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John G. Wright

The USSR in War

(January 1942)

From Fourth International, Vol. 3 No. 1, January 1942, pp. 16–19.
Transcribed & marked up by David Walters for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The arrival of the issues of the Moscow press for September and October enables one, despite the implacable Stalinist censorship, to reconstruct at least a partial picture of the real developments in the USSR in wartime.

The columns of the bureaucratic press are beginning to reflect, in a typically distorted manner, the tremendous moral upsurge of the masses and the intensity of their determination and effort to fight to the death in defense of the conquests of the October revolution.

Resurgence of the Soviet Masses

A graphic instance of this is the enthusiastic response to the decree of the Kremlin instituting universal military training for all male citizens from 16 to 50. This decree went officially into effect on October 1. In many cities, especially those close to the front like Leningrad, Moscow and Rostov, the workers were arming and drilling several weeks prior to the actual passage of the law in September. In point of fact, there is considerable evidence that the initiative for this measure did not originate at the top. From official reports it is clear that as early as August large workers’ detachments were formed in Leningrad, and have since then participated actively in the war – fighting not as guerrillas behind the lines, but rather coordinating their activities with those of the regular army. In September and October these Leningrad detachments were assigned the defense of definite posts. Similar developments took place elsewhere, especially in large proletarian centers closest to the front. The role of workers’ detachments in the defense of Leningrad was featured by Pravda in September. There has been very little said about them in the dispatches abroad. The question naturally arises why has Moscow kept so silent about the role of these proletarian militias in the reverses suffered by the Nazis at Rostov, Leningrad and Moscow?

The Response to Universal Military Training

This reticence of the Kremlin was equally noticeable in connection with the decree instituting universal military training. It is the custom of the Kremlin to conduct a broad cainçaign in the press in preparation for its ukases, especially those which are considered important. No such campaign preceded the arming and training of the Soviet masses.

On October 1, the Pravda carried a perfunctory leading editorial on the subject of the Military Training of the People. In addition, it began to publish a series of highly instructive and valuable articles dealing with the construction and use of rifles, portable machine guns, and trench tools. But these articles were suddenly suspended without any explanation.

This and other indications incline us to the opinion that the bureaucracy is not particularly enthused by the prospect of an armed and trained population. The press has not carried a single complaint about the failure of the workers to respond to the call for military training. On the contrary, the only complaints thus far have been restricted to the lack of adequate preparations, the dearth of weapons and instructors, the failure of those in charge to show up, and so on. In a word, all the shortcomings and deficiencies are ascribable not to the rank and file but solely to the authorities.

It is hardly possible to exaggerate the vast scope of the changes which are taking place in the country. The demands of wartime have acted to intensify the shift of the population into the industrial centers. This is due not so much to the influx of refugees as to the movement of millions of peasants, youth, and women into industry owing to the departure of many workers into the army on the one hand, and the expanding needs of war production on the other. In the last few months large sections of the rural and urban population have been drawn for the first time into industry.

The renewal of personnel is to be observed in every important sphere of Soviet activity. The Red Army, for example, has not only added millions of new soldiers but also new cadres of officers. Among the ranking officers singled out for praise in the latest dispatches, the overwhelming majority are newcomers. Hardly a day now passes without its quota of new appointments and promotions. In the space of the last three months thousands of generals and literally tens of thousands of colonels, majors, captains and lieutenants have risen to replace the former incumbents. Among these newcomers there are unquestionably many men who have actually distinguished themselves in battle and have shown real ability. Obviously a new selection is now taking place among the Red officer corps. And this selection of officers cannot be confined, like the previous ones, exclusively within the framework of the Kremlin’s political considerations and needs.

The Shifting Soviet Scene

The question of the new personnel is becoming equally acute for the regime in such key sections of the bureaucratic apparatus as the party, the Komsomols (Russian YCL) and the trade unions. An ever increasing number of district, city and local staffs have been depleted either by transfers into the army or into other spheres of activity. A sudden and unforeseen need of new secretaries, organizers and functionaries has arisen. The columns of the press are filled with one “alarm signal” after another.

“In connection with the departure of a certain number of workers to the front new cadres have come into the enterprises.” (Pravda, September 21, 1941)

“A section of the trade union activists and trade union organizers have gone into the army. New comrades must be elected to replace them.” (idem)

This is easier said than done. The problem is a very grave one because it is obviously far more difficult than was the case in peace time to continue under wartime conditions the same rigid hand-picking of docile, unquestioning flunkeys and puppets. Furthermore, the situation at the front and behind the lines now places a premium on ability and initiative in the localities as well as in the centers.

In order to survive, the Stalinist regime must continue to combine in its hands political power and the tasks of administration. Far from coinciding, the demands and tasks in these two spheres have been in constant and ever growing conflict with each other. The contradiction between the political needs of the regime and the unpostponable administrative and military tasks of the country is being brought to the breaking point by the war.

The bureaucracy which had raised Stalin to power has been decomposing for years. This process of decomposition has likewise been speeded up by the war. The fourth month of the war finds the party on its last legs in the very center itself.

On September 29 a general membership meeting of the Moscow District and the Moscow Province was convened.

Speaking to the assembled functionaries, Scherbakov, the secretary of the Moscow party, declared:

“A number of party organizations ... instead of strengthening the party-political work have been weakening it. They have stopped calling party meetings; they are neglecting political agitation among the masses; they are weakening the work of accepting new members into the party.” (Pravda, September 30, 1941)

The Condition of the Moscow Party

A party that holds no meetings, conducts no political agitation, accepts no new members – that is the official picture of the Moscow party! If that is the condition of the party in the very center, how is the apparatus functioning in the outlying areas?

Scherbakov forgot to mention in his report that the state of affairs he fulminated against was merely the culmination of Stalin’s previous work of destruction. The party has been a hollow shell for many years. The war has cracked this shell. The Eighteenth Party Conference (February 1941) had virtually prohibited the party from intervening in politics. In failing to go through such formalities as calling meetings, the bureaucrats merely followed in Stalin’s footsteps. Since the outbreak of the Nazi-Soviet war not a single authoritative body has convened in the USSR, nor has any statement been issued either to the Soviet masses or the outside world in the name of these bodies. Only silence has emanated from the party, the Kamsomols (the Russian YCL) and the trade unions. The Supreme Council of the Soviets was not convoked even to ratify the agreements concluded between Stalin and the Allied countries.

After Scherbakov’s report, the meeting unanimously adopted a resolution instructing the Moscow party to “eliminate the inadequacies in party work.”

In addition to this empty formality, a concrete directive was also moved and accepted:

“The meeting made it obligatory for the leading workers of the city and province to appear at meetings of workers and to give reports there” (Pravda, September 30, 1941).

Scherbakov and Co. – ”the leading workers of the city and province “ – voted, mind you, to instruct themselves to appear at meetings of workers and collective farmers! Who then did address these meetings during the first four months of the war?

This is the kind of “leadership” the Stalinists have been supplying to the Soviet masses. Such revelