Arthur Ransome
The Crisis in Russia


We come now to the Communist plans for reconstruction. We have seen, in the first two chapters, something of the appalling paralysis which is the most striking factor in the economic problem to-day. We have seen how Russia is suffering from a lack of things and from a lack of labor, how these two shortages react on each other, and how nothing but a vast improvement in transport can again set in motion what was one of the great food-producing machines of the world. We have also seen something of the political organization which, with far wider ambitions before it, is at present struggling to prevent temporary paralysis from turning into permanent atrophy. We have seen that it consists of a political party so far dominant that the Trades Unions and all that is articulate in the country may be considered as part of a machinery of propaganda, for getting those things done which that political party considers should be done. In a country fighting, literally, for its life, no man can call his soul his own, and we have seen how this fact-a fact that has become obvious again and again in the history of the world, whenever a nation has had its back to the wall-is expressed in Russia in terms of industrial conscription; in measures, that is to say, which would be impossible in any country not reduced to such extremities; in measures which may prove to be the inevitable accompaniment of national crisis, when such crisis is economic rather than military. Let us now see what the Russians, with that machinery at their disposal are trying to do.

It is obvious that since this machinery is dominated by a political party, it will be impossible to understand the Russian plans, without understanding that particular political party's estimate of the situation in general. It is obvious that the Communist plans for Russia must be largely affected by their view of Europe as a whole. This view is gloomy in the extreme. The Communists believe that Europe is steadily shaking itself to pieces. They believe that this process has already gone so far that, even given good will on the part of European Governments, the manufacturers of Western countries are already incapable of supplying them with all the things which Russia was importing before the war, still less make up the enormous arrears which have resulted from six years of blockade. They do not agree with M. Clemenceau that "revolution is a disease attacking defeated countries only." Or, to put it as I have heard it stated in Moscow, they believe that President Wilson's aspiration towards a peace in which should be neither conqueror nor conquered has been at least partially realized in the sense that every country ended the struggle economically defeated, with the possible exception of America, whose signature, after all, is still to be ratified. They believe that even in seemingly prosperous countries the seeds of economic disaster are already fertilized. They think that the demands of labor will become greater and more difficult to fulfill until at last they become incompatible with a continuance of the capitalist system. They think that strike after strike, irrespective of whether it is successful or not, will gradually widen the cracks and flaws already apparent in the damaged economic structure of Western Europe. They believe that conflicting interests will involve our nations in new national wars, and that each of these will deepen the cleavage between capital and labor. They think that even if exhaustion makes mutual warfare on a large scale impossible, these conflicting interests will produce such economic conflicts, such refusals of cooperation, as will turn exhaustion to despair. They believe, to put it briefly, that Russia has passed through the worst stages of a process to which every country in Europe will be submitted in turn by its desperate and embittered inhabitants. We may disagree with them, but we shall not understand them if we refuse to take that belief into account. If, as they imagine, the next five years are to be years of disturbance and growing resolution, Russia will get very little from abroad. If, for example, there is to be a serious struggle in England, Russia will get practically nothing. They not only believe that these things are going to be, but make the logical deductions as to the effect of such disturbances on their own chances of importing what they need. For example, Lenin said to me that "the shock of revolution in England would ensure the final defeat of capitalism," but he said at the same time that it would be felt at once throughout the world and cause such reverberations as would paralyze industry everywhere. And that is why, although Russia is an agricultural country, the Communist plans for her reconstruction are concerned first of all not with agriculture, but with industry. In their schemes for the future of the world, Russia's part is that of a gigantic farm, but in their schemes for the immediate future of Russia, their eyes are fixed continually on the nearer object of making her so far self-supporting that, even if Western Europe is unable to help them, they may be able to crawl out of their economic difficulties, as Krassin put it to me before he left Moscow, "if necessary on all fours, but somehow or other, crawl out."

