J.R. Johnson

Labor and the Second World War

(10 November 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 86, 10 November 1939, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


The Achievements of Soviet Russia

“But,” says the doubter, “capitalism is bankrupt. We agree. Chamberlain is not fighting for ‘democracy.’ Neither is Roosevelt preparing to fight for ‘democracy.’ Any fool can see that. But what can we do? Socialism, you say. But look at Russia!”

Many ask this question with genuine concern. They must follow their own advice and look carefully at Russia.

Russian in 1913 was the most backward of the great European, states. By 1920, owing to the imperialist war and the war of intervention that followed, production had declined by 82%. Such was the country that the Bolsheviks took over, with every imperialist government plotting their downfall.

This is the record to date.

In 1913 Tsarist Russia produced 4.2 million tons of steel; in 1937 Soviet Russia produced 17.7 million tons. In 1913 Tsarist Russia produced 4.2 million tons of pig iron; in 1937 Soviet Russia produced 14.5 million tons. In 1913 Tsarist Russia produced 29 million tons of coal; in 1937 Soviet Russia produced 127 million. In 1910 Tsarist Russia produced 63 millions of barrels of crude petroleum; in 1937 Soviet Russia produced 199 millions. Grain production, 801 million centners in 1913, was 1,202 millions in 1937. No such economic progress has ever been seen under the capitalist system.

Capitalist Bankruptcy

And while the new system has been piling up these achievements, what have the imperialists to show? Crisis after crisis, stagnation and rottenness. With 1929 as 100, industrial output in Great Britain was 98.8 in 1934 and 112 in 1938. We have seen its catastrophic rise and fall in the United States. In Soviet Russia it was 238.3 in 1934 and 477 in 1938. We need not take Stalin’s figures as Gospel; in lies and exaggerations he overtakes and surpasses his imperialist rivals. But the fact remains, admitted by the bitterest enemies of the Soviet Union, that in contrast to the worldwide crisis of capitalism since 1929, the public ownership of the means of production and the planned economy of the Soviet Union have startled the world by their rapid and long-sustained progress. Some detractors say that it is because the country was backward to begin with. Malice and stupidity here contend for mastery. Spain was backward in 1913. So was China, and India. And what have they to show for their twenty-five years’ worship of the capitalist system?

As in the material, so necessarily in the cultural sphere. More of education and facilities for culture have been provided proportionately for the Russian people in twenty years than in India during the last two hundred and twenty. These achievements are history, indelibly inscribed, and there are others that are today in danger of being forgotten. In the early years under Lenin and Trotsky, the Soviet government, in its labor legislation, its social code, its political honesty, its enlightened encouragement of the arts and sciences, gave a glimpse to humanity of the great future that awaits it when imperialist barbarism is overthrown.

Why Then the Terror?

But if these things are true, as they are, why then does Russia today present the dreadful spectacle of political and social tyranny and growing economic chaos, which create doubts in the minds of many who see capitalism for the rottenness that it is? The reason is to be sought, as always, in the productive system, but here not in its basic nature but in its special circumstances.

Russia started too far behind; despite its progress it is still a poverty-stricken country. Where Soviet Russia produces annually 16 meters of cotton fabrics per person of the population, the United States produces 58 and Great Britain 60. Where Soviet Russia produces one pair of shoes per person, the United States produces 2.6 and Britain 2.2. The amount of paper produced in a country is an index of its culture. Where Soviet Russia produces 5 kilograms of paper per person, the United States produces 48 and Britain 42. The output of steel per head in Great Britain was 226 kilograms in 1938; in Soviet Russia it was only 107.

And so on. Russia is still a backward country. In twenty short years even Soviet progress could not lift the actual production per person of Soviet Russia to anywhere near that of the great capitalist countries, bankrupt though they are. Soviet Russia is still a country of great scarcity of the necessities of life and as long as this is so, socialism must remain only an aspiration.

Socialism demands above all things abundance of production. It is the fierce competition for the means of living that now disfigures our society, divides it into classes, breeds economic exploitation and political tyranny. That abundance of production is possible in America to-day. The official statisticians of New York City have shown that even under capitalism every American family by working four hours a day could enjoy an annual income of $4,000. It is capitalism and its system of private ownership which prevent this prosperity. But backward Russia, even with its economy socialized, cannot yet give a tenth of this sum to each family. And on the basis of this poverty and backwardness, on this necessity of the great masses to labor under miserable conditions, there has arisen the bureaucracy.

“Every Cook Must Learn to Govern”

Where all cannot have a free and full existence and all possibility of development, some must be better educated, better fed, better clothed, better housed than the rest, in order to be able to carry on the administration of government and industry. Lenin said that every cook must learn to govern. But that can be only in a socialist society, where cooks work only a few hours a day in highly organized modern kitchens and draw secure and comfortable wages. Under such conditions, any tyrannical or offensive bureaucrat can be immediately thrown out of office: there would be hundreds to take his place. But in Russia the cook works at a wage lower than the relief rate in this country. Vastly improved as Soviet education is, it cannot yet educate the whole population. It can barely teach the great masses to read, and it has to reserve a thorough training for the privileged few with the more difficult work to do.

Socialism in One Country Impossible

In a backward country like Russia, isolated from the rest of Europe, a bureaucracy living above the level of the masses was inevitable. First the bureaucrats assumed only those privileges and special considerations necessary for their work. But gradually, as production increased, they took advantage of their authoritative position in society to increase their share. They suppressed those who opposed their usurpation. After Lenin’s death, Trotsky and his supporters, who opposed the bureaucracy, were isolated by slander and violence and ultimately driven into exile, imprisoned, or killed. The bureaucrats, in defiance of common sense, announced that they would build socialism in a single country, by which they meant that they were quite satisfied with their own position. But the Russian masses were not. This socialism began to look too much like the old capitalism. They had not made the revolution for this. Stalin and the bureaucrats replied to their dissatisfaction with a redoubled terror.

Were Lenin and Trotsky blind to the possibility of such a degeneration? Certainly not. Long before the revolution actually took place, they warned that socialism could never be built in a backward Russia surrounded by hostile capitalist states. Russia could build socialism only in collaboration with the advanced economy and victorious proletariat of some at least of the more highly developed countries. They saw that either capitalist economy would be transformed by the workers’ revolution into international socialism, or Russia would be dragged back to capitalism. Only the workers, in alliance with the farmers and the millions of colonials, could destroy the rotting but still powerful imperialist system. Lenin and Trotsky organized the Communist International to assist the workers of the world in the struggle against imperialist war and capitalist reaction. They knew that sooner or later the workers would face the alternative, victory over capitalism or the destruction of their organizations and the descent into war. For Bolsheviks then and for Trotsky to-day the world revolution was and is the only ultimate safeguard of Russia against internal degeneration (on the basis of a backward economy) or external destruction, by the implacable enemy of world imperialism. And this enmity remains, however much this or the other imperialism might for a moment seek an alliance with the Soviet Union and even for a time fight side by side with it.

(Continued in Next Issue)

Last updated on 18 April 2018