions of the imperialists. At this time, the surplus of peasant production was taken without compensation and distributed in the cities to the workers ("war communism"). The Bolsheviks in this connection were subject to the illusion that this was the beginning of communist relations. In reality, it was a temporary necessity, with which the mass of peasants was in agreement only because they knew very well that the large landowners would come back if the Red Army was defeated. That changed with the victory of the Red Army. The solution of the military problems allowed the socio-economic contradictions, which at first were hidden, to come into full bloom. The dissatisfaction of the peasants with the compulsory delivery system would have led quickly to the downfall of Soviet power, had the party led by Lenin not made a radical change of course in 1921 with the transition to the New Economic Policy (NEP).

Under the New Economic Policy the compulsory delivery system for the peasants was replaced by a tax-in-kind. The state began, thus, to conduct trade with the peasants. (However, the largest share of farm production was still at the low level of natural economy, so that goods were not produced for exchange but to maintain oneself.) Furthermore (although to a limited degree) capitalist industrial enterprises were permitted, partly as foreign concessions. Some of the state-owned enterprises were transformed into so-called state-capitalism, which meant that the enterprises remained state-owned, but were managed according to capitalist principles. In particular, they were no longer provided with raw materials by the state, but they had to buy them themselves and could, on the other hand, sell their products freely. Another part of the state-owned enterprises formed the socialist sector of industry, and were managed directly by the state. This sector, however, was much too small to permit an effective overall planning of the economy by the proletarian state.

That meant that in the village the further sharpening of the class struggle was renounced. The kulaks, rich peasants who exploited the agricultural workers, were on the whole not touched. In the city, capitalist production was reintroduced, however only to the degree which the proletarian state permitted. The proletarian state made far-reaching economic concessions, for which the backwardness of the country was responsible, but kept the political commanding heights in its hands.

The NEP could only be carried out for a limited time

The proletarian power could not carry out the NEP for an unlimited time without losing its character as a workers' power. The purpose of the NEP was to permit a limited degree of capitalist economy which would create those productive forces that the working class had not found when it seized power. The danger of the NEP lay in the fact that on this basis the forces of capitalism in city and countryside had to become ever stronger. Particularly in the countryside, the kulaks became stronger, since they had at their disposal the greatest share of the grain and began to blackmail the Soviet power by holding back grain.

In 1928-29 the critical point was reached. A further continuation of the NEP would have led to the downfall of the workers' power. In 1929, the party under the leadership of Stalin decided to take the course of elimination of the kulaks as a class and the collectivization of agriculture. That led to a very critical class struggle, not to say a class war. At the same time, the dekulakization affected about 900,000 farms with 8.5 to 9 million people (see Karuscheit/Schröder, p. 193). These class forces fought against the collectivization by all methods. The bourgeois claim, however, that the masses of the small and middle peasants had been forced by the state against their will to join the collectives is simply false. There were two factors which caused the masses of peasants to be prepared for that little by little. First of all, most Russian peasants were not peasants of the western type, with their own plot of land, but lived in a village community in which the fields were regularly redistributed. Moreover, the tsarist power had ruined the peasants because it had tried to forcibly carry out a capitalist reform in the village (under Stolypin). For the Soviet power, the backwardness of the village had very great disadvantages, but now the collective traditions of the peasants transformed themselves into an advantage for the socialist collectivization, whose concrete form corresponded largely to the level of development and consciousness of the peasantry. Moreover, the situation in industry in 1929-30 was very different from that in 1921. There were tractors and other agricultural machinery which the state placed at the disposition of the collectives in the form of state machine and tractor stations, so that the economic advantage of collectivization could be tangible for the peasants.

The upswing of industry created a new working class
of peasant background

As important as collectivization was, what was decisive for the future of the workers' power had to be mostly in the cities, in industry. The limited concession to capitalism had led to a certain upswing of industry. This led to masses of peasants streaming into the cities and becoming workers to have a better life. The working class went in a short time from being a small minority of the population to a numerically large class. At the same time, the conditions were created to end the NEP in industry as well and to place all industrial enterprises under the direction of the proletarian state. Thus the conditions were created for a unified planning of the economy by the proletarian state.

But the fact that the mass of workers were now former peasants had to show itself in their work habits and work discipline. The problem, that the working class which was victorious in October 1917 had inherited such backwards relations, was now shifted to industry, or rather to the working class itself.