Some idea of the larger ambitions of the Communists with regard to the development of Russia are given in a conversation with Rykov, which follows this chapter. The most important characteristic of them is that they are ambitions which cannot but find an echo in Russians of any kind, quite regardless of their political convictions. The old anomalies of Russian industry, for example, the distances of the industrial districts from their sources of fuel and raw material are to be done away with. These anomalies were largely due to historical accidents, such as the caprice of Peter the Great, and not to any economic reasons. The revolution, destructive as it has been, has at least cleaned the slate and made it possible, if it is possible to rebuild at all, to rebuild Russia on foundations laid by common sense. It may be said that the Communists are merely doing flamboyantly and with a lot of flag-waving, what any other Russian Government would be doing in their place. And without the flamboyance and the flag-waving, it is doubtful whether in an exhausted country, it would be possible to get anything done at all. The result of this is that in their work of economic reconstruction the Communists get the support of most of the best engineers and other technicians in the country, men who take no interest whatsoever in the ideas of Karl Marx, but have a professional interest in doing the best they can with their knowledge, and a patriotic satisfaction in using that knowledge for Russia. These men, caring not at all about Communism, want to make Russia once more a comfortably habitable place, no matter under what Government. Their attitude is precisely comparable to that of the officers of the old army who have contributed so much to the success of the new. These officers were not Communists, but they disliked civil war, and fought to put an end of it. As Sergei Kamenev, the Commander-in-Chief, and not a Communist, said to me, "I have not looked on the civil war as on a struggle between two political ideas, for the Whites have no definite idea. I have considered it simply as a struggle between the Russian Government and a number of mutineers." Precisely so do these "bourgeois" technicians now working throughout Russia regard the task before them. It will be small satisfaction to them if famine makes the position of any Government impossible. For them the struggle is quite simply a struggle between Russia and the economic forces tending towards a complete collapse of civilization.

The Communists have thus practically the whole intelligence of the country to help them in their task of reconstruction, or of salvage. But the educated classes alone cannot save a nation. Muscle is wanted besides brain, and the great bulk of those who can provide muscle are difficult to move to enthusiasm by any broad schemes of economic rearrangement that do not promise immediate improvement in their own material conditions. Industrial conscription cannot be enforced in Russia unless there is among the conscripted themselves an understanding, although a resentful understanding, of its necessity. The Russians have not got an army of Martians to enforce effort on an alien people. The army and the people are one. "We are bound to admit," says Trotsky, "that no wide industrial mobilization will succeed, if we do not capture all that is honorable, spiritual in the peasant working masses in explaining our plan." And the plan that he referred to was not the grandiose (but obviously sensible) plan for the eventual electrification of all Russia, but a programme of the struggle before them in actually getting their feet clear of the morass of industrial decay in which they are at present involved. Such a programme has actually been decided upon-a programme the definite object of which is to reconcile the workers to work not simply hand to mouth, each for himself, but to concentrate first on those labors which will eventually bring their reward in making other labors easier and improving the position as a whole.

Early this year a comparatively unknown Bolshevik called Gusev, to whom nobody had attributed any particular intelligence, wrote, while busy on the staff of an army on the southeast front, which was at the time being used partly as a labor army, a pamphlet which has had an extraordinary influence in getting such a programme drawn up. The pamphlet is based on Gusev's personal observation both of a labor army at work and of the attitude of the peasant towards industrial conscription. It was extremely frank, and contained so much that might have been used by hostile critics, that it was not published in the ordinary way but printed at the army press on the Caucasian front and issued exclusively to members of the Communist Party. I got hold of a copy of this pamphlet through a friend. It is called "Urgent Questions of Economic Construction."Gusev sets out in detail the sort of opposition he had met, and says: "The Anarchists, Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks have a clear, simple economic plan which the great masses can understand: 'Go about your own business and work freely for yourself in your own place.' They have a criticism of labor mobilizations equally clear for the masses. They say to them, 'They are putting Simeon in Peter's place, and Peter in Simeon's. They are sending the men of Saratov to dig the ground in the Government of Stavropol, and the Stavropol men to the Saratov Government for the same purpose.' Then besides that there is 'nonparty' criticism:

