Arthur Ransome
The Crisis in Russia


How is that will expressed? What is the organization welded by adversity which, in this crisis, supersedes even the Soviet Constitution, and stands between this people and chaos?

It is a commonplace to say that Russia is ruled, driven if you like, cold, starving as she is, to effort after effort by the dictatorship of a party. It is a commonplace alike in the mouths of those who wish to make the continued existence of that organization impossible and in the mouths of the Communists themselves. At the second congress of the Third International, Trotsky remarked. "A party as such, in the course of the development of a revolution, becomes identical with the revolution." Lenin, on the same occasion, replying to a critic who said that he differed from, the Communists in his understanding of what was meant by the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, said, "He says that we understand by the words 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' what is actually the dictatorship of its determined and conscious minority. And that is the fact." Later he asked, "What is this minority? It may be called a party. If this minority is actually conscious, if it is able to draw the masses after it, if it shows itself capable of replying to every question on the agenda list of the political day, it actually constitutes a party." And Trotsky again, on the same occasion, illustrated the relative positions of the Soviet Constitution and the Communist Party when he said, "And today, now that we have received an offer of peace from the Polish Government, who decides the question? Whither are the workers to turn? We have our Council of People's Commissaries, of course, but that, too, must be under a certain control. Whose control? The control of the working class as a formless chaotic mass? No. The Central Committee of the party is called together to discuss and decide the question. And when we have to wage war, to form new divisions, to find the best elements for them-to whom do we turn? To the party, to the Central Committee. And it gives directives to the local committees, 'Send Communists to the front.' The case is precisely the same with the Agrarian question, with that of supply, and with all other questions whatsoever."

No one denies these facts, but their mere statement is quite inadequate to explain what is being done in Russia and how it is being done. I do not think it would be a waste of time to set down as briefly as possible, without the comments of praise or blame that would be inevitable from one primarily interested in the problem from the Capitalist or Communist point of view what, from observation and inquiry, I believe to be the main framework of the organization whereby that dictatorship of the party works.

The Soviet Constitution is not so much moribund as in abeyance. The Executive Committee, for example, which used to meet once a week or even oftener, now meets on the rarest occasions. Criticism on this account was met with the reply that the members of the Executive Committee were busy on the front and in various parts of Russia. As a matter of fact, the work which that Committee used to do is now done by Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, so that the bulk of the 150 members of the Central Executive are actually free for other work, a saving of something like 130 men. This does not involve any very great change, but merely an economy in the use of men. In the old days, as I well remember, the opening of a session of the Executive Committee was invariably late, the reason being that the various parties composing it had not yet finished their preliminary and private discussions. There is now an overwhelming Communist majority in the Executive Committee, as elsewhere. I think it may be regarded as proved that these majorities are not always legitimately obtained. Non-Communist delegates do undoubtedly find every kind of difficulty put in their way by the rather Jesuitical adherents of the faith. But. no matter how these majorities are obtained, the result is that when the Communist Party has made up its mind on any subject, it is so certain of being able to carry its point that the calling together of the All-Russian Executive Committee is merely a theatrical demonstration of the fact that it can do what it likes. When it does meet, the Communists allow the microscopical opposition great liberty of speech, listen quietly, cheer ironically, and vote like one man, proving on every occasion that the meeting of the Executive Committee was the idlest of forms, intended rather to satisfy purists than for purposes of discussion, since the real discussion has all taken place beforehand among the Communists themselves. Something like this must happen with every representative assembly at which a single party has a great preponderance and a rigid internal discipline. The real interest is in the discussion inside the Party Committees.

