How the Soviets Work


A General Election was going on in Russia during my stay this year. Save for the reports in the news-papers, one would hardly have suspected it. Experience has bred in me a great respect for Russian achievements in every form of publicity, and I found myself searching the walls of Moscow for posters and cartoons. Nothing of the kind was to be seen. It was only after a minute search that I did discover, posted up on the door of a public building, here and there, a sober document known as a nakaz, in which the Communist Party of Moscow gave an account of its administration during the past year, concluding with the promises, couched in somewhat dry and conventional language, which in all countries are expected on these occasions. For any rival document, for any answering manifesto, for any of the competing jibes, witticisms, invectives, and slander, which in other countries are usual at such moments, one would have looked in vain. I will not pretend that I did look with any active curiosity. For I had long ago grasped the essential fact about a modern Russian election. What is elsewhere a riot of discord is here a device for registering unanimity. In other countries the sovereign electors choose their governors. In Russia they ratify their governors' choice.

When one has placed it on record that no organized political party is allowed to exist in rivalry with the Communist Party, one has said almost all that need be said about these elections. The "Left" social-revolutionary Party, and the "Mensheviks" (Minority Social Democrats), did, indeed, survive for a time as tolerated rivals during the early years of the revolutionary period, but both of them have long ago disappeared "underground." There is no organization which could compile any alternative list of candidates, and if by mischance this were to happen in one electoral area, there could be no arrangement, even by clandestine means, to present lists of candidates of like opinions all over Russia. It might be contended that in theory this possibility does exist, but without the right to issue rival newspapers freely, or to print controversial leaflets, of what value would such a right be? "Election" may be the only name for these singular formalities which the dictionary allows, but it is not a happy translation. The Russian language has its idiosyncracies.

The underlying fact which explains this curiosity in elections is that the political system which prevails in Russia is not open to debate. It was set up by a coup d'etat. It had next to be defended against armed opponents in the Civil War. It became the accepted basis of political and economic life, because during this civil war, after bitter experience of the alternatives, the masses of the population did on the whole rally to it, did on the whole defend it, at a terrible cost in blood and suffering, and did on the whole acquiesce in the leader-ship of the Communist Party. What was won at such a cost in life and treasure, that Party will not expose to the hazards of argument, or the chances of the voting urn. On that point the rulers of Russia are as frank as they are determined. Whether in fact a free election, preceded by an equally free period of public controversy, would result in a majority for the system, one can only conjecture. My own belief is that a decided majority would ratify it. The question, however, is academic; the experiment will never be tried. The Communists are content to argue, as they have every right to do, that whatever the arithmetic of heads might show, the arithmetic of wills proved, against immense odds during the Civil War, that the mobile and effective weight of the Russian people is on their side.

We are apt, I think, to exaggerate the extent to which they differ in their practice from the defenders of other systems, who profess an unlimited loyalty to democracy. Could the Declaration of Independence be made an issue at an American election? Save in minor matters of legal interpretation; can one conceive an extensive and fundamental alteration of the American Constitution with-out a civil war?

If the critics of the Soviet system enjoy no scope, one must not forget that, up to the close of 1920, they fought with the aid of foreign subsidies to overthrow it, and that to this day their organizations abroad omit no opportunity of arousing foreign hostility to it. These are not the conditions in which democracy can thrive.

No large issues of policy are ever settled at a Soviet election. When necessity does require a sharp change of policy, it is invariably within the ranks of the Communist Party, and not at the elections for the Soviets, that the controversy is fought out. The business of an election is rather to choose persons who will carry out the day to day work of administration. The entire structure of the Soviet system lends itself naturally to this limitation. Only the local Soviets (the word, of course, means simply "Council") at the basis of the pyramid are directly elected by the masses of the citizens. The national and federal Soviets at the apex of the system are chosen by indirect election, and to these alone be-long legislative functions and the right to approve or reject any large change in national policy. The town and village Soviets, which are directly elected, are municipal authorities whose range of action and methods of work do not greatly differ from those of municipal bodies elsewhere. As in all the Soviets, from the bottom to the top, the various departments of the administration are directed by standing sub-committees, and every member of a Soviet has an individual task to perform in controlling or inspecting some of the public institutions or activities for which the Soviet is responsible.

