The Russian Revolution: The birth of a deadly, doomed dream
- Ivo Vegter
- 07 Nov 2017 12:48 (South Africa)
Today, exactly 100 years ago, the October Revolution began in Russia. More than three centuries after the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, that backward country was still on the Julian calendar, so they didn’t know it was actually November.
To celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Phakamile Hlubi, a former eNCA reporter who is now the acting national spokesperson for the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), penned an ode to communism. In it, she rewrites some parts of history, and entirely omits others, such as the inconvenient bits where tens of millions of people die in the Gulags of the totalitarian communist state or starve due to man-made famines.
Hlubi writes: “The significance of the Russian Revolution is that it created a just and democratic society where the will of the majority was imposed upon society from below. … It sowed the seeds for the possibility of emancipation of the whole of humanity from the dictatorship and tyranny of the world capitalist class. ... The October 1917 Revolution proved that a new civilisation based on genuine human equality is not only desirable, but is possible.”
Although a civilisation based on genuine human equality is both desirable and possible, depending on how you define “equality”, the Russian Revolution proved nothing other than the failure of communism. Instead of the supposed “dictatorship and tyranny of the world capitalist class”, it produced the very real dictatorship and tyranny of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.
Let’s consider the four adjectives Hlubi used: just, democratic, desirable and possible.
One only has to read Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s harrowing account, The Gulag Archipelago, to realise that justice is not a term one could associate with the Soviet Union. And it wasn’t just a later perversion of an ideal. The legal basis for labour camps to house political and criminal prisoners was established by Vladimir Lenin immediately after the Revolution. Anyone could be declared an enemy of the Revolution. In due course, people of all walks of life – artists, teachers, clergy, intellectuals, factory managers, soldiers, farmers, bureaucrats and Communist Party members – were subject to arbitrary arrest, torture to extract confessions, show trials in which a guilty verdict was inevitable, and long years of hard labour in terrible conditions. Only the lucky were executed.
When Joseph Stalin embarked on his infamous five-year plans, the Soviet economy could not operate without the threat of imprisonment hanging over citizens, and without the labour provided by the Gulag system. Under Stalin, wives and children could be executed for the “crimes” of their husbands and fathers.
Millions of people, most of them entirely innocent, disappeared into the Gulags. For agreeing with Leon Trotsky, Hlubi herself would have been among the first people to be purged by Stalin, taken away to be tortured and sent to die in a remote labour camp. There’s your justice, Ms Hlubi.
The term “democratic” might at first seem justified, since elected committees called “soviets” were established at every level of local and regional government to exercise both legislative and executive power. However, it stands to reason that central planning of an economy is impossible if everyone makes their own decisions. The rise of the planning bureaucracy inevitably suppressed workers’ democracy and replaced it with administrative command.
At the national level, the Soviet Union was a one-party state. Communist Party discipline was strictly enforced by Central Control Commissions, which were elected not by members, but by the Party’s Central Committee. The party exercised autocratic control over the Soviet government, and one could only become a party member by undergoing years of indoctrination, and proving to be disciplined, loyal and dutiful. If the Party leadership took a dislike to someone, they’d be purged. The “democracy” of the Soviet Union was purely illusory.
Did the Russian Revolution lead to a desirable state? Not unless you consider it desirable to live in a state in which you were at greater risk of dying at the hands of your own government than you were to die of cancer. Not unless you consider ethnic cleansing programmes such as Lenin’s “decossackisation programme” or Stalin’s man-made famine in the Ukraine, the “Holodomor”, desirable.
The revolution led to a desirable state only if you don’t mind the worst industrial pollution of the 20th century, to produce the world’s worst industrial products.
It was desirable, but not if you mind living in only five square metres per person. Not if you think it desirable to spend 60% of your income on food, and have to queue for hours at shops with bare shelves to get it. Not unless you agree that carpets, furniture, or colour televisions are luxury symbols of bourgeois consumerism. Not if you think it’s fine to have to travel to a large city just to stock up on basic necessities such as toilet paper, sanitary napkins or razor blades, if you can get them at all. Not if you think it’s great to be forced to wash in public baths, divided by gender but otherwise devoid of privacy. Not if you think it’s okay to need the equivalent of a “dompas” to move from one place to another.
Of course, there were exceptions to these living conditions, reserved for those the government viewed as important, or who had good Communist Party connections. The Soviet Union was far from “equal”, in the material sense. To paraphrase George Orwell, some people were more equal than others. If you consider wealth and comfort based entirely on political patronage and corruption to be desirable, then communism is for you.
Did the October Revolution prove that a communist society was possible? Not if you believe most modern communists, who defend themselves against claims that communism has failed wherever it has been tried, with the argument that it wasn’t really communism and real communism has never been tried.
The central planners of the Soviet economy simply could not cater for the diverse needs and wants of a large population spread out over an even larger land area. Their distribution systems could not cope with the country’s scale and diversity, so there were always shortages of goods in some places, while surpluses languished in stores elsewhere. The black market had to redistribute a lot of the country’s food and consumer goods.
Soviet factories worked to quotas, and the only benefit of exceeding the quota was having to meet a higher quota next year, so nobody had any incentive to work harder, better or faster. These quota systems favoured quantity over quality, so there was a lot of cheap stuff, but all of it was junk. Anything that was considered a luxury – from appliances to cars – was so expensive as to be unaffordable and subject to years-long waiting lists.