This state of affairs would probably be more actively resented if the people were capable of resenting anything but their own hunger, or of fearing anything but a general collapse which would turn that hunger into starvation. It must be remembered that the urgency of the economic crisis has driven political questions into the background. The Communists (compare Rykov's remarks on this subject, p. 175) believe that this is the natural result of social revolution. They think that political parties will disappear altogether and that people will band together, not for the victory of one of several contending political parties, but solely for economic cooperation or joint enterprise in art or science. In support of this they point to the number of their opponents who have become Communists, and to the still greater number of non-Communists who are loyally working with them for the economic reconstruction of the country. I do not agree with the Communists in this, nor yet with their opponents, who attribute the death of political discussion to fear of the Extraordinary Commission. I think that both the Communists and their opponents underestimate the influence of the economic ruin that affects everybody. The latter particularly, feeling that in some way they must justify themselves to politically minded foreign visitors, seek an excuse for their apathy in the one institution that is almost universally unpopular. I have many non-Communist friends in Russia, but have never detected the least restraint that could be attributed to fear of anybody in their criticisms of the Communist regime. The fear existed alike among Communists and non-Communists, but it was like the fear of people walking about in a particularly bad thunderstorm. The activities and arrests of the Extraordinary Commission are so haphazard, often so utterly illogical, that it is quite idle for any one to say to himself that by following any given line of conduct he will avoid molestation. Also, there is something in the Russian character which makes any prohibition of discussion almost an invitation to discuss. I have never met a Russian who could be prevented from saying whatever he liked whenever he liked, by any threats or dangers whatsoever. The only way to prevent a Russian from talking is to cut out his tongue. The real reason for the apathy is that, for the moment, for almost everybody political questions are of infinitesimal importance in comparison with questions of food and warmth. The ferment of political discussion that filled the first years of the revolution has died away, and people talk about little but what they are able to get for dinner, or what somebody else his been able to get. I, like other foreign visitors coming to Russia after feeding up in other countries, am all agog to make people talk. But the sort of questions which interest me, with my full-fed stomach, are brushed aside almost fretfully by men who have been more or less hungry for two or three years on end.

I find, instead of an urgent desire to alter this or that at once, to-morrow, in the political complexion of the country, a general desire to do the best that can be done with things as they are, a general fear of further upheaval of any kind, in fact a general acquiescence in the present state of affairs politically, in the hope of altering the present state of affairs economically. And this is entirely natural. Everybody, Communists included, rails bitterly at the inefficiencies of the present system, but everybody, Anti-Communists included, admits that there is nothing whatever capable of taking its place. Its failure is highly undesirable, not because it itself is good, but because such failure would be preceded or followed by a breakdown of all existing organizations. Food distribution, inadequate as it now is, would come to an end. The innumerable non-political committees, which are rather like Boards of Directors controlling the Timber, Fur, Fishery, Steel, Matches or other Trusts (since the nationalized industries can be so considered) would collapse, and with them would collapse not only yet one more hope of keeping a breath of life in Russian industry, but also the actual livelihoods of a great number of people, both Communists and non-Communists. I do not think it is realized out-side Russia how large a proportion of the educated classes have become civil servants of one kind or another. It is a rare thing when a whole family has left Russia, and many of the most embittered partisans of war on Russia have relations inside Russia who have long ago found places under the new system, and consequently fear its collapse as much as any one. One case occurs to me in which a father was an important minister in one of the various White Governments which have received Allied support, while his son inside Russia was doing pretty well as a responsible official under the Communists. Now in the event of a violent change, the Communists would be outlaws with a price on every head, and those who have worked with them, being Russians, know their fellow countrymen well enough to be pretty well convinced that the mere fact that they are without cards of the membership of the Communist Party, would not save them in the orgy of slaughter that would follow any such collapse.

People may think that I underestimate the importance of, the Extraordinary Commission. I am perfectly aware that without this police force with its spies, its prisons and its troops, the difficulties of the Dictatorship would be increased by every kind of disorder, and the chaos, which I fear may come, would have begun long ago. I believe, too, that the overgrown power of the Extraordinary Commission, and the cure that must sooner or later be applied to it, may, as in the French Revolution, bring about the collapse of the whole system. The Commission depends for its strength on the fear of something else. I have seen it weaken when there was a hope of general peace. I have seen it tighten its grip in the presence of attacks from without and attempted assassination within. It is dreaded by everybody; not even Communists are safe from it; but it does not suffice to explain the Dictatorship, and is actually entirely irrelevant to the most important process of that Dictatorship, namely, the adoption of a single idea, a single argument, by the whole of a very large body of men. The whole power of the Extraordinary Commission does not affect in the slightest degree discussions inside the Communist Party, and those discussions are the simple fact distinguishing the Communist Dictatorship from any of the other dictatorships by which it may be supplanted.

There are 600,000 members of the Communist Party (611,978 on April 2, 1920). There are nineteen members of the Central Committee of that party. There are, I believe, five who, when they agree, can usually sway the remaining fourteen. There is no need to wonder how these fourteen can be argued into acceptance of the views of the still smaller inner ring, but the process of persuading the six hundred thousand of the desirability of, for example, such measures as those involved in industrial conscription which, at first sight, was certainly repugnant to most of them, is the main secret of the Dictatorship, and is not in any way affected by the existence of the Extraordinary Commission.

