Isaac Deutscher 1951

A Soviet Reverie

Source: The Reporter, 13 November 1951. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

It is a hundred years since Alexander Herzen, the great Russian rebel and exile, wrote in his ‘Open Letter to J Michelet’ that:

Russia is quite a new state – an unfinished building in which everything smells of new plaster, in which everything is at work and being worked out, in which nothing has yet attained its object, in which everything is changing, often for the worse, but anyway changing...

On another occasion, Herzen contrasted the outlook of the Russians with that of the Poles. The latter, he said, ‘cultivated a romanticism utterly alien to the Russians’. They lived in their national past, while the Russians, finding in their past and present little that was worthy of attachment, fixed their gaze exclusively on the future. The thoughts and emotions of the Poles hovered mournfully over ancestral graves, while Russia was full of empty cradles waiting for children to be born.

A century has passed, and yet how topical the brilliant and sometimes profound recollections of the old rebel still are. Revolutions have followed one another; whole classes of society have disappeared or have been liquidated, and new classes have grown or have been forcibly brought into existence by government decree; national institutions, beliefs, ideas and illusions have been destroyed and manufactured wholesale; the whole social and moral climate of the country has changed so much that it seems that even the old character and temperament of Russia have suffered complete extinction; and yet plus ça change plus ça reste la même chose.

Once again the eyes of the Russians, finding little that is attractive in the present, are fixed on distant goals.

Some of the Russian émigrés dream aloud of a new revolution in Russia and pray for a new war. So little are they concerned about any heritage of the past and any achievements of the present that even global slaughter and the pulverisation of their native towns in atomic warfare seem to them not too high a price to pay for the materialisation of their idea of the future. But the Russia that labours under Stalin’s orders also cherishes things that are still hidden in the womb of time. Even official Russia cannot and does not live on bread alone, on the statistical indexes of the Five-Year Plans and the merger of the collective farms. It must keep before its own eyes and hold out before the eyes of its people a vision of things to come, most specifically, the prospect of the ‘transition from socialism to communism’.

To Sleep: Perchance to Dream’: Visions of the future have a capricious logic of their own. This is true even in a country whose most eminent liberal historian, Milyukov, once said that its social classes and even its thoughts and ideas had always been the product of official decrees or official inspiration. A government may find it easy and expedient to encourage its subjects to indulge in a certain sort of dream as an escape from ugly realities. It may even prescribe, as the Kremlin now does, what the subject ought to dream. But it finds it much harder to intervene in the actual course of the dream and to make it wholly conform to order. Its subjects may begin to see images long banished and to murmur the most terrible heresies in their sleep. As they are likely to see the forbidden images in combination with the most rigidly official scenes, the effect is sometimes quite surrealistic. In their visions, present misery and oppression walk hand in hand with future happiness and freedom; and over the whole picture there dances the twisted shadow of the official censor.

Something of this sort happened last year at the Economics Institute of the Academy of Science in Moscow, when more than 200 academicians assembled to discuss ‘Means of Gradual Transition from Socialism to Communism’.

In the early 1930s, Stalin claimed that the foundations of socialism had been laid in the Soviet Union. Then, after the abolition of private farming, he went further and said that the building of socialist society had actually been completed. Ordinary people found that this made no difference in the conditions of their existence, except perhaps for the worse. They dressed in rags as before, and often went barefoot. Food was still scarce.

Ay, There’s the Rub...’: As long as they were told that they had to suffer because Czardom had bequeathed a legacy of poverty and backwardness but that one day socialism would bring them relief and lift them to dizzy heights, they may have gnashed their teeth and cursed their rulers, past and present; but they could still believe in socialism. Now they were cursing socialism as well. Their hopes had been fulfilled, and woe to the fulfilment!

Frustration crept into the ranks of the party. Old Bolsheviks listened to Stalin’s words and shrugged their shoulders. They had been accustomed to think that socialism presupposed an abundance of goods so great that society could distribute them without payment and thus establish social equality: in this way social distinctions and money would ‘wither away’. A socialist order, they believed, needed no governmental coercion; and so the state, that machine of coercion, would also wither away. Only Trotsky, from his places of exile, confronted Stalin with this critique; but most of the older members of the party had thought along similar lines. And so in order to have the label of socialism for the regime, the ideas of equality, of a moneyless economy, and of the withering away of the state were banished; and innumerable members of the party paid with their lives for being suspected of professing them.

Who would have said that in this decade these heresies would creep into that seat of Stalinist learning, the Economics Institute, and become half-rehabilitated? This is virtually what happened at the institute meeting in question, a transcript of which recently has been released. This gathering was doubly unusual because it apparently was the occasion for one of the very few relatively free discussions that have taken place in Moscow in more than 20 years. The adversaries did not charge one another with deviation from the party line or with any other capital sin, but blandly stated their views, which, although at no point openly offending against orthodox principles, differed widely from one another.

