How the Soviets Work


To explore modern Russia, or to discuss the Soviet system, without some understanding of the Communist Party would be, of all intellectual adventures, the most fruitless. If the present Russian constitution as it stands on paper were taken over by any other people, without a disciplined Communist Party to work it, it would break down, amid a hopeless clash of competing authorities, within the first year. The Party is the cement which holds the loose structure together. The Constitution has, indeed, no interest, save as the framework which the party has chosen for its administrative work.

The difficulty of studying this party is that nothing like it exists on the earth today, or ever before our time made its appearance in history. It has sometimes been compared to Plato's "guardians," the trained super-men whom he invented to govern his ideal city. But the analogy does less than justice to the amazing feat that stands to the Party's credit. For the guardians were not only trained from infancy for their task; they were actually bred for it, so that heredity should combine with education to make them a superior caste. The Communists, on the other hand, were drawn by a majority from the lower and least privileged classes of the Russian population. Certainly the Party would never have come into existence without the leadership of men who had enjoyed a higher education. Lenin, Trotsky, and, indeed, most of the better-known leaders came from the "intelligentsia," but the main body of the party has al-ways consisted of manual workers, and the proportion of "intellectuals" within it has steadily diminished since the Revolution. It placed these manual workers from the start in high positions in the army and in the administration. If they claimed, like Plato's guardians, the right to rule by reason of their fitness for responsibility, it was not because of any advantage in birth or education. At every stage of their struggle, they were challenging and defeating castes and. classes and parties which had an overwhelming advantage over them in these respects. Even their Socialist rivals reckoned in their ranks a far higher percentage of men and women who had enjoyed a university education.

One might amuse oneself by comparing the Party with the Jesuits, who set up a quasi-Communist State among the Indians of Paraguay in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These missionary fathers were also an international team, which included men from every Catholic country in Europe. Spaniards and Germans and Irishmen worked harmoniously together, much as Russians in Moscow work with Jews, Georgians, Poles, and Bulgarians. They, too, were knit together by a common doctrine, based on authority, and they, too, were subject to a rigid moral discipline. But they had two advantages over this Russian party. They had received a common education in the Jesuit colleges. And they were raised, by their trained minds and their possession of European science, far above the heads of the simple aborigines whom they governed.

The Communists (who adopted this name only after their seizure of power) have a characteristic history behind them. They were not the pioneers in the Russian revolutionary struggle. The first socialist group which deserved the name of a party were the Narodniki (or the party of the peoples' will) who were active in the "seventies" and "eighties" of the last century. They were almost exclusively intellectuals; they sprang into life in the universities, and they included several men and women who were aristocrats by birth. Their spiritual fathers were the Russian writers, Herzen and Tchernichevsky; they were not Marxists. Their dream was to realize in Russia some native form of socialism. They idealized the peasants, and imagined that in certain feeble survivals of primitive communism, notably the village meeting or mir, which used to distribute the common land, there was a foundation on which Utopia might be built. Their impulse was the deep pity of generous youth for these peasants who had lacked the advantages to which it was born. With that genius for self-sacrifice, of which Russians are so often capable, they stripped themselves of the advantages and comforts to which they were born, and went into the villages as nurses or teachers, with the double purpose of improving their conditions and rousing them for the revolutionary struggle. This noble impulse had no lasting result save that it stimulated Tourgeniev to write Virgin Soil. But this group believed also in less innocent methods. It took to assassinating conspicuously odious officials as enemies of the people, and provoked a furious repression by the murder of Czar Alexander II.

Its successor was the Social Revolutionary Party, which grew slowly, until, between the March and November revolutions, it was much the biggest party in Russia. It, too, practised terrorism, at times on a great scale. It, too, believed that Russia could achieve socialism without passing through the phase of Western industrialism. It looked to the peasants to act under the spur of land-hunger as the striking force of the Revolution. It had its tinge of Russian patriotism, and on the whole supported the Allies in the World War. It, too, was at first a party of "intellectuals" and only gradually (though at last on a large scale) enlisted a following among the more prosperous and better educated peas-ants. It, too, was anti-Marxist in doctrine, though it was affiliated to the Second Socialist International. Its temperament (for parties, like individuals, have temperament) was romantic, sentimental, and anti-scientific; its strong point was never organization; one thinks of the orator Kerensky and the novelist and guerilla-leader Boris Savinkof as its most typical men in recent times.

