Marx and Soviet Reality. Daniel Norman (1955)

VII: Soviet Primitive Accumulation

No social order ever perished before all the productive forces for which there was room in it had been developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the womb of the old society itself.

Wrote Marx in his Preface to The Critique of Political Economy; and in the Preface to Capital he said that:

... even when a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement... it can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development. But it can shorten and lessen the birth-pangs.

This the Bolsheviks learned at their expense and at even greater expense to the Russian people. But though they at last came to understand the natural laws governing Russia’s future development they proved but poor ‘midwives’; they shortened the process, but the advent of capitalism in Russia was at incomparably greater cost to the people than was the case in other countries.

In 1894, in the Postscript to his study Social Problems in Russia, in which he resumed their common opinions on the future evolution of Russia, Engels in his turn writes:

It is an historic impossibility for an inferior system of economic development to solve the problems and conflicts which have arisen and could not arise but on a much higher level... Each economic system must solve its own problems which it creates itself; for a system to want to solve the problems of another, completely alien, system would be sheer nonsense.

This ‘nonsense’ the Bolsheviks, nonetheless, tried hard to achieve for a couple of years (by attempting to install Socialism into a backward country) before taking the only course open to them and creating a modern, capitalist economy, yet without admitting they were doing so; indeed, up to the present time they are still trying hard to foster the illusion that they have succeeded in their original intention. The problem the semi-feudal Tsarist regime had failed to solve was the introduction of the industrial revolution, though conscious that ‘Russia must become an entirely self-sufficient industrial country’, and in spite of her ‘tremendous efforts to bring the capitalist development of Russia speedily to a peak’, a failure which resulted in the ‘national bankruptcy’ foreseen by Engels.

When Lenin and his party of ‘professional revolutionaries’ took power, they had willy-nilly to solve the problem they had inherited. It was a question of life and death for the Bolshevik government to succeed where its predecessors had failed, that is, to install a capitalist society, and it must be admitted that they succeeded. When Lenin declared that ‘if we introduce state capitalism in approximately six months’ time... within a year Socialism will have gained a hold and have become invincible in our country’ (Left-Wing Childishness and Petty-Bourgeois Mentality), he was once more talking nonsense. Indeed, it took much longer than six months to introduce ‘state capitalism’, and Socialism must await another revolution. But at that moment the mechanism of the advent of modern capitalism had at last been set in motion in Russia, and in spite of all the apparent differences and the atomic speed with which the transformation took place (naturally everything was accomplished ‘ la russe’, with the ruthlessness inherited from the Tsarist regime and perfected by Stalin), Russia followed the classic process of primitive accumulation which Marx studied, and described in Capital a century ago.

And the Bolsheviks, with the exception of only a very small minority, learned at the expense of their lives or their liberty what Marx termed ‘the natural laws of capitalist production... working with iron necessity towards inevitable results’.

According to Marx, the so-called primitive accumulation, the historical process ‘that clears the way for the capitalist system, can be none other than the process which takes away from the labourer the possession of his means of production; a process that transforms, on the one hand, the social means of subsistence and of production into capital, on the other, the immediate producers into wage-labourers’.

It would be difficult to find a more convincing example of this process than that which we have witnessed in Russia during the first three Plans. Nowhere before was ‘the power of state, the concentrated and organised force’ employed ‘to hasten, hothouse fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition...’ on such a scale and so openly (Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 29). For ‘the bourgeoisie, at its rise’, says Marx, ‘wants and uses the power of the state to “regulate” wages, that is, to force them within the limits suitable for surplus-value making, to lengthen the working-day and to keep the labourer himself in the normal degree of dependence. This is an essential element of the so-called primitive accumulation’ (Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 28).

It is sufficient here to note one only of the famous ‘ukases’ of that period – the decree of 15 December 1930, which obliged the workers of the Soviet Union to accept any job, and that under the conditions laid down by the administration. The Soviet Plans have proved an infinitely more efficient method of hastening the process, and in this sense amounted to revolutions.

In the history of primitive accumulation [wrote Marx], all revolutions are epoch-making that act as levers for the capitalist class in course of formation; but, above all, those moments when great masses of men are torn from their traditional means of production and subsistence, and suddenly hurled on the labour market.

And he adds: ‘The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process.’ (Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 26)

Naturally, ‘the history of this expropriation, in different countries, assumes different aspects and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession and at different periods’ (ibid). In Soviet Russia the forced collectivisations did the trick and ‘the agricultural people, first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system’ (Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 28).

A mere ‘ukase’, that of 11 February 1931, for instance, sufficed to drag from the land into industry 2 662 000 men. For our purpose, we shall merely point out that the process was on so vast a scale that the number of industrial workers rose from 11 500 000 in 1928 to 32 000 000 in 1940, without taking into account the millions of peasants who during this period were sent to hard labour in Siberia and central Asiatic Russia, nor the further millions who perished during the famines of the 1930s. Also, that those who escaped the forcible transformation into industrial workers at that time became automatically land-proletarians since here, too, collective management was maintained only on paper as material for speeches and propaganda.

In fact, like the workers in the factories, they have no say in the production process of their ‘kolkhoz’ (collective farm), no control over its products, and in short they have to do just what the bureaucratic machine orders through its representative appointed at their head as chairman (as a rule he comes from another part of the country).

Marx was not, after all, so far wrong when he wrote to Mikhailovsky:

Now what application to Russia can my critic make of this historical sketch [on primitive accumulation]? Only this: If Russia is tending to become a capitalist nation after the example of the Western European countries, and during the last years she has been taking a lot of trouble in this direction – she will not succeed without having first transformed a good part of her peasants into proletarians; and after that, once taken to the bosom of the capitalist regime, she will experience its pitiless laws like other profane peoples. This is all... (1877)

Nor was Engels so mistaken, either, when arguing against Struve’s assertion that ‘the evil consequences of modern capitalism in Russia will be easily overcome as they are in the United States’, he reminded his friend, Danielson, ‘that the United States are modern, bourgeois, from the very origin...’, whereas in Russia a ‘pre-civilisation gentile society, crumbling to its ruins’ was the basis ‘upon which the capitalistic revolution – for it is a real social revolution – acts and operates’. Thus, he told Danielson, ‘the change, in Russia, must be far more violent, far more incisive and accompanied by immensely greater sufferings than it can be in America’ (17 October 1893). For the industrial revolution in Russia ‘cannot take place’, he asserted, ‘without terrible dislocation of society, without the disappearance of whole classes and their transformation into other classes; and what enormous suffering and waste of human lives and productive forces that necessarily implies, we have seen on a smaller scale in Western Europe’ (ibid, our italics). Russia’s history since Engels’ death bears witness to the accuracy of his assertion.