Denzil Dean Harber

Reporting Soviet Russia

Clare Market Review , Summer Term 1933, pp21-22, (2,251 words)

In an article called “Seeing Soviet Russia” contributed to the last number of the Clare Market Review, Mr. Harber relates his unfortunate experiences in acquiring the facts about Soviet affairs. In the true manner of the bearer of revelation, Mr. Harber suggests that here at last is Truth. All previous accounts of conditions in Russia are to be rejected as the products of ignorance of the Russian language played upon by the Soviet government through its apparatus for hoodwinking innocent visitors—Intourist. With becoming modesty Mr. Harber distinguishes himself from the common rut of tourist who is so deluded by the minions of Soviet power, the Russian interpreters, that he cannot see starvation when confronted with it and mistakes a miserable peasant for a factory shock worker.

Mr. Harber claims to have scratched the bright exterior of Russian affairs and to have revealed the horror beneath. Everywhere, he rather rhetorically exclaims, everywhere, just below the surface is to be found evidence of a grinding misery. This is merely a single example of that leaning for hyperbole which Mr. Harber learned from his journalistic association. He claims that unless one is a millionaire or a smuggler of roubles travel in the Soviet Union outside the Intourist organisation is impossible. One cannot believe that Mr. Harber adopted the second alternative. The company of a millionaire journalist for three months must no doubt be a pleasant recreation—albeit rather dangerous in a starving and desperate land. It is hardly conducive to that dispassionate outlook, charmingly claimed by Mr. Harber for himself, and necessary in appraising the achievements and difficulties of a Modern Russia; a community which is consciously attempting to raise its social and economic level from amongst the lowest in the world to one comparable with and even higher than that achieved by Western nations which have enjoyed the blessings of capitalist civilisation for over a century and a half. That Mr. Harber (who even before he visited the Soviet Union had been known to express his extreme distaste for life therein with its absence of bourgeois comforts) has allowed the millionaire psychology to jaundice his impartial journalistic outlook, is the only explanation one can provide for the mass of distortions, the contradictory statements, and false sweeping generalisations with which his article abounds.

He claims that visitors to Russia with but a few exceptions may only stay for a fixed time. If the time is fixed at three months, Mr. Harber, at least, would agree that some appraisal is possible. He surely must know however that visitors may stay beyond the period of their official tour. His assertion that tourists are so bound to their Intourist guides that they cannot go off and see things for themselves—“it is difficult to find one’s way about in a foreign city”—is too childish to be swallowed even by the most credulous. Says Mr. G.R. Mitchison, in his article (p.102) on the Russian Worker in “Twelve Studies in Soviet Russia” (none of the writers in which are particularly noted for their communistic leanings), “It is easy at a distance to exaggerate difficulties of language. One can always keep ones eyes open; there are many Russians who speak English, French, or German, and I, like others, knew various foreigners living in Russia.” Mr. Harber’s fiction of the simple deluded tourist is no doubt as much a solace to him as his slanderous accusation that Russian guides deliberately distort the answers given by miserable Soviet citizens questioned about their conditions. His modest implication that only he had access to sources of real information can hardly be accepted on the strength of Mr. Harber’s assertion alone.

Much as this gives the stamp to the sort of information provided in Mr. Harber’s writings, his main contentions are more serious. He grudgingly admits that “immense progress has been made in many directions—especially in the sphere of industry.” How little one hears of this “immense progress” in Mr. Harber’s article! It occupies exactly two and a half lines out of a total of over one hundred and fifty. Surely a little more should have been written by our expert in Soviet conditions of this phenomenon of “immense progress in many directions” at a time when other parts of the world can boast of immense progress in nothing but the volume of their armaments and the figures of their unemployed. Mr. Harber says nothing of the enormous social advances, admitted by all but the most contemptible of anti-Soviet hacks, in the field of education, in the eradication of illiteracy, in the public health services which have reduced the infant mortality rate from 285 per thousand in 1910 to 137 in Leningrad and 128 in Moscow in 1928, and still further since. There is not a word about the most elaborate system of social insurance for the working class in the world, of the emancipation and protection of the liberties of national minorities, of the encouragement to scientific and cultural advance which are the foundations of Soviet policy. All these Mr. Harber cares nothing for, and to judge from him nor do the Russian workers and peasants. For again Mr. Harber claims to speak for the mass of the population.

“In the mass,” he declares “the population is hostile to the present government.” Mr. Harber would be generous enough to admit that the testimony of a journalist of the standing of Mr. A.J. Cummings who recently went to Russia to report on the Moscow trial, is at least as trustworthy as that of Mr. Harber himself. The former writes in an article published in the News Chronicle of May 17th. “One is utterly sceptical of all the whisperings among foreigners here that the Soviet regime is cracking ... I simply don’t believe it.” He speaks of the overwhelming faith of these people in their destiny, and states. “Even members of the unhappy dispossessed classes with whom I have had contact are not cynical about the future of Soviet Russia.” Again, Mr. Mitchison in the article previously quoted, says (p.102), “I do not believe that the general impression of enthusiasm for the Plan and of determination to overcome its difficulties is one that can be produced merely by a Government, however efficient. Still less do I think that such an impression could be conveyed to visitors in the country if no such feelings in fact existed.” Would Mr. Harber suggest that Mr. Cummings and Mr. Mitchison were also seduced by Intourist guides or hypnotised by OGPU guards?