Thus the actual government of Russia at the present time may be not unfairly considered as a small group inside the Central Committee of the Communist Party. This small group is able to persuade the majority of the remaining members of that Committee. The Committee then sets about persuading the majority of the party. In the case of important measures the process is elaborate. The Committee issues a statement of its case, and the party newspapers the Pravda and its affiliated organs are deluged with its discussion. When this discussion has had time to spread through the country, congresses of Communists meet in the provincial centres, and members of the Central Committee go down to these conferences to defend the "theses" which the Committee has issued. These provincial congresses, exclusively Communist, send their delegates of an All-Russian Congress. There the "theses" of the Central Committee get altered, confirmed, or, in the case of an obviously unpersuaded and large opposition in the party, are referred back or in other ways shelved. Then the delegates, even those who have been in opposition at the congress, go back to the country pledged to defend the position of the majority. This sometimes has curious results. For example, I heard Communist Trades Unionists fiercely arguing against certain clauses in the theses on industrial conscription at a Communist Congress at the Kremlin; less than a week afterwards I heard these same men defending precisely these clauses at a Trades Union Congress over the way, they loyally abiding by the collective opinion of their fellow Communists and subject to particularly uncomfortable heckling from people who vociferously reminded them (since the Communist debates had been published) that they were now defending what, a few days before, they had vehemently attacked.

The great strength of the Communist Party is comparable to the strength of the Jesuits, who, similarly, put themselves and their opinions at the disposal of the body politic of their fellow members. Until a decision had been made, a Communist is perfectly free to do his best to prevent it being made, to urge alterations in it, or to supply a rival decision, but once it has been made he will support it without changing his private opinion. In all mixed congresses, rather than break the party discipline, he will give his vote for it, speak in favor of it, and use against its adversaries the very arguments that have been used against himself. He has his share in electing the local Communist Committee, and, indirectly, in electing the all-powerful Central Committee of the party, and he binds himself to do at any moment in his life exactly what these Committees decide for him. These Committees decide the use that is to be made of the lives, not only of the rank and file of the party, but also of their own members. Even a member of the Central Committee does not escape. He may be voted by his fellow members into leaving a job he likes and taking up another he detests in which they think his particular talents will better serve the party aims. To become a member of the Communist Party involves a kind of intellectual abdication, or, to put it differently, a readiness at any moment to place the collective wisdom of the party's Committee above one's individual instincts or ideas. You may influence its decisions, you may even get it to endorse your own, but Lenin himself, if he were to fail on any occasion to obtain the agreement of a majority in the Central Committee, would have to do precisely what the Committee should tell him. Lenin's opinion carries great weight because he is Lenin, but it carries less weight than that of the Central Committee, of which he forms a nineteenth part. On the other hand, the opinion of Lenin and a very small group of outstanding figures is supported by great prestige inside the Committee, and that of the Committee is supported by overwhelming prestige among the rank and file. The result is that this small group is nearly always sure of being able to use the whole vote of 600,000 Communists, in the realization of its decisions.

Now 600,000 men and women acting on the instructions of a highly centralized directive, all the important decisions of which have been thrashed out and re-thrashed until they have general support within the party; 600,000 men and women prepared, not only to vote in support of these decisions, but with a carefully fostered readiness to sacrifice their lives for them if necessary; 600,000 men and women who are persuaded that by their way alone is humanity to be saved; who are persuaded (to put it as cynically and unsympathetically as possible) that the noblest death one can die is in carrying out a decision of the Central Committee; such a body, even in a country such as Russia, is an enormously strong embodiment of human will, an instrument of struggle capable of working something very like miracles. It can be and is controlled like an army in battle. It can mobilize its members, 10 per cent. of them, 50 per cent., the local Committees choosing them, and send them to the front when the front is in danger, or to the railways and repair shops when it is decided that the weakest point is that of transport. If its only task were to fight those organizations of loosely knit and only momentarily united interests which are opposed to it, those jerry-built alliances of Reactionaries with Liberals, United-Indivisible-Russians with Ukrainians, Agrarians with Sugar-Refiners, Monarchists with Republicans, that task would long ago have been finished. But it has to fight something infinitely stronger than these in fighting the economic ruin of Russia, which, if it is too strong, too powerful to be arrested by the Communists, would make short work of those who are without any such fanatic single-minded and perfectly disciplined organization.