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Maurice Spector

After Twenty Years

(January 1938)

From New International, Vol. 4 No. 1, January 1938, pp. 28–30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Moscow, 1937
by Lion Feuchtwanger
Trans. from the German by Irene Josephy
xiii+151 pp. New York. The Viking Press. $2.00

Return from the USSR
by André Gide
Trans, from the French by Dorothy Bussy
xvi+94 pp. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. $1.00

Retouches a Mon Retour de l’URSSs
par André Gide
126 pp. Paris. Gallimard. Fr.9

What Has Become of the Russian Revolution
by M. Yvon
Trans. from the French by Integer
64 pp. New York. International Review. 25c

Proletarian Journey
by Fred Beal
xiv+352 pp. Illus. New York. Hillman-Curl Inc. $2.75

Assignment in Utopia
by Eugene Lyons
648 pp. New York. Harcourt, Brace and Co. $3.50

Russia: Twenty Years After
by Victor Serge
Trans. from the French with an introduction by Max Shachtman
xii+298 pp. New York. Pioneer Publishers. $2.50

Some years ago Julien Benda wrote a striking little book called The Treason of the Intellectuals. The reference was to the literary prophets, the world reconstructionists and moral iconclasts who noisily strutted their ideals in the security of peace, but in 1914 effortlessly prostrated themselves before the imperialist war machine. The Fabian exhibitionist Shaw toured the Western Front in the company of General Sir Douglas Haig; Wells entered the British Intelligence Service. Upton Sinclair discovered the messianic mission of Wilson. The German professors whitewashed the invasion of Belgium. But the treason of contemporary intellectuals has already outdistanced the infamy of their predecessors. Racing ahead of the very General Staffs themselves, they clamor for a Holy War to Save Democracy. And most conspicuous of the lot are the intellectual lackeys of Stalinism. The depths of their treason are still unplumbed.

Intellectuals who once professionally invoked 18-carat words like Truth, Humanity and Civilization have been converted to the Machiavellian morality of the OGPU. The Moscow trials? It will take a hundred years to learn the truth. There may have been no convincing court evidence but the crimes imputed to the Old Bolsheviks were psychologically possible. If there was a frame-up, it is best for the sake of the Soviet Union to keep loyally quiet. Granted Trotsky is no terrorist, his program of world revolution is a menace to Peace and Democracy anyway. Whatever atrocities Stalin commits, still he is for the Popular Front, isn’t he? When all is said and done, the Purges have only killed off a few thousand; over a hundred million Soviet citizens still go about their business. What if several million peasants did die of starvation during Stalin’s dizzy collectivization, they were only peasants, weren’t they. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

It is this school of Truth that the noble Feuchtwanger has joined. His book is the product of exactly ten days in Moscow made up of interviews conducted through the lucid medium of a translator. But Feuchtwanger is no ordinary tourist. He is a refugee whose property has been confiscated by the Nazis. His novels have dramatized the cause of Justice. He branded Nazi book-burning as a return to mediaevalism. He has excoriated the Gestapo, mocked the Führer cult, and pilloried totalitarian art, science and literature. Ten days in Moscow and Feuchtwanger is sure that socialism is being built, the living standards of the masses are being raised, and everything else will inevitably follow. He is admitted into the illumined Presence of the Beloved Leader himself and finds that the Stalin cult is simply a naive expression of the enthusiasm of the masses for socialism. The “confessions” of the OGPU’s victims he glibly accepts as genuine. The persecution of Soviet writers like Pilnyak for deviating from the Line is a matter of indifference. That no bonfire need be made of Trotsky’s writings because they may be read only at the risk of deportation or death, is a small point. Feuchtwanger finds no censorship. Feuchtwanger says, Yes, Yes, Yes, and Feuchtwanger’s works will be published by the State in waves of many thousands and the royalties will mount up. Feuchtwanger has become an “engineer of the soul”.

That Feuchtwanger’s debut should coincide with André Gide’s break with the Stalinist regime cannot have been accidental. It was necessary to counteract that blow at once. Gide is one of a number of intellectuals who either never lost or who have recovered their integrity. Since he published Return from the Soviet Union, he has been subjected to the usual virulent Stalinist barrage. But he has stood his ground manfully. His first book was a series of impressions. He was able to discount the honeyed pep-talk of the translators. The door was sometimes left sufficiently ajar for Gide to catch a glimpse of the underlying reality and what he saw shocked him into a candid reexamination. His conclusions will be remembered:

“... the spirit which is today held to be counter-revolutionary is that same spirit which first broke through the half-rotten dam of the Tsarist world ... I doubt whether in any other country in the world, even Hitler’s Germany, thought is less free, more bowed down, more terrorized, more vassalized.”