The conference was opened by a well-known economist, Professor IA Anchishkin, who spoke emphatically about the imminence of the much-talked-of transition to communism. ‘The Soviet Union’, he said, ‘has all the necessary conditions for building up communism within a very brief span.’ Did this mean five, 10 or 20 years? Although nobody made an exact estimate, the debaters assumed that Russia would ‘enter communism’ once the programme outlined by Stalin in February 1946 had been carried out. This was a long-term programme of industrial development. ‘Our industry’, Stalin then said, ‘ought to produce up to 50 million tons of pig iron, up to 60 million tons of steel, up to 500 million tons of coal, up to 60 million tons of oil annually.’

The Undiscover'd Country...’: Stalin did not set out comparable targets for consumer industries, and he was not more specific than to say that this industrial development would require ‘three new Five-Year Plans, if not more’. Since 1946, the Politburo seems to have quickened the tempo, apparently hoping that the objectives outlined by Stalin might be reached about the turn of this decade, if not before. This would mean that by 1960 Soviet heavy industry would stand roughly where its American counterpart stood in 1940. In nine years’ time, however, the Soviet Union should have a population nearly twice as large as that of the United States in 1940; the degree of its industrial saturation would consequently still be proportionately lower. All the same, to most Russians this must be a breath-taking prospect. Was not the wooden plough the most commonly employed working tool in Russia even within the memory of this generation?

The issue that dominated the discussion at the Economics Institute was how the ‘higher stage of communism’ would affect the political climate of the country and the life of ordinary people. As speaker after speaker tried to produce an answer, the ghosts of banished heresies crowded into the conference hall. Professor Anchishkin, the lecturer, bluntly declared that the state would have to wither away. ‘The state will exhaust itself and will not be needed’, he said. As if to dispel any doubt as to what he meant, he went on to say that if the Soviet Union were by that time still encircled by hostile capitalist nations, the one function that would remain to the state would be the defence of the country against foreign attack; but even then its domestic functions would be ‘exhausted’.

Who Would Fardels Bear...’: Ten or 12 years ago, a Communist who ventured such a speculation would have been quickly despatched to a forced-labour camp. To say that soon the state ‘will not be needed’ amounts to saying that the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the MVD, the political police, the prisons and the labour camps must all be scrapped in a few years’ time. It was as if the most secret reverie of the Soviet people had been officially licensed and had made itself heard through a microphone of the Economics Institute.

However, even in his daydreaming a Soviet scholar does not forget his duty to orthodoxy. The lecturer prefaced his reflections on the forthcoming withering away of the state with the remark that in the meantime, before the USSR entered the phase of communism, the state ought to be further strengthened. He implied thereby that there might be room for more vigilant surveillance of the citizen, for more political police, more prisons and more camps. Thus reality brutally projected itself onto the vision of the future. The lecturer made no attempt to square the one with the other, to correlate the ‘strengthening’ and the ‘withering’ of the state. Is coercion to grow in scope and intensity until, say 1959, and be abolished in 1960?

To Grunt and Sweat...’: None of the speakers took up this point, too delicate and risky for further elaboration. Instead, they turned to another issue: how would the transition to communism bear upon the distribution of goods – that is, in the last instance, upon the standard of living?

The principle now governing distribution is that everybody is paid ‘according to work’, not ‘according to his needs’. Under communism, the debaters agreed, payment at last will be ‘according to needs’. The public was given to understand that the whole elaborate system of differential wages and salaries, built up to the accompaniment of unbridled abuse of anything that savoured of egalitarianism, would be scrapped; that the privileged manager, the Stakhanovite, the writer pampered by the state, the bureaucrat enjoying all comforts while the mass of the people often lack even the necessities of life, that all these types of the ‘new aristocracy’ would have to leave the stage. Payment ‘according to needs’ is the Marxist’s sole formula for equality.

That equality, everybody agreed, would be possible only after the supply of consumer goods had become abundant. Thereby the speakers unwittingly revealed the basis of the present ‘socialist’ system of rewards: the general scarcity of goods. But they could not agree on the form of communist distribution. Anchishkin held that even in the transition to communism, money would remain as important as it is now and all payments would have to be made in money. Professor SG Strumilin, a veteran economist and the leading light among Soviet planners, insisted that in the Soviet Union the free distribution of goods should gradually begin, thus speeding up the withering away of money. ‘If more than half the consumer goods are distributed free of charge, one may consider that the country has entered the phase of communism’, Strumilin said. The controversy shifted to the next point: where and how was this moneyless economy to start? Some thought that bread, meat and clothing ought to be distributed free of charge first, while others held that the beginning should be made with social services, transport facilities and so forth.

So specific was this exchange that an outsider might have thought that the 200 economists were discussing a job to be done immediately. The fact that in so many instances the Russian citizen is still consuming one-third or one-fourth or even less of what the American citizen does was glossed over with superb, almost romantic, equanimity. In their imaginations the speakers had already bridged the gulf between the two standards of living. Professor AI Notkin, another economist (he was recently castigated in the press for his ‘errors’), must have felt some theoretical scruple, but he somehow got over it. He pointed out that when Stalin’s production targets had been reached, Soviet industrial production would equal American, even on a per capita basis. True, he added, American production would still be much higher in times of boom, but the average over long periods of boom and slump would not be so.