Corruption and fraudulent reporting permeated the Soviet economy. Petty officials would over-report their production, and official Soviet statistics overstated economic growth throughout its existence, often four- or five-fold. We now know that the USSR’s GDP per capita, which was comparable to that of similar countries like Japan, Spain or Finland in 1917, underperformed those peers. By 1990, citizens of Spain were about 70% richer than Soviet citizens, those of Finland were 140% richer, and the people of Japan were on average 270% richer than Soviets.
Ultimately, despite the vast size and large population of the USSR, the entire country’s fortunes hinged upon a small number of raw materials – primarily oil and gas. Its economic malaise was temporarily relieved by a spike in oil and gas prices in the 1970s, but when their prices collapsed in 1986, it took only a few years for the entire Soviet house of cards to collapse. The USSR was officially dissolved at the end of 1991. The entire project proved to be impossible.
So, the communist society established by the revolution in Russia in 1917 proved to be neither just, nor democratic, nor desirable, nor possible.
To support her argument, Hlubi has to give an entirely false account of history. For example, writing about tsarist Russia prior to the October Revolution, she writes: “Industrialisation created a new class of worker in Russia who lived in abject misery and poverty.”
Tsarist Russia certainly was an autocracy, in which the tsar held absolute power, wielded through a vast, inefficient and widely despised bureaucracy, but tsarist Russia was never industrialised, as Hlubi claims. At the time of the Revolution, and until the advent of Stalinism 10 years later, Russia had been a largely agrarian society. The “class of worker” who lived in abject misery and poverty at the time of the Russian Revolution was little different from the peasants of medieval Europe, who laboured under tyrannical nobility allied to an authoritarian church.
It was only under Stalin that rapid industrialisation took place, and he achieved this by importing technical knowledge, people and ideas from foreign firms like Ford, Opel and Fiat. The USSR’s relatively rapid economic growth between 1928 and 1940 was in large part attributable to “joint ventures” with Western capitalists.
From the beginning, Marxist revolutionaries had to lie to justify their ideology. Hlubi quotes Lenin himself: “Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in ancient Greek republics: Freedom for slave owners.”
That is simply not true. Slavery occurred in virtually every society in human history, predominantly in pre-capitalist civilisations. It was common on every continent, among every race and nationality.
The abolition of slavery also occurred in many societies, starting with the abolition of debt slavery in Athens in the 6th century BC. Slavery was abolished in Russia in 1723, and serfdom in 1861. Whatever Lenin was railing against in 1917 did not exist in Russia.
Prohibitions on slave ownership and the slave trade gathered pace worldwide throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, coinciding with the rise of capitalism. By the dawn of the 20th century, only a handful of African and Middle-Eastern countries continued to practise legal slavery. Whatever Lenin was railing against in 1917 did not exit in the rest of the world, either. The exact opposite is true: the spread of capitalism and free markets in the modern era is strongly correlated with the decline and death of slavery.
Numsa supports a flavour of communism known as Marxism-Leninism, a term created by Stalin to describe the political ideology of the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, as well as Communist International (Comintern), founded by Vladimir Lenin himself. It has become disillusioned with the ANC-led tripartite alliance, rejects the SA Communist Party (SACP), was expelled from trade union federation Cosatu, looks down upon the brand of anti-capitalism professed by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), and can’t agree with the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) either.
Given the kleptocracy that runs the country, it is hard to fault Numsa for distancing itself from the corrupt government and its enablers. The kleptocrats do not represent the rights or interests of anyone other than themselves, so it stands to reason that they do not represent the workers’ class. However, that’s where the rationality ends.
Hlubi writes: “More than a quarter of the population is unemployed, and the dignity of the majority of Africans is violated every day by poverty, unemployment and extreme inequalities. The majority of the working class is denied quality education and the only healthcare system available to them is an inferior and public healthcare system, which is more likely to maim or kill than heal you. The human personality of millions of Africans, the majority of South Africans, lies oppressed under the yolk of white supremacist domination.”
It is indeed true that unemployment, poverty, lack of education, and atrocious healthcare remain the fate of many South Africans. However, the cause is not “white supremacist domination”. It may have escaped Hlubi’s attention, but political power is today entirely democratic and reflects the demographic make-up of society. The reins of government are held by a socialist, nationalist, African party. This government is responsible both for public education and public health, using money extracted in large part from so-called “white monopoly capital”. This government is responsible for the labour policies and other regulations that stifle our economy, not to mention for the astonishing level of corruption which steals the food out of the mouths of the poor.
Hlubi also appears not to have noticed that the very phrase “white monopoly capital” was a rhetorical slur conjured up by rich multinational consultants as part of a public relations campaign designed to protect the kleptocratic relationship between South Africa’s president, his hand-picked appointees in government, the State-owned Enterprises, and certain private interests, who were not, as it happened, white.
Hlubi’s piece is shot through with such ideologically blinkered nonsense. It requires a special kind of self-deception to maintain the delusion that the Russian Revolution heralded something good, and that communism remains an ideal worth striving towards. And it requires a special kind of liar to celebrate the formation of the Soviet Union without a single mention of its genocides, democides, famines, Gulags, purges, bread lines, its ultimate collapse, and its legacy: that travesty of automotive engineering, the Lada. DM