The atmosphere of a Soviet Election in Moscow is, accordingly, rather nearer to that of an English municipal election than to that of a Parliamentary General Election. The problem is to choose practical men and women who will administer with good sense, in accordance with the prevailing views and interests of the electors. They must be in sympathy with the accepted system, but they are not necessarily members of the Communist Party. In the country, indeed, though rarely in the towns, the majority in the lower Soviets is usually "non-party," a phrase which usually implies some degree of sympathy with the Communist Party short of membership or the acceptance of its discipline. When one grasps these more or less inevitable limitations, the method by which the members are chosen seems rather more natural and rather less unreal.

The "Soviet" conception of citizenship is based, of course, upon work and not upon passive residence in a given electoral area. This idea sprang rather from the necessities of the class struggle than from theory, and it cannot be carried out with any precise symmetry. It works best of all in the towns, where each factory or workshop is a natural unit which elects its members to the municipal Soviet. But housewives, and men and women who work single-handed or in very small groups, have to vote by districts, very much as people vote else-where, while in the country the villages or small group of villages form the unit. The life and driving force of the system, however, comes from the factory. There it had its origin; there it found its ironsides in the Civil War; and thence it still draws its most active and zealous supporters. Let us see, then, how they voted in the "Three Hills" mill which we have already explored. [It was by accident rather than design that I chose a textile mill for study. The fighting and ruling forces of the Soviet State were drawn rather from the metal workers.]

On the walls of the factory, when I visited it, some days before the actual election, two lists of candidates had been posted, who sought election to the Moscow City Soviet, and to the less important rayon (ward) Soviet. There were also shorter lists of "substitutes," who would take the places of the elected members in case of death or prolonged absence on other duties. The factory had the right to return one delegate for each 600 of its workers; its allowance was, in fact, fourteen members. The singularity of this list was that it contained fifteen names. At their head stood Lenin. He had been their member while he lived, and they still paid to his memory this touching homage. They would have laughed unpleasantly at the orthodox conception of immorality, but for them the dead hero still lived in his works, and in the hearts of his followers. I thought of the Greek fishermen of the Aegean isles, who will hail one another after a storm with the traditional greeting "Alexander lives and reigns." After Lenin's name came that of Rykoff, his successor as chairman of the council of Commissars (the Russian Cabinet). This factory had been the pioneer in the revolutionary struggle, and it claimed the honor of returning the active head of the Soviet administration as its senior member. The remaining names were all those of workers or former workers in the factory. Seven of the fourteen were, as the list showed, members of the Communist Party; one was a member of the Communist League of Youth, and the rest were "non-party." Three of the fourteen were women.

Here, then, was the official list, containing a bare majority of professed Communists presented to the Electors for their ratification. There was no alternative list. By what method had it been compiled? The first step is that each member of last year's Soviet (the elections are annual) who desires to stand again, presents a report on his or her activity. A meeting then takes place between the Works Council and three hundred delegates, who represent small groups of the various categories of workers. At this meeting names are put forward, and there often follows a thorough discussion of the record and reputation of each. There is usually a vote on each name. In this way the first draft of the official list is compiled, under the supervision of the Works Council. It then goes before separate meetings of the various crafts in the factory, and at these it may be modified. In. its final form it is a selection presented by the Works Council to a general meeting of all the workers in the factory. At this meeting it is still theoretically possible to oppose any name in the list and to put forward another name to replace it; but of this right the electors rarely avail themselves, for the good reason that the preliminary procedure by which the list is prepared, does furnish some guarantee that it corresponds, on the whole, with the wishes of the electors. They are not consciously settling big issues of national policy, nor are they even directly choosing legislators. They are choosing average, trustworthy citizens, who will see that the administrative machine of the city runs efficiently for the common good of the working population. The atmosphere of the election and, indeed, of debates in the Soviets themselves, is strangely remote from "politics" as Western democracies conceive them. A big family, animated by a single purpose, sits down on these occasions to administer its common property.

The factory produces its own newspaper, The Spur, which appears fortnightly and is written entirely by workers under the direction of its branch of the Communist Party. Its contents during the election week are, perhaps, as good a sample as one could find of Soviet politics, as the average town worker sees them.

The number opens with a leading article in which every elector is summoned to take part in the elections. In the villages, we are told, sixty-five percent of the electors voted last year, in the factories eighty-five to ninety-five percent. There follows a commonplace appeal to close the ranks against the enemies of the working class and of the Soviet Government, and to vote for the lists of the Communist Party. Much more characteristic is a version of this appeal in rough rhyme:

"Comrades, remember Ilyich's (Lenin's) watchword. The time is ripe for every servant girl, while she is still in the kitchen, to learn how to govern Russia. The tasks before us are the practical work of building houses and increasing our output. We have many a hardship still to endure, and Russia needs you all. If you feel yourselves ill off, then elect active members of the Soviet to better your case. You are yourselves responsible for your own lot. Don't leave the work to others. Be bold, choose conscientious men who will carry out Lenin's ideas, and then be sure that your hardships will vanish and poverty disappear."