The objection was then made that Gide was unduly preoccupied with the fate of the mind, and ignored the decisive criterion of economics. Retouches is mainly an answer to his critics, fortified by much reading and economic data from Soviet sources, and contrasting the actuality of Stalinism with the program of Leninism.

The significance of Gide’s two books lies not of course in their accuracy as works of theory; Gide sets up no pretensions there. What is important is the man’s integrity as an observer able to fight off the cloying fog of official adulation threatening to drug every writer who visits the USSR. The great “cultural front” that Stalinism built up during the years of the Five Year Plan is beginning to crack and the single biggest hammer-blow was struck by the Moscow trials. Stalin has been so successful in the art of “managing” the intellectuals either by flattery or bribery that he has become too contemptuous of them. The special privileges that writers enjoyed in the Soviet Union, the royalties, the salaries, the automobiles, the country-houses, were Stalin’s crafty means of guaranteeing an airtight censorship. Deadened consciences made the task of the police easier. Gide shows that the human mind will survive even Stalin. There is still enough of the spirit of scientific research and respect for truth, of that idealism to which Trotsky paid tribute in Dewey, to encourage the hope that an increasing number of intellectuals will take their stand with the revolutionary working class against the totalitarianisms of both Hitler and Stalin.

One of the sources upon which Gide draws for confirmation is Yvon, a French worker who spent eleven years in the Soviet Union both at the bench and in a managerial capacity. Regardless of his conclusions which we find inacceptable, Yvon’s pamphlet is valuable for the light it throws on the cold facts. These facts completely deflate the official myth that the Soviet Union has “already entered upon the final and irrevocable victory of socialism”, a myth serving to justify the ends of unscrupulous reaction and the bloody suppression of all criticism and opposition. Especially do we recommend these facts to the “social worker” who becomes an expert on the Soviet Union on the strength of having peered at the inevitable creche, to the visiting professor who avidly jots down notes for a book on progressive educational institutions that will be relegated to limbo by the time of his return home, and not least to the Webbs weaving their endless cocoons from official Soviet blue books.

It is not a pretty picture that Yvon draws of the housing, food, wages and working conditions of the Soviet factory worker. The new apartment houses photograph as impressively as the giant plants that inspired Miss Bourke-White’s trick camera shots. The trouble with those magnificent photographs was that they didn’t tell you whether the newly erected plant worked. The new apartments are reserved for the bureaucracy, specialists, army officers, soul engineers. Those still higher in the social scale live in “private pavilions”. Personal servants of the bureaucrats have special quarters. The Stakhanovite has the newly built “common house”. The prevailing system of housing for the “common worker” is the wooden barracks whose single rooms contain from 25 to 40 beds. The furniture is of the meanest and ugliest. Ten percent of the worker’s wages goes for rent. To graduate out of these barracks may entail years of probation as a “candidate tenant”.

The ordinary Russian worker’s daily menu consists of: Breakfast (before eight o’clock), tea and bread; lunch (at noon), factory meal or when not at work, tea and bread; dinner (5 p.m.), soup and kaska; supper (8 p.m.), tea and bread. Fish, butter, eggs, oil, rice and sugar are luxuries for workers who must make ends meet on a monthly wage ranging from 80 to 200 rubles. The incomes of the bureaucracy range from 1,500 to 10,000 rubles a month, and that applies equally to so-called “party” members. From his meager wages, the worker suffers further reductions in the form of taxes, loans and assessments running from 15 to 21 percent of his pay envelope. The piecework system drives him without regard to his nerves or muscles. “Produce in seven hours more than in seven,” is the managerial slogan. The best sanatoria, rest homes, and pleasure resorts go to the officials and Stakhanovites. For their two weeks’ holiday, the rank and file are herded and regimented in dormitories of the “barracks of rest”.

Even more dismal, of course, is the recital of the deprivation of the workers’ political liberties. The regime of the “internal passport”. Never-ending surveillance by the OGPU. Universal mutual espionage of Soviet citizens encouraged as the highest morality. The system of hostages. Re-introduction of military ranks. Totalitarian “elections” with the opposition eliminated by the firing squad. Capital punishment. Concentration camps. Liquidation of Soviets. Bureaucratization of trade unions. Stalinist absolutism.

Such were the conditions which another worker, this time an American, encountered. Fred Beal is of the authentic American proletariat, a mill-worker from his earliest youth. He led strikes, he marshalled picket lines, he organized demonstrations. He joined the Communist Party in the days before it was de rigeur for the YCL to scrub the statue of Nathan Hale and for Browder to lead in the singing of the “Stars and Stripes”. For his part in the famous Gastonia strike, Beal was sentenced to twenty years. While out on bail, along with the other co-defendants he sought sanctuary in the Soviet Union. What he witnessed there made him revolt. He saw the degeneration of the once revolutionary Comintern at close quarters. He witnessed one of the great fake demonstration trials. He lived through the period of the Stalin-made famine of 1930-1933 and ran across graves with inscriptions: “I love Stalin. Bury him here as soon as possible”. But when Beal, honest to his finger tips, expressed his mounting sense of horror he was told roughly and menacingly to hold his tongue. “This is not Union Square.”

