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Frank Demby

Workers in Russia

(July 1941)

From The New International, Vol. VII No. 6 (Whole No. 55), July 1941, pp. 157–8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Workers Before and After Lenin
by Manya Gordon
New York. E.P. Button & Co., 1941, 524 pages

Manya Gordon has written an extremely interesting, valuable and well documented book about the conditions of the Russian workers. Unless one has read equivalent material (which would be much more difficult to gather), Workers Before and After Lenin is a MUST book for anyone who wishes to discuss the Russian question or who merely wishes to be conversant with what is taking place in Russia today.

“Without political freedom all forms of workers’ representation will continue to be a fraud. The proletariat will remain as heretofore in prison.” – Lenin, 1905, quoted by the author on the frontispiece. It is impossible to overemphasize this statement. Contrast it with the attitude of Stalin, as expressed by one of his journalists in Za Industrializatziu, April 9, 1931: “We are not in the habit of worrying about people. Rather we feel that of that bounty – people – we have more than enough.” This callous, bureaucratic indifference to the fate of the people has assumed monstrous proportions during the past decade, making the Stalinist regime one of the most hideous and oppressive in all the tortured history of mankind.

The Author’s Bias

The book, unfortunately, is much more than a factual study from official Soviet sources on the standard of living of the Russian workers. Miss Gordon, wife of Simeon Strunsky, ex-member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, ex-member of the Socialist Party, current supporter of La Guardia in the American Labor Party, has a political axe to grind. Her thesis is a very simple one. The Russian workers never should have made the revolution. Look how bad their conditions are today. Had capitalist democracy been permitted to survive in Russia, the gigantic strides made by the Russian proletariat after the 1905 Revolution would have resulted in just as much production as exists in Russia today and, in addition, there would be freedom for the masses instead of slavery. Besides, the Russian workers really didn’t want to make the October Revolution. Lenin, “the crafty demagogue,” “the clever opportunist,” “the master politician,” took advantage of the Russian workers and slipped the October Revolution over on them against their will and, certainly, against their best interests.

This thesis runs through the book like a red thread. It appears in one form or other in virtually every chapter. Even if the author were correct in her appraisal of the October Revolution, which we don’t admit for one moment, it would still represent a serious blemish on an otherwise excellent work. Repetition becomes tedious, even when it is a sound historical statement that is constantly reiterated. In this case, however, it is a compound of the Menshevik thesis that Russia was too backward for a socialist revolution, of the current bourgeois slander that Stalinism represents an inevitable and logical outgrowth of Leninism, and of the author’s plain ineptitude and ignorance in interpreting history.

One example will suffice. On page 355, in discussing Lenin’s Imperialism as a theoretical justification for the Russian revolution, the author states:

“He (Lenin) insisted that monopoly is the final phase of capitalism which during a war is inevitably converted ‘into an era of proletarian revolution.’ Lenin had no difficulty in finding these conditions in Russia. Because of its large-scale production, its cartels and syndicates and their affiliation with the banks, Russia like western Europe was ripe for the socialist revolution. Later, in 1920, when Lenin was faced with closed banks and huge empty plants he forgot completely his previous statements about Russia’s readiness for the socialist scheme of things. But it was too late, or rather, Lenin died too soon, and as a result the Russian people had to pay for his folly.”

The Nature of the Russian Revolution

It would be difficult to crowd more errors in interpreting history into one short paragraph than Manya Gordon does in the above. The Bolshevik leadership did not conceive it possible to build socialism in Russia alone. Russia, to them, was the weakest link in the capitalist chain. Being the first link to break, Russia would become the starting point of the world revolution, which was an indispensable prerequisite for the building of socialism. And, certainly, capitalist society as a whole was and is rotten-ripe for the building of socialism. The theory of socialism in a single country was a Stalinist perversion of Marxism. The Bolsheviks were hardly to blame if Noske and Scheideman, Manya Gordon’s political counterparts, slaughtered the main base of the first world revolution in Germany. The NEP was a necessary retreat, but an organized retreat. That Stalinism came to power during this period does not prove that the revolution should not have been made, but that the Russian workers were too weak after three years of imperialist war and four years of civil war (for which the bourgeoisie were responsible, not Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Miss Gordon) to withstand the inroads of Stalinism.

Moreover, it seems to me that the author, anxious to prove her case, overstates it substantially when she speaks about the decade of progress under Czarism prior to the revolution. Time and again, in referring to the advanced labor legislation adopted under the Duma (and won by the magnificent fighting power of the Russian workers), she is forced to admit that it remained largely or entirely on paper. For the sake of argument, however, I can grant all that Miss Gordon says about the progress of industry and the standard of living under Czarism. This does not prove that had a bourgeois democratic regime maintained itself in Russia after the overthrow of Czarism that there would have been just as much industrialization (with a comparable rise in the standard of living). Why should a capitalist Russia have made any more progress during the 1920s and the 1930s than the rest of the capitalist world? And, if the argument is made that Russia would have been a young capitalist country, one can point to China, or India, or Canada, or Australia or other young outposts of capitalism and demonstrate that the progress of their industrialization during the last two decades, particularly the last one, has been absolutely feeble in comparison with that of Russia.

The Standard of Living Declines Under Stalin

The real value of Miss Gordon’s book is certainly not its political interpretation of Russian history, nor even the light it throws on the economic conditions in Russia under Czarism and prior to the beginning of the first Five Year Plan. Rather, it lies in the painstaking and detailed picture of the Russian standard of living since the introduction of the first Five Year Plan. And this, in spite of an inadequate economic analysis of the development of Russian industrial and agricultural production. No wonder the Stalinists have condemned the book. It constitutes a damning and irrefutable indictment of the Stalinist regime. At one stroke, out of official Stalinist sources, it destroys all the myths carefully nurtured by the kept Stalinist press and then: bourgeois dupes such as the Webbs and the Dean of Canterbury.

While production has increased considerably, the standard of living in this “paradise for workers,” conducted by the “genial and greatest of the great,” Stalin, has declined by about one-half since the introduction of the first Five Year Plan in October 1928. Facts are stubborn things, as Lenin was very fond of saying, and it is a fact that the standard of living of the Russian workers and masses has declined tremendously since Stalin came to power. No amount of fake statistics and idiotic rationalizations can get around this fact.

It requires a separate economic analysis to deal with the facts concerning the declining standard of living and the reasons for this phenomenon. Remember that Russia under Stalin represents the first country in the history of the world where a tremendous increase in industrialization has been accompanied by an equally tremendous decline in the standard of living.

Those who are interested in learning something about the real situation of the Russian workers today, about wages, nominal and real, housing, clothing, medical care, education, child and woman labor, food budgets, social security, the depreciation of the rouble, taxes, hours of work and conditions in the factories will read Workers Before and After Lenin. Those who wish to perpetuate their own illusions and demonstrate their ignorance in discussing the reality that is Russia today will ignore Miss Gordon’s book or shrug their shoulders and dismiss it as the work of an enemy of the Russian revolution. Genuine Marxists, however, will understand the value of Miss Gordon’s book for it has made available in English a valuable compendium of facts concerning the status of the Russian worker today.

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