By Nicolai Gentchev
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Even the Best Laid Plans Go Wrong

This article is over 19 years, 6 months old
Review of 'Russia: Class and Power 1917-2000', Mike Haynes, Bookmarks £12
Issue 265

For most of the 20th century anyone who described him or herself as a socialist would quickly be asked where they stood on Russia.

Today such questions are presented as being of historical interest, but as soon as we try to articulate a vision of a different world, the question of Russia reappears. Is any attempt at a radical transformation of society doomed to reproduce the horrors of Stalinist repression?

One of the difficulties in answering this question has been that Russia’s history has been rewritten many times. For Stalin’s supporters, the all knowing party assumed power in 1917 on behalf of the workers and proceeded to construct socialism. The standard right wing alternative is very similar, though the main actors have different motives. Again a minority seizes power, and goes on to build a dictatorial one-party state that eventually collapses due to its inefficiency.

Mike Haynes rejects these opposite but related interpretations in an important work that deserves to be widely read. If you have been reading for years about the history of Russia in the 20th century, this book will add something to your knowledge. If you haven’t read anything before, it is a great place to start. The opening chapters show how the events of 1917 were driven by the mass participation of the workers in the cities and the peasant farmers in the countryside. Haynes adds his knowledge of recent historical research to condense the story into 70-odd pages without losing any of the key moments or issues. The different chapters in Russia’s history are linked together with a stress on socialism from below and an analysis of state capitalism.

Haynes shows how the bureaucracy around Stalin transformed itself into a ruling class, which was driven by global military competition to reproduce the same drive to accumulate productive capacity that existed in Russia’s Western rivals. As he puts it, ‘Earlier accounts had no trouble thinking of explanations for the spectacular growth. Later accounts had no more trouble in explaining the decay. The difficulty is to have an account that is capable of explaining both.’

Most books on Russia in this period describe it as a planned economy. It was at best characterised as clumsy, centralised direction. Although the text of the first five-year plan ran to over 1,700 pages, ‘subsequent five-year plans were no more than declarations of intent. The second had nearly 1,300 pages, the third 238, and from then on they could be found in an issue of Pravda with space to spare.’ Military production and the heavy industry it depends on were king, while consumer goods were poor relations. Each plan tended to overachieve its targets in the first sector and miss them in the second.

Many valuable books about the industrialisation and repression of the 1930s have packed their pages with tables and statistics after which even determined readers start to glaze over. Mike cuts jokes and poems of the time into such passages to give a sense of popular feeling that could only be officially recorded later.

Stalin’s death in 1953 led to the release of many prisoners. Terror gave way to more everyday repression, but it was no great relief. One account of a camp survivor tells of the demoralisation that followed his release. In the gulag there were miserable conditions and no scope for revolt, but political dissent could be relatively open among prisoners. On his release he found that the fear that had spread through society meant you could not speak your mind without the risk of being reported. A self imposed censorship of thought could destroy the soul where the camps had destroyed the body.

Russia’s rigid social structure was matched by an authoritarian and conservative ideology. Abortion was illegal from 1936 until 1955. A Soviet psychologist argued that ‘it is desirable that sex relations, as far as possible, take place without resort to contraceptives and with a view to conception’. Homosexuality, which had been repressed until the revolution of 1917, was once again driven underground. There is also an excellent discussion of the nature of Soviet ideology as expressed both in non-fiction and fiction. Not many in the west will have been forced to plough through the minor works of Socialist Realism, which show a public morality that would not have been out of place in Victorian England.

Running the economy by central direction produced record growth rates up to the 1960s, as people were driven off the land and into industrial cities. But it proved ineffective as this period of intensive development came to an end. In the countries with which Russia was competing, capital spilled more and more over its national borders.

When the system that claimed to rule in the interests of the workers was finally buried in 1991, the workers did not strain a muscle in order to defend it. The promises of a new prosperity to be brought by the introduction of the market did not last long. A decade ago various pro-market ‘experts’ touted their 300-day or 500-day plans for the economy, and Russian newspapers debated whether the country should try to be more like Sweden or Germany. Today a minority have managed to grab enormous wealth while millions suffer the fall out from a decade-long economic depression that has led to an unprecedented peacetime collapse of life expectancy.

Much of the old ruling class has changed with ease into its new clothes–one sign that this was a shift sideways from bureaucratic state capitalism to market-based capitalism–though the state still plays a key role.

Russia is seen as a country where socialism was tried and failed, even if it went badly wrong. If socialists are to convince a new generation that we have an alternative, we will need the kind of analysis contained in this book.


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