He determined “to make a complete break with the Stalin gang and return to the capitalist world, no matter what the consequences would be”. But not to make his peace with the capitalist world. He escaped to the United States where his twenty-year sentence in North Carolina may catch up with him any day. He is on the run. Yet a liberal conspiracy of silence has been built up around his case. The officials of the Communist Party would doubtless enjoy seeing Beal arrested. One of their scribblers, Joseph Freeman, has already tipped off the police. Friendless and hunted, Beal, no giant of tactics, made the mistake of prejudicing his situation by writing up his experiences in the Hearst press. But who are the one hundred percent Bolsheviks of the Civil Liberties Union to point the finger of scorn at Beal? What right have these petty bourgeois elements to treat Beal as a pariah? In the name of what revolutionary principles and activity do the well-padded ladies and gentlemen of the Nation and New Republic cast Beal into the outer darkness? Except that he is more articulate, Beal’s experiences are shared by hundreds of workers who have returned from the Stalinist USSR, their hearts swept by disillusion. The country is studded with them, not softies who expected to wallow in Roman luxury, but hard-bitten, rugged, class conscious miners, lumberjacks and the like. They wanted no privileges, they fully expected the struggle for socialist construction. It is a slander that these men are counter-revolutionists. They come back empty and remain silent But for the most part, they remain loyal to the Soviet Union. Only their closest associates know what has happened. And when they talk, the story is much the same as Fred Beal’s, a story of proletarian degradation at the hands of an insolent, omnipotent bureaucracy in the years of Soviet reaction.

This whole period has been covered with great reportorial verve and brilliance in Eugene Lyons’ Assignment in Utopia, a book that is as sure a product of Soviet reaction as John Reed’s was of the revolutionary upsurge of October. Lyons was United Press correspondent in Moscow. Those who read the Bulletin of the Russian Opposition recall with bitterness the glib official news reporting that came out of the USSR in those days under the names of Duranty, Chamberlain or Lyons. We knew that we were getting half-truths and lies. Read Lyons’ chapter on the failure of the correspondents to report the great famine, to present a true picture of the “Five Year Plan in Four”, of the dictatorship of RAPP, of the show trials. Duranty is still cynically performing for Stalin in the New York Times, transcribing whole editorials from Pravda and Izvestia as “news”. Chamberlain came back and once safely home wrote Russia’s Iron Age in which he not only denounced the bureaucracy but renounced the whole of Socialism. His most recent work is entitled Collectivism, a False Utopia. Lyons, formerly a communist sympathizer, is now working for the American Labor Party.

Lyons’ vivid and detailed account of the totalitarian Stalinist regime dovetails at all points with the political study of the same period by Victor Serge, former collaborator of the Executive of the Communist International. Each from his own point of view illuminates the underlying theory and the processes of the Utopian Stalinist attempt to achieve complete “socialism in a single country”, upon the basis of its own inner resources and without regard for the development of the world revolution. Trotsky’s economic platform of industrialization and collectivization were parts of a larger context of workers’ democracy and revolutionary internationalism. Stalin’s attempt to force this program into the strait-jacket of “socialism” in a single country was bound to lead to results that were the startling antithesis of everything Trotsky stood for. The economic adventurism of the “Five Year Plan in Four” against which Trotsky protested from exile, brought the country to the brink of ruin. The bureaucracy, surprised by the unexpected successes of the planned economy which they had first resisted, drunkenly proceeded as if there were no limits but the human will. The living standards of the workers, the most important of the productive forces, were callously sacrificed. Millions of peasants became victims of Stalin’s administrative collectivization. Bureaucratic privilege and social inequality flourished apace. The human travail in the wake of Stalinism was immeasurable but the political consequences were no less reactionary. To unload responsibility for economic blunders and bureaucratic oppression, Stalin resorted to trumped-up sabotage and conspiracy trials. Not even Hitler’s Gestapo tracked down communists more pitilessly than the OGPU. Camouflaged in pseudo-parliamentary forms, a new despotism arose in the Kremlin. Stalinism produced a totalitarian regime by the side of which Hobbes’ Leviathan would look like an anarchist Utopia.