To a certain extent, this problem had existed from the very beginning also in regard to the working class itself. In 1918 there did not yet exist the new peasant-formed working class of the thirties; it was still the working class of the October Revolution. However Lenin already saw the need to demand the "granting of 'unlimited' (i.e. dictatorial) powers to individuals," that "the people unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of labour." Lenin pointed out that industrial production always demands management and subordination, however: "Given ideal class-consciousness and discipline on the part of those participating in the common work, this subordination would be something like the mild leadership of a conductor of an orchestra. It may assume the sharp forms of dictatorship if ideal discipline and class-consciousness are lacking." (LW, Vol. 27, p. 267, 269, English edition) The latter was the case, and it could not be otherwise in a backward country with a small proletariat that had not gone through the school of capitalism for a long period.

In the thirties, however, with a proletariat that had grown enormously in numbers, but that still had to a large extent peasant habits (even though not the habits of the peasant with his private plot but of the peasant of the Russian village community), the question of the necessity of dictatorial forms of management had to be posed in a much sharper way. The workers with a peasant-imprint were not, and could not have been, used to the discipline of industrial production. The enterprises suffered to an unbelievable degree from fluctuation. Stalin lamented the type of worker who "feels himself a 'visitor' in the factory, working only temporarily so as to 'earn a little money' and then go off to 'try his luck' in some other place." (SW, Vol. 13, p. 58, English edition) Stalin correctly opposed equalization of wages, since such an equalization corresponded to the ideology of the peasant of the Russian village community. Stalin correctly demanded a differentiated system of wages.

However, a differentiated system of wages could not be the only means to confront the enormous problems. Considerable pressure had to be put on the workers. Thus, at the end of 1932, the internal passport was introduced; moving from one town to another had to be approved by the authorities. From 1939 on there was a workbook: one could only be employed in a new enterprise if one had properly left the former one. If one was late three times, one could be dismissed immediately. There were strict laws against violation of work discipline. The trade unions lost their autonomy, which Lenin had defended against Trotsky in 1920 in a different situation, and they became subject in 1932 to the "principle of production." Their task was no longer to defend the economic interests of the workers in relation to the enterprise management, but just to achieve the plan. (See Karuscheit/Schröder, p. 215 for further proof.)

These were certainly very mild means of enforcing work discipline, compared to the means that the bourgeoisie used in corresponding phases of industrialization (see Marx, Capital, Vol 1, Part VIII, English edition, The So-Called Primitive Accumulation). However, these measures were very drastic for a workers' power. Still more drastic since immediately after the October Revolution, it was shown that capitalism in Russia had not produced the "material conditions, which alone can form the real basis of a higher form of society, a society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle." (Capital, Vol. 1, p. 592, English edition) These productive forces had to be created by the workers' power itself, and this circumstance had to give socialism in a backward country a quite special stamp, had to give rise to special difficulties and dangers.

In particular a strictly centralized system of management became necessary, a strictly hierarchical structure. There was a need for "cadres that could go to work," who could succeed, even if it was against the worker. The NEP no longer existed, there was no longer state capitalism, but rather a centralized state planned economy, but the unavoidable price was that kind of system of management. There resulted an enormous pyramid-shaped apparatus, with the Politburo of the party at the top, which was now in charge of the economy of a huge country, while the possibilities of direct influence by the workers on the political and economic decisions was rather small. Such relations had to give rise to the habits of command among the leaders and the mentality among those "below" to wait for orders from "above." Of course, this was not absolute, otherwise, one could not talk about socialism. Compared to earlier times, the workers had thousands of times more possibilities to develop their creative powers, and in spite of everything political power was so constructed that the largest part of the working class certainly had the feeling of being the leading class politically. Still, the system of management that was inevitable at that time could only be a temporary arrangement. The given relations of productions were the material basis for phenomena that Stalin attacked, when he deplored the fact that the masses began to look up to the leaders and no longer criticize them, while the leaders became arrogant and looked down on the masses. (Stalin, Works, Vol. 11, p. 34, English edition, quoted in RM #2, p. 9, col. 4-5) The increase in such class differentiation was inevitable in such a hierarchical system of management, with relatively limited participation of the masses in decisions. It was also inevitable that huge differences in income should arise. The relations of production determined the relations of consumption. Those cadres who had to "work hard" and also did so, who, according to their position in the hierarchically-organized management apparatus, had at their disposal enormous powers, who as a rule also had to work around the clock, these cadres also demanded a corresponding income. Small wonder that the party maximum finally had to be dropped. Since certain management structures had been established, one had to also put up with corresponding relations of consumption.

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