'When it is time to sow they will be shifting muck, and when it is time to reap they will be told to cut timber.' That is a particularly clear expression of the peasants' disbelief in our ability to draw up a proper economic plan. This belief is clearly at the bottom of such questions as, 'Comrade Gusev, have you ever done any plowing?' or 'Comrade Orator, do you know anything about peasant work?' Disbelief in the townsman who understands nothing about peasants is natural to the peasant, and we shall have to conquer it, to get through it, to get rid of it by showing the peasant, with a clear plan in our hands that he can understand, that we are not altogether fools in this matter and that we understand more than he does." He then sets out the argument which he himself had found successful in persuading the peasants to do things the reward for which would not be obvious the moment they were done. He says, "I compared our State economy to a colossal building with scores of stories and tens of thousands of rooms. The whole building has been half smashed; in places the roof has tumbled down, the beams have rotted, the ceilings are tumbling, the drains and water pipes are burst; the stoves are falling to pieces, the partitions are shattered, and, finally, the walls and foundations are unsafe and the whole building is threatened with collapse. I asked, how, must one set about the repair of this building? With what kind of economic plan? To this question the inhabitants of different stories, and even of different rooms on one and the same story will reply variously. Those who live on the top floor will shout that the rafters are rotten and the roof falling; that it is impossible to live, there any longer, and that it is immediately necessary, first of all, to put up new beams and to repair the roof. And from their point of view they will be perfectly right. Certainly it is not possible to live any longer on that floor. Certainly the repair of the roof is necessary. The inhabitants of one of the lower stories in which the water pipes have burst will cry out that it is impossible to live without water, and therefore, first of all, the water pipes must be mended. And they, from their point of view, will be perfectly right, since it certainly is impossible to live without water. The inhabitants of the floor where the stoves have fallen to pieces will insist on an immediate mending of the stoves, since they and their children are dying of cold because there is nothing on which they can heat up water or boil kasha for the children; and they, too, will be quite right. But in spite of all these just demands, which arrive in thousands from all sides, it is impossible to forget the most important of all, that the foundation is shattered and that the building is threatened with a collapse which will bury all the inhabitants of the house together, and that, therefore, the only immediate task is the strengthening of the foundation and the walls. Extraordinary firmness, extraordinary courage is necessary, not only not to listen to the cries and groans of old men, women, children and sick, coming from every floor, but also to decide on taking from the inhabitants of all floors the instruments and materials necessary for the strengthening of the foundations and walls, and to force them to leave their corners and hearths, which they are doing the best they can to make habitable, in order to drive them to work on the strengthening of the walls and foundations."

Gusev's main idea was that the Communists were asking new sacrifices from a weary and exhausted people, that without such sacrifices these people would presently find themselves in even worse conditions, and that, to persuade them to make the effort necessary to save themselves, it was necessary to have a perfectly clear and easily understandable plan which could be dinned into the whole nation and silence the criticism of all possible opponents. Copies of his little book came to Moscow. Lenin read it and caused excruciating jealousy in the minds of several other Communists, who had also been trying to find the philosopher's stone that should turn discouragement into hope, by singling out Gusev for his special praise and insisting that his plans should be fully discussed at the Supreme Council in the Kremlin. Trotsky followed Lenin's lead, and in the end a general programme for Russian reconstruction was drawn up, differing only slightly from that which Gusev had proposed. I give this scheme in Trotsky's words, because they are a little fuller than those of others, and knowledge of this plan will explain not only what the Communists are trying to do in Russia, but what they would like to get from us today and what they will want to get tomorrow. Trotsky says:-

"The fundamental task at this moment is improvement in the condition of our transport, prevention of its further deterioration and preparation of the most elementary stores of food, raw material and fuel. The whole of the first period of our reconstruction will be completely occupied in the concentration of labor on the solution of these problems, which is a condition of further progress.

"The second period (it will be difficult to say now whether it will be measured in months or years, since that depends on many factors beginning with the international situation and ending with the unanimity or the lack of it in our own party) will be a period occupied in the building of machines in the interest of transport, and the getting of raw materials and provisions.

"The third period will be occupied in building machinery, with a view to the production of articles in general demand, and, finally, the fourth period will be that in which we are able to produce these articles."

Does it not occur, even to the most casual reader, that there is very little politics in that program, and that, no matter what kind of Government should be in Russia, it would have to endorse that programme word for word? I would ask any who doubt this to turn again to my first two chapters describing the nature of the economic crisis in Russia, and to remind themselves how, not only the lack of things but the lack of men, is intimately connected with the lack of transport, which keeps laborers ill fed, factories ill supplied with material, and in this way keeps the towns incapable of supplying the needs of the country, with the result that the country is most unwilling to supply the needs of the town. No Russian Government unwilling to allow Russia to subside definitely to a lower level of civilization can do otherwise than to concentrate upon the improvement of transport. Labor in Russia must be used first of all for that, in order to increase its own productivity. And, if purchase of help from abroad is to be allowed, Russia must "control" the outflow of her limited assets, so that, by healing transport first of all, she may increase her power of making new assets. She must spend in such a way as eventually to increase her power of spending. She must prevent the frittering away of her small purse on things which, profitable to the vendor and doubtless desirable by the purchaser, satisfy only individual needs and do not raise the producing power of the community as a whole.