Against these parties, which were the characteristic expression of the mind of Russian intelligentsia, ardent, sentimental, and gifted rather for success in the arts than in science and practical life, the Russian Social Democratic Party arose by way of intellectual reaction. It was, from the first, European in its inspiration. It based itself on Marx, and believed in the economic interpretation of history. The struggle of classes, on this view, is decided by the evolution of the forms of production; as the industrial age, in its first phases, brought about the triumph of the capitalist and mercantile middle class over the feudal nobility and led to the growth of the democratic state, so, in its later phases, the growth in numbers and the coming to consciousness of the industrial workers must lead, in turn, to the proletarian revolution and the triumph of socialism. The scientific conviction that this is an inevitable process of history, gives to minds which embrace it, a steely resolution and a stern faith in their cause which often recall the temper of the Puritan Ironsides of the seventeenth century, who had learned from Calvin to look to history with the same unshakable confidence, though he traced its workings to the predestination of an Almighty God, where Marx saw the operation of economic causes. This Party would hear of no short cuts to Utopia. Russia, like the West, must pass through the smoke and degradation of the industrial age before it could compass the social revolution or see the sunshine of the socialist era. The Party accordingly disdained the unscientific "mysticism" of the "S.R.'s" (Social Revolutionists), neglected the peasants as unripe material, and devoted all its efforts to rousing and organizing the manual workers of the towns which, within the forcing frame of Count Witte's high protectionist policy, were growing rapidly. The Social Democrats believed only in mass action, the classical tactics of an armed revolt of the urban population, and condemned the use of individual terrorism by the S.R.'s as futile sentimentalism.

Both parties lived "underground." They could enjoy within Russia no open or lawful existence. Even when their deputies began to find their way to the Duma, they were liable to be tried under the article of the code which made the advocacy of any fundamental change in the State a capital offence. They met in secret. Their active members were known often to each other only by numbers. Their leaders invariably came to use noms de guerre, flitted about from garret to garret in a perpetual game of hide and seek with the police, and survived only by providing themselves with false passports. Every, active member graduated in the prisons of Czardom, and, after one or two periods of imprisonment, the next offence (which might be nothing worse than the circulation of Socialist literature or the organization of an evening class for workmen) would mean banishment to Siberia. Their literature was either printed on a secret press in some impenetrable cellar, or smuggled across the frontier. The higher leadership and the active thinking of both parties were soon concentrated in the centers where exiles congregated in the free West.

There has been no such school for character since religious persecution ceased. The idle, the comfortable, the complacent, the sensual-these did not join the Socialist parties. Their councils were not haunted by the careerists who see their opportunity even in the labor organizations of the West. Save for the risk that a spy or an agent provocateur of the police might find his way into these ranks, the motives of these devoted men and women were inevitably pure. If weaklings joined the party in a fleeting mood of enthusiasm, the test of the Czar's prisons might soon be trusted to winnow them out. This life of peril was ill suited to the impractical idealist who cannot work with others, or to the babbler who cannot keep a secret inviolate. The safety of all engaged in these vast conspiracies (for any sort of socialist or Trade Unionist activity was, for the police, conspiracy) compelled the adoption of an iron discipline. The party might enjoy a democratic constitution, choose its leaders, and define its principles and tactics after open discussion and voting; but once a decision was taken by the majority, implicit obedience was required. In action (at all events in what was later the Communist Party) , every member was a soldier who must be ready to carry out the orders of his superior, whether an individual or a committee, without discussion or hesitation. The Communist Party, in the most literal sense of the words, disposed, and still disposes, of the lives, the energies, and the time of its adherents. An urgent call for two active workers, one, let us say, for Archangel and the other for Odessa, may reach a branch, and the choice may fall on a man and his wife, who will say farewell and go each to the post of danger, knowing that they may never meet again. If this life bred heroism and a noble hardness, it also tended to a suppression of the individual judgment and individual conscience, which seems amazing when we reflect that these men and women are above the average in activity of mind and will-power. It is, I suppose, the ever-present sense of danger, as well as a deep faith in the cause, which explains it. In conspiracies as in armies, obedience is the only rule of safety. Dodging the Czarist police, these conspirators, though in some respects they preserved a Quixotic chivalry, came to be indifferent to the lesser conventions of morality. Their names were lies; they wore lies; they spoke lies. The end justified the means.

The "Bolshevik" Party was the most audacious expression of this revolutionary self-confidence. Lenin created it by the deliberate promotion of a split within the Social Democratic Party. The issue was one of tactics. Since, on any reading of history, even the Marxist reading, a political revolution against Czardom for the conquest of democratic liberties was fated to occur be-fore the social revolution, ought a Socialist party to hasten it by making a temporary alliance with the liberal parties? One section, led by the courtly and scholarly Plekhanov, answered "yes." It afterwards condemned the recourse of the workers to the barricades in the Moscow rising, and in due course some of its leaders (notably Plekhanov) developed a transient patriotism during the great war.