The heavy, business-like part of the election literature consisted in the official report of the Communist Party on. the years' work of the Moscow Soviet. It claimed that the Party had fulfilled its promises. It had increased the output of industry, bettered the conditions of the workers, and kept alive the unity between workers and peasants.

Industry within the county ("government") of Moscow, which is one-fifth of that of all-Russia, produced, in the fiscal year 1924-5, some 1,540 million roubles. The corresponding figure for 1925-6 was 2,150 millions, an increase in output of forty percent in the year. (One may remark that these are not delusive values, for prices were on the whole falling.)

Employment also had increased. In these two years the number of workers employed in industry in the county had risen from 358,400 to 436,800, an increase of twenty-two percent. Compared with pre-war figures, this meant an increase of thirteen percent.

The building and equipment of new industrial plants was going on rapidly. In the former year 13.4 millions were spent on this purpose, and in the latter year 28.8 millions. The estimates for the present year provided for an expenditure under this head of 33 millions.

There followed some statements which were rather less precise, as to the provision of new dwellings, drain-age, electric lighting, and water-supply for the workers' districts. The maintenance of the aged and infirm had been improved; one could note a gradual increase in real wages. Some burdens of taxation (especially on houses) had been lightened. Finally, to encourage farming, a fund of one million roubles had been created which would help to provide live stock and horses for the poorer peasants.

The peroration of this very practical document boasted that these results were due to the participation of the "broad masses" (a characteristic Russian phrase) in the work of governments, "a thing possible only under the Soviet system."

The similar report on the work of the Ward Soviet was on much the same lines. It contained one reference, however, to the aesthetic side of life-trees had been planted to beautify the streets. It noted considerable activity in summoning small private employers (Kustari) for breaches of the labor code.

The rest of the election news consisted of the reports of some of the retiring members of the Soviet. At the risk of wearying the reader, I shall give a few summarized extracts from these documents. Simple and even naive though they were, they seemed to me to reveal in rich, homely detail, more clearly than anything else that I met with in Russia, how in practice "the Soviet works." They may not be unbiased records of what these elected persons did, still less of what they failed to do. But they are outline portraits of these deputies as they hoped the electors would see them. They show incidentally how frank criticism may be under the Dictatorship.

No. 1 (a woman) was responsible for inspecting the houses of the old-age pensioners. She got their daily ration of white bread increased by half a pound, and saw that better meals were provided for the consumptives. She was distressed by conditions at the Labor Exchange; many de-mobilized Red Army men had failed for two years to get work; some workers fainted while waiting at the Exchange; the present manager is not the right man for this post.

No. 2 (a man) occupied himself with education, and stressed his insistence that preference should always be given to the children of the workers.

No. 3 (a woman) claims that, as the result of her inspection of eighteen schools, the expenditure on food, per month, per child, was raised from fifteen to twenty-three roubles.

No. 4 (a man) worked in the health section. He advocated a dispensary for venereal diseases and an increase in the number of beds both for adults and children. He was responsible for sending sick children to Yalta in the Crimea, and got an additional dispensary opened for the tuberculous, making the thirteenth in our district. He got a work-shop for winter use built in the home for children addicted to drugs (these pitiable little wretches are mainly orphans of the civil war and the famine, who for a time ran wild in the towns). He also insisted that less monotonous work ("fancy" sewing instead of making sacks) should be provided for the women who are being reclaimed in the home for prostitutes.

No. 5 (a woman) insisted that bed-linen should be changed monthly instead of fortnightly in the eye hospital.

No. 6 (a man) found many cases in small private workshops in which lads under eighteen were working over eight hours; the employers were prosecuted.

No. 7 (a woman) inspected five factories and found one in which there was no hospital. The workers had to walk seven versts to the nearest. This was remedied.

One does not wonder that expenditure increases, and that the central government is compelled from time to time to swing a ruthless economist's axe. But while the direct expenditure on the workers' children goes up, one notes no corresponding pressure to raise the wretched salaries of the teachers. The Soviet brand of democracy has been no more successful than our West-ern type in correcting this defect in its mechanism.