Other speakers drew sweeping and attractive pictures of the new Industrial Revolution to be initiated in the Soviet Union by the application of atomic energy, the rise in education and social hygiene, the complete electrification of the vast expanses of the Soviet Union, the consequent abolition of the cultural gap between the townsman and the villager, the elimination of heavy and unskilled labour, and so on and so on.

It would be easy to dismiss or ridicule all this as just another propaganda stunt. It was much more than that. The old Russian empty cradle of which Herzen wrote a hundred years ago was brought on the platform of the Institute of Economics, and speaker after speaker approached it to spin out over it his wishes, his longings and his ideas of the future.

It is not easy to guess what really goes on in the minds of those men of the Soviet intelligentsia. But one suspects that this or that professor talks about the higher phase of communism with his tongue in his cheek, treating this as a perverse satire on the Soviet Union of today, finding in it the only licensed manner of telling the Soviet people that it is possible to conceive of a better way of life than that for which at present they have incessantly to thank Stalin. This is indeed the only way in which it is permissible to hint at the wretchedness of their present existence.

... Under a Weary Life’: Longings for a better future encouraged by the promises of a despotic government may be double-edged; the promises, if unfulfilled, turn in the end against the government. The whole position of the Soviet rulers, with their revolutionary traditions and commitments, has been such as to compel them to foster and stimulate in their people the most intense and ambitious longings for a better world and to tell them that that world is within their reach if only they, the people, exert themselves to increase the wealth of their country, and if only they deny themselves for a few years more those amenities which no other people would consent to forgo.

In this respect, the attitude of the Soviet government is most contradictory, being extremely conservative and extremely revolutionary at the same time. Like no other government, it insists that its subjects should be satisfied with their lot; that they should believe that in every field of activity Russia is well ahead of any other nation and is the object of the highest envy on the part of the whole world. National complacency, even national conceit, is the duty of every citizen. This self-adulation, and the concomitant hostility towards anything that smacks of cosmopolitanism, is, of course, much older than Stalinism; it was frequently preached by Czarist officialdom. But even under the Czars the people were not asked to show their gratitude in such grotesque forms.

For instance: Stalin’s seventieth birthday was celebrated in December 1949; yet even now scores of absurdly hyperbolic greetings to the septuagenarian superman continue to cram the columns of Pravda and Izvestia. The birthday thanksgiving has thus been extended over years, as if the Kremlin were absolutely determined to outdo the Vatican itself in the celebration of its own Holy Year.

Yet this same government also continually exhorts its people not to indulge in the blissful life which they owe to the Wise Father of the Peoples, that in a few years they must change the very basis and the framework of their existence and remake all, or most, of the rules and principles by which they are now guided. The government wishes its subjects to show the most tender attachment to the present; but, knowing at heart that for the most part this can only be a pitiful affectation, it intimates to them that they really ought to despise the present and to achieve another social revolution ‘within a very brief span’. Thus the Politburo virtually incites its own subjects to overthrow the social and political status quo, in which the power of the Politburo is rooted.

... What Dreams May Come’: No other modern nation has been as creative and as tragically wasteful of energies, men, ideas and dreams as contemporary Russia. Its birth rate is higher than that of almost all other Western nations; so is its mortality. Even before the war, for every child born in New York more than two were born in Moscow. But for every funeral in New York there were nearly two funerals in Moscow. The Russians are consequently an astonishingly young nation. But their young people have little time to enjoy the taste of youth; very early they have to shoulder the burden of grim Soviet maturity, and they grow old with frightening rapidity.

This is symbolic of the Russian way of life and of Russia’s production of material and spiritual wealth. The government makes the people build thousands of factories and mines in one Five-Year Plan. Then, largely through its own mistakes and miscalculations in foreign or, to a smaller extent, in domestic policy, thousands of factories are destroyed or burned down, hundreds of mines are flooded, scores of cities are razed, and flourishing lands are turned into deserts.

Or to take another instance: thousands of new schools and scores of universities are opened; and, at great expense to society, a generation of educated and intelligent people is brought up, of which the most civilised nation would be proud. Yet a terribly high proportion of that new intelligentsia is swallowed by concentration camps opened simultaneously with the universities.

The brains of those who escape this lot are flattened and stultified by the bureaucratic machine which absorbs them. At present 37 million people are being educated at Soviet schools of various grades. This achievement does the greatest credit to a people the vast majority of whom were illiterate until recently; and in any case it is an encouraging promise for the future. But how many of those who now receive their education will be allowed truly to serve society with their brains?

No nation in the last century has been as productive as Russia of epoch-making ideas, world-embracing utopias and momentous revolutions. Yet nowhere have ideas, utopias and revolutions been as thoroughly perverted and corrupted. But the fertility of the Russian mind has by no means been exhausted. In ideas, as in population, the balance of the high birth rate and the high mortality still remains unknown.

And there are a multitude of empty cradles all over the place.