At the head of the uncompromising majority, Lenin forced the issue, and drove this big minority (the Mensheviki) out of the party. He wanted no drawing room revolutionists; he was bent on a class policy and on class tactics. Among the Socialist leaders of his generation, he, almost alone, had the naivete and the originality to believe in every muscle and nerve, what every mouth professed-the imminence and possibility of the social revolution. And so he did what few commanders since Gideon have ever dared to do; he deliberately reduced his army and rejoiced as he saw it dwindle. For he believed that when the hour of destiny should strike, amid the appropriate economic conditions, the iron will of a small resolute group would suffice to rally the town workers and to mobilize them for the enforcement of a proletarian dictatorship. Neither Lenin, however, nor any of the inner group, would have predicted in 1917 that the social revolution could survive for long in a country so industrially backward as Russia. What they aimed at was the lighting of a beacon which should be the signal for revolution, first in Germany and then throughout the West. They underestimated the power of the human weapon which they had forged. It triumphed over the incapable and self-indulgent "whites" of the middle and upper classes, partly, no doubt, because the peasants were resolved to hold the land, partly because Western intervention roused Russian patriotism, but also because the Communists were, in discipline and character, incomparably the superiors of their adversaries.

It was obvious, from the moment that the Bolsheviks seized power, that a subtle moral danger threatened their organization. They made a clean sweep of the old governing class and the trained bureaucracy, alike in the civil service, the army, the local administration, and the courts. There were places to be filled by the thousand, and these they filled deliberately from their own limited membership, which often included men and women who had taught themselves with difficulty to read and write. Should they open their ranks to better-qualified converts from other parties? At first the risk that time-servers would wish to join them was not very great. They still lived dangerously. Few believed during the first years in the permanence of their revolution. Their members were still expected to risk their lives without stint. They were the shock troops, to which fell every forlorn hope during the civil war; they held the risky commands; they must journey to distant villages which threatened to revolt, and, if one of their armies was defeated, every prisoner who could be identified as a communist was remorselessly shot. None the less, the doors of the party were opened even in these years of peril only cautiously to would-be members. Only once, at the moment in 1919 when the Whites were at the height of their power, and Denikin and Judenitch were simultaneously within striking distance of Petrograd and Moscow, were all comers invited to join. There could be no doubt of the loyalty of those who at that moment faced the risks of the mass executions which would have followed a White victory. But the system of strict scrutiny was resumed when this hour of extreme peril had passed.

It is difficult for those who think of the Communists as a party like another, to gain any idea of the difficulty of entering it, and even of remaining within it. Combine the tests which a man must pass to enter the Catholic priesthood and the old German General Staff, and one begins to grasp the fineness of this sieve. There is a preliminary stage of probation through which every candidate must pass, and during this stage his conduct is watched with minute scrutiny. Even after the novice has acquired full membership, the scrutiny does not cease. Expulsions are frequent, and from time to time a wholesale purge is carried out which may result in the dismissal of hundreds of thousands of slack or unworthy members.

The tests are both intellectual and moral. The candidate must undergo a regular course of instruction, both in Marxist theory (which Russians now tend to call Leninism) and in the methods of practical work for the party. At its close comes an examination, a test both of orthodoxy and of intelligence, at which many candidates are "plucked." The scrutiny which a branch carries out before it admits a candidate, or receives him as a full member, concerns itself with his record, his opinions, his personal character, and his zeal in the service of the Party. There is not much chance for a man who ever wavered in his allegiance to the Socialist cause, nor for a man who has been a speculator or a profiteer; a fondness for drink may disqualify; but perhaps the most fatal objection to any man or woman is that there are still traces in his thinking of "a bourgeois mentality." For this reason the tests are applied with much greater severity against an "intellectual" than against a manual worker. While the policy, during the last year, has been to admit the workers with comparative ease, a rich man may more easily enter the Kingdom of Heaven than an intellectual the Communist Party. Does this mean that the intellectuals who are safely within the fold dread the competition of new comers? Is it due to the fear which manual workers often feel of the trained minds of men who have had a professional education? Does it spring from a well-grounded belief that educated men will be less docile, more critical, less passive under an imposed rule of orthodoxy? Or is it due to the genuine belief that there is an outlook on life, a code of morals, even a standard in matters of aesthetic taste, natural to workers but very difficult for a "bourgeois" to acquire? Whatever the explanation, the fact is that the Party is all but closed, for the time being, to new corners from the "intelligentsia."