Yvon, Lyons and Serge all agree as to the facts. All arrive at different conclusions. No genuine revolutionist will be a party to painting up the situation in the Soviet Union. But neither is it sufficient to set down the stark figures of the poverty of the Soviet worker as Yvon has done, without seeing those figures in historical perspective, and without searching for the basic causes of the Soviet Union’s degeneration as a workers’ state. At no point does it occur to Yvon that without the October revolution the Russian worker’s status would have approached that of the Chinese coolie, and Russia would have become a colony of Western capitalism. At no point does Yvon realize that despite the monstrous distortions of the bureaucracy, nationalized property relations and planned economy have even in this backward country celebrated the superiority of socialist over capitalist methods of production. Yvon is in too great haste to bury the revolution. For him nationalization is a “fiction” and the bureaucracy has become the real ruling class. One cannot very well get out an injunction prohibiting Yvon from characterizing the bureaucracy as a “class” if he insists. But for Marxists a class is definitely fixed by its independent role in production and by its special and characteristic property forms. The Soviet bureaucracy or considerable sections of it don’t appear to have even a reasonable tenure on bare life let alone on property and its assignment or transmission. Yvon confuses the social parasitism of the bureaucracy with class exploitation. So little is nationalization a “fiction” that after all the years of reaction Stalin has not yet been able to change the basic property relations of the October revolution.

It is only confusing when, in their hatred of the Stalinist frame-ups, honest intellectuals like Silone are led to talk of “Red Fascism”. Despite all the gestures of the “Corporate State” the fascist military-bureaucratic state is what it always was, the praetorian guard of heavy industry and finance capital. The control of economic life is more firmly lodged in the grip of Big Business than it has ever been. The Soviet State has degenerated into a bureaucratic-police or Bonapartist dictatorship it is true, but it still rests on the foundations of October. The analysis of the dual role of the Soviet bureaucracy given by Trotsky in his Revolution Betrayed remains the only key to the explanation of the past decade of Soviet history. Whether the bureaucracy will extend its present political monopoly and attack the economic basis of the Soviet state, or the proletariat will overthrow the bureaucracy and restore workers’ democracy, will be decided by the living struggle of forces. It will be decided moreover not merely by what happens in the USSR but by the victory or defeat of the European working class. Serge sees this clearly.

“At no point in its history can the socialist revolution in Russia be considered apart from the international labor movement – the victory of the bureaucracy was prepared by the defeat of the European revolution.”

What has Lyons to offer as an alternative to Bolshevism? The politically shabby and threadbare garment of Social-Democracy! And not even the German social-democracy which once had a coherent theory as well as masses, but the American Labor Party! It is true that Stalinism has betrayed the ideals of the October revolution, but the parties of Mr. Lyons’ new creed betrayed the revolution long ago. Had Menshevism triumphed in 1917 the revolution would not have degenerated for the simple reason that there would have been no revolution. Mr. Lyons’ present political friends have been consistently counter-revolutionary since 1914, or will he deny it? Instead of utilizing the postwar crisis for socialist reconstruction, the social-democrats worked to rebuild capitalist economy and preserve bourgeois democracy. They fulfilled the terms of the infamous Versailles Treaty. They transferred political power from the Workers’ Councils to the Weimar Assembly. They restored the morale of the bourgeoisie by the coalition set-up. They deluded the masses with promises of gradual socialization. Well, what is the upshot? The German socialist party was not even able to save bourgeois democracy. The bourgeoisie rewarded its loyalty with the boot of fascism. The Scandinavian parties still administer the affairs of the capitalist state. The British Labour Party, after two trials in office, vegetates as His Majesty’s Opposition, a miserable stooge for British imperialism. But has the social-democracy learned anything? They are again enthusiastically building up the old coalition under the mask of the new Comintern-varnished Popular Front.

The Russian revolution gave humanity its first glimpse of the workers’ state. Neither its course nor its problems could have been charted in advance. Nor is there any gainsaying that its latter-day developments have had a profoundly depressing effect on the revolutionary movement Stalin’s crimes have served to throw discredit on the proletarian dictatorship and his Popular Frontism to prop up bourgeois democracy. But those who shrink from the proletarian revolution must ask themselves whether they will not be rejecting civilization itself because of its evil accompaniments.

The Great French Revolution was followed by the intellectual rehabilitation of Catholicism, Voltaire and Rousseau by De Maistre and Bonald. But who will deny that the struggle for bourgeois democracy, for free trade as well as parliamentarism, was once progressive? Nobody wants to idealize suffering or want. But imperialism and war and economic collapse are a harsh school of political manners and social morals. Ours is simply not an epoch of peace and tranquillity. It is as definitely an epoch of upheaval as the Reformation. Individuals can still find peace but not the masses. The revolution will offend the spirit of John Stuart Mill more than once. The issue of destiny is acquiescence with the course of the imperialists or, with all its hazards – the proletarian revolution. The revolution is not a streamlined Pullman to Utopia but the only, if thorny, road along which all mankind can reach freedom.

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