The final stage in a Russian Election is the general meeting which adopts the candidates and gives them their mandates. I missed this solemnity at the "Three Hills" factory (which, of course, elected the official list according to plan), but I do not doubt that what happened there resembled very closely the meeting which I attended at a big engineering works in Moscow. It employs about two thousand men and women and re-turns four members. The factory gates were carefully closed, for it was fulfilling a military contract, but an efficient pilot soon conducted me to the big work-shed in which the election meeting was going on. Planks had been placed upon barrels, and the big audience, part of it standing, part of it sitting, was listening attentively to an orator in a very simple khaki uniform.

He had obviously some connection with the Army, and I was wondering whether he was a private or non-commissioned officer when my pilot informed me that he was Vorosilof, the Commissar of the Red Army, or, as we should say in the West, the Minister of War. I was soon on the platform watching the faces below me.

There were many more men than women, and most of them seemed young or in the prime of life. I should guess that practically all the two thousand worker-voters must have been present. No speaker could have desired a more attentive audience. All felt, for the moment, alike; all were workers, and Russians; all had the same interests; there was no gap between speakers and audience, which also means that there was no gap between the workers and their government.

Part of the speech dealt in an optimistic mood with the determination of the government to lower prices; but the greater part of it was an answer to the note of remonstrance and menace which the British Government had just addressed to Moscow, by way of protest against its propaganda. Vorosilof was not bellicose, but he was firm in his assertion of the right of Russians to speak their own minds, in their own country, even about the British Government. The Soviet Government, he insisted, had not interfered in China, but Russians would make no secret of their sympathy with the masses of the Chinese nation in their struggle for liberty.

At the end of this speech (as at every pause in the proceedings) a military band played a few bars of The Internationale; the chairman asked the audience if it wished to discuss the speech, and, when hands showed that it had no such wish, the real business of the day began.

First came a deputation from the biggest textile mill in Moscow, the Three Hills Factory. A woman announced that it had elected the Communist list unanimously, and she urged us to do likewise and so give Sir Austen Chamberlain his answer. The band played, the audience cheered, and it was obvious that no further eloquence was needed.

The chairman then asked us if we had all read the Nakaz (manifesto). Our hands said "Yes." Did we agree with it? "Why, yes, of course," again said all the hands. Did we want to add anything to it? It seemed that we did. The textile factory wanted us to demand more tramway lines, and to insist that more room should be found for workers by limiting the number of "Nep men" (profiteers) who might inhabit any tenement, by ten percent. Why not?

Two rather handsome young girls of the "Pioneer" organization, resplendent in red ties, then came forward with two amendments. They insisted that more should be done for the homeless children of Moscow, and-could one conceive such a thing outside Russia?-they wanted more teaching of foreign languages in all schools. That, they maintained, was essential if we were to be good internationalists. We voted again and the proposals of the Pioneer girls were adopted. As they voted, they held their hands above their heads with their five fingers spread out-a naive symbol which means in their ritual: "The five Continents of the earth are more to me even than my own land."

And then at last came the election. The Works Council (the standing council of shop stewards) had a list to propose to us. The name of Vorosilof headed it in an honorary capacity, and then came four workers of the factory. We all cheered. We all assented. No one wanted to make any other nomination.

One read a glow of content and good fellowship on every face, and, as the proceedings closed, a private of the Red Air Force came to the platform and declared that if a rupture should come with Great Britain, he and his fellows would do their duty. I could not imagine a parallel proceeding at home. With us, privates do not speak as the equals of the Minister of War from the same fraternal platform.

A little startled, I began to realize that the election was over. It was exactly like what we call at home an "eve-of-the-poll rally." But with us, when we hold such a demonstration, we have the uncomfortable knowledge that at the same moment, in another hall, our opponents are holding an exactly similar meeting. In Russia it has been discovered that the other meeting is superfluous.

Its civic duty over, the audience felt genial and expansive. It formed itself into a procession, with the band at its head, and tramped to the House of the Moscow Soviet to demonstrate against the British Note. A big decorated car led the way, with torchbearers round it.

In the car, conspicuous in a silk hat, rose a youth who represented Sir Austen Chamberlain under arrest. A Red soldier guarded him, while a Chinaman and a not very convincing English miner triumphed at his defeat.

I think that in any event unanimity would have been attained, which, indeed, is the purpose of elections in Russia. But certainly Sir Austen Chamberlain helped us to reach it with more than the customary cordiality and good feeling.

Next: Chapter 4: A Village and its Soviet