The religious orders took their vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity. Chastity is not a virtue on which Communist morality insists, but obedience and a measure of poverty it exacts. For non-discipline the penalty for a great man may be a public reprimand and the loss of his high office-the fate which lately befell Trotsky, Zinoviev, and some of their friends. The former made the Red Army and the latter the Third International, but the Party felt itself strong enough to dispense with their services in these all-important posts. For lesser men the fall is apt to be more abrupt, and the penalty ranges from loss of membership, to exile to some remote and undesirable part of the vast extent of Russia.

A relative poverty is enforced by the remarkable institution of the Party Maximum Salary, known as the part max. No member may receive in any public employment more than a certain general maximum, which varies somewhat, from district to district, with the cost of living. In Moscow it is 225 roubles a month and in Vladimir 189 roubles. A nominal salary of $112 in Moscow has a considerably lower purchasing power than it would have in other countries. Even a Commissar receives no more. A Communist who happens to be a director of the state bank draws the "part. max," though a colleague who ranks as a "non-partisan" may receive several times his remuneration. A "Red Director" of a factory draws his fixed "maximum" and can never expect a higher salary, while the non-partisan expert ("specialist"), who serves under him, receives in most cases substantially more. A man who is at once able and honorable will not enter the party with any reckoning that it may open the road to riches for him.

There remains, however, the case of the man who has ability and energy but is not burdened by a sense of honor. For him, undoubtedly, the Party offers opportunities which he may grasp-at his peril. Cases do occur-indeed, they are far too frequent-in which Communists who have obtained some coveted appointment cease to lead austere lives, and pay for their pleasures by taking bribes, or even by embezzlement on a large scale. A shocking instance was reported in the press while I was in Russia. Six men who had risen to fill the chief executive posts in a Siberian county ("Government") gave themselves up to a gay life, and embezzled over fifty thousand roubles of public money between them. The scandal had gone on for a consider-able time. In the end they were discovered, tried, and shot without mercy. There was, about two years ago, an epidemic of scandals of this kind; I gathered that they have been less frequent of late.

Manifestly, no vigilance can now guarantee the party against the entry of men whose motive is personal advancement. The period of danger is over. The winnowing fan of persecution no longer sifts the ranks. A man, indeed, is safer in the Party than outside it, and most men in Russia reckon now on the permanence of the Revolution. The maximum salary may be much less than an able non-member can earn. But unquestionably a man of good but not unusual ability, especially if he is a manual worker, will advance more rapidly to a position of importance in his factory, or in some branch of the public administration, and may even command a higher salary than he would otherwise obtain, if he can get himself admitted to the Party.

There are, however, some balancing considerations. The Party makes the most exacting demands on the time of its members. I have heard members lamenting that they rarely have a free evening to spend with their families or over a book. It often happens that a man will resign his membership in the Party solely because it makes intolerable inroads on his leisure, and exacts from him service beyond the measure of his health and strength. A bustling, energetic man may feel in his element, but now that the excitement of the period of revolution and civil war are over, the Party has fewer attractions for men of a reflective temper. It would be impossible to say how far the dominant motive in the Party is now personal ambition or the disinterested wish to serve one's kind and advance one's ideals. My own impression is that on the whole two sections of the Party would emerge from the test as successfully as human frailty allows-the older men who have risen to high positions after passing through the fiery trial of Czarist persecution, and the mass of the older men in the humbler ranks, who never aspire to rise above their modest positions. The careerists are to be found rather in the intermediate ranks, filling minor posts in the provincial administration or in industry. It is among these that the more painful scandals are apt to occur.

A new generation is rising, meantime, which has been educated since the Revolution in schools which aim at teaching a Socialist outlook. Immense numbers of these boys and girls pass through the two youth organizations-the Pioneers, for children up to sixteen years, and the League of Youth, which includes young men and women up to twenty-three years of age. These organizations have some outward resemblance to the British "scouts" and the very different German Youth Movement. They encourage sport and lead in summer a jolly open-air life. They sing and dance and organize theatrical entertainments. But they are also vehemently political, and devote themselves to the serious study of Marxist economics and the whole Communist philosophy of life. They train themselves, even as Pioneers, in the performance of all manner of social services. Sometimes a group will help to teach the illiterate to read. Town boys will carry their propaganda into the villages for the benefit of peasant lads of their own age. Sometimes they will help peasants to repair their machines, or cultivate a war-widow's fields for her. They are active in Moscow in helping to rescue the miserable orphans of the war and the famine, who have lapsed into a life of crime and drunkenness. These organizations are creating a type of character and an outlook on life which is instinctively social, and unlike anything that can flourish in a society which admires and cultivates the competitive virtues. These young people, as they attain manhood and womanhood, are encouraged to seek election to the Soviets and to undertake responsible work. They furnish recruits to the Party, but even they do not enter it without probation and close scrutiny, and many who have passed through both the youth organizations fail to satisfy the final tests. I imagine that those who have had this training are less likely to succumb to the temptations of power than the average recent convert who enters the Party in mature life without undergoing the discipline of persecution.