Mr. Harber then directs his attention to agrarian matters. At one point he declares that the sacrifice of the workers in the achievement of the objects of the Five-Year Plan has culminated in starvation due to the ruin of Russian agriculture. At another he claims that starvation has been brought about by the rapacious extortions of Soviet officials. Mr. Harber’s zeal for public enlightenment on Russian affairs should not permit him the luxury of flagrant contradictions of this sort. If yields have not been sub-normal for what have the “extortions” been used? In fact exports of wheat during the period of the Five-Year Plan have allowed from one and a half times to nearly twice as much per head for home consumption as compared with the pre-revolutionary period 1906-11. Mr. Harber’s harrowing tales of ruin are the more unfortunate in that information from the Soviet Union concerning the progress of spring sowing this year suggests that the enormous difficulties of transition from the old system of petty peasant proprietorship to the system of mass agricultural production in collective farms are at last being overcome, that the sowing campaign has in many regions been in excess of plans and in all vastly in excess of results for the corresponding periods of 1932 and 1931. It requires no great lexicographical erudition to appreciate that ruin usually implies complete breakdown of normal processes, nor great economic insight even from our graduate in Russian affairs to understand that the ruin of agriculture can hardly be so quickly remedied that in a few months after the reported dissolution results of sowing are greater than the bumper year of 1930. No one, least of all the Soviets, in spite of Mr. Harber’s diplomatic assurance that no government openly admits its failures, has denied that the transition to collectivised farming involving one of the greatest and speediest revolutions in productive technique in the history of mankind, has met with great difficulties, much opposition from interested parties, and what can only be termed sheer bad luck in respect of climatic conditions in many regions. But to suggest that these difficulties are undermining the foundations of support for the Soviet regime, to magnify the transitional problems into a vague and venomous attack on the Soviet Union in general, without the least attempt to appraise the movement for collectivisation in its historical context or to estimate its potential advantages now becoming evident, is an exposure of the trustworthiness of the testimony of an individual who claims to be presenting the truth at last. All this, combined with the deliberate suppression of anything but the briefest mention of the “immense progress” that has actually been made, indicates that Mr. Harber might well consider himself the pre-ordained successor to “Our Riga Correspondent.”

After all his tale of woe, Mr. Harber’s conclusion is singularly tame. The only advice he can proffer is that prospective visitors should escape from the net of official misrepresentation by learning the language and equipping themselves with the instrument already possessed and already put to such fruitful use by Mr. Harber himself. For one who has exposed a hotbed of oppression and exploitation such as the Soviet regime in Mr. Harber’s article, this is surprisingly mild. One might have imagined that Mr. Harber would have associated himself with that vast company of disinterested students of Russian affairs which includes Lady Houston. Herr Rosenberg, and Sir Henri Deterding, whose zeal in the cause of the downtrodden Russian masses leads them to agitate for the Holy War of liberation. But perhaps we are only at the beginning of Mr. Harber’s political re-orientation. S. GOLDMAN.

Mr. Harber replies: When I wrote the article which has so annoyed Com. Goldman, I anticipated that it would evoke a rejoinder from a member of the Marxist Society, and further, that since most members of that Society are not only ignorant of the Russian language but have never even been to Russia, the reply could only take the form of a personal attack on myself.

Com. Goldman has informed me, in the presence of witnesses, that the only explanation he can conceive of my attitude towards the Soviet Union is that I have been “bought by the bourgeoisie.” His article is a restatement of that remarkable assertion in a less trenchant form. I refrain from the obvious retaliation that Com. Goldman is receiving Moscow Gold to attack my article. On the contrary, I attribute his effort to that natural annoyance that we all feel when a cherished illusion has been rudely assailed. It is unfortunate that I have not space to deal with Com. Goldman point by point. I should, however, indicate certain errors into which he has fallen in consequence of his small acquaintance with myself, of his not having troubled to read my article with reasonable care, and of his ignorance of the information bearing on Soviet conditions available even in this country. I do not say that all previous accounts of Russia are worthless. Com. Goldman appears to be familiar only with those accounts which do not offend his susceptibilities. If he thinks he can stand the shock. I can show him many “non-bourgeois” accounts confirming everything that I have said.

I did not go to Russia with a millionaire: quite the contrary. I never expressed my extreme distaste for life in the Soviet Union before going there. Com. Goldman’s natural desire to explain away unpleasant facts by stressing the personal factor has led him to state a definite untruth. I did not say in my article that I consider the Soviet Union to be on the verge of a collapse nor did I use various expressions which Com. Goldman attributes to me. I did not deal in my article with the many other aspects of Soviet economics which he mentions as I wished to depict Soviet conditions as they affect the Russian workers and peasants and not as they strike the foreign tourist.

Lacking space in which to instruct Com. Goldman in some of the elementary facts about Russian agriculture I will merely quote from an authority which he can hardly challenge, figures showing the decline in the standard of life of the peasant as compared with the pre-war period. In the early years of the present century the average consumption of grain per capita among the middle peasants was 18 poods (Lenin, Development of Capitalism in Russia ). To-day the official standard for all peasants is 12 poods per capita per annum. In none of the many cases which I personally investigated was even this sum reached.

In conclusion I feel that Com. Goldman is to be congratulated on his very able attempt to make bricks without straw. I would resent his attitude towards myself more, did I not remember having had reactions precisely similar to his on reading articles calculated to destroy that pleasant state of illusion in which I was and in which Com. Goldman still appears to be.

Last updated: 18 February 2009