The Communist Party, shaped by Lenin's strong hand, developed a peculiar character which rested mainly on three original features. Firstly, it was formed by a process of rigid selection; it always preferred to lose rather than to retain timid groups and half-hearted or unworthy individuals. In the second place, it subjected itself to the most rigid discipline, and every vital decision was taken at the center. Thirdly, in spite of this centralization, it knew how to evoke and maintain the utmost activity of every individual member. It has never lost these peculiarities, but for a time the precarious harmony between its ideal of centralized authority and its habit of individual responsibility was in grave danger. The peril began with Lenin's death, or even during the last phases of his long illness. Everyone was nervous. What would be the effect on the Party and on the outer world of the removal of this unique genius? Could the succession run smoothly? Would jealousies break out among the leadersz which would have their echoes in the Party?

The result was that an almost morbid mood of super-loyalty and superdiscipline followed, by way of response to this peril. There was a cult of unanimity. The de-bates within the ranks, which kept the Party healthy and alive, were damped down. The central organization assumed such powers that it took to nominating or suggesting the names of the secretaries and other officials whom the branches should elect freely. The fear and silence which every Dictatorship imposes on the outer world began to spread among the dictators themselves. For a time the Party was in danger of becoming a mute regiment under the orders of a group in Moscow who held every appointment in their hands and might soon be able to organize the congresses which nominally elected them and decide the policy of the Party. Members who showed any initiative or alertness of independent thought at branch meetings began to be shunned and cold-shouldered. "Leninism" was imposed as a rigid and unquestionable orthodoxy, and since, like every revelation, it must be interpreted, the officials of the Party in Moscow assumed the priestly robes. Had this state of things continued, the Party would soon have become intolerable to self-respecting men.

It fell to Trotsky to lead the protest, and he did it, last year, boldly and with contempt for tact, as his manner is. In his attack on the economic policy of the majority, he was (if an outsider may judge) entirely in the wrong, and there he failed and deserved to fail. In his demand for a restoration of democracy within the Party, he was wholly in the right, and there he succeeded. The spell of silence was broken by the mere fact that he forced a thorough public discussion within the Party of the main issues of Russian policy. The atmosphere today is, beyond all comparison, cleaner and healthier. There is less silence and less sycophancy. There is less centralization. An "Opposition" exists within the Party, which includes some of its ablest men. It may be wrong-headed; it may represent no coherent view. But it is strong enough to force a thorough debate on every issue that emerges, and loyal enough, when the whole Party has debated the point, to bow to the decision of its vote. In short the Party lives, for it continues to combine democracy with discipline.

Communist Statistics: Some figures relating to the Communist Party may be of interest. In the early days of the revolution its membership varied round about the figure of 200,000 for the whole of Russia. It has had as many as 700,000 members, but, on reaching this maximum, it applied a drastic purge. I am able to give the figures disclosed by the census taken on October 1, 1926. The very large number of "Candidates" reveals the intention to make a large addition to the Party membership; indeed, it probably numbers today approximately a million full members.

The full membership in the whole Soviet Union amounted last October to 684,824 of whom 75,640 were women. The Candidates numbered 412,032, including 68,163 women. There were 32,119 nuclei (branches) and 3,033 groups for the instruction of candidates.

In addition, there were 49,991 full members and 34,222 candidates in military service-a large figure in an army of 560,000 men.

Some 1,300 Communists must be added who were in service abroad.

The following table shows the social composition not, indeed, of the Party, but of the Candidates who are now seeking to join it. "Intellectuals," I may remind the reader, do not pass the gate easily. The figures are based on 51,596 applications received by sixty-three percent of the nuclei of the Union between 1st July and 1st December, 1926. They are all percentages.

Women 12.8
Factory workers 25.4
Transport workers 7.8
Other industrial wage-earners 6.3
Agricultural laborers 5.3
Peasants living by cultivating their own land 24.2
Peasants who combine cultivation with industrial work as wage-earners 5.6
Artisans and handicraft workers 1.2
Employees (largely clerks) 21.0
Teachers 2.1
Agricultural experts and instructors 0.3
Others (military, students, housewives, etc.) 3.2
Members of the League of youth 24.6

Next: Chapter 9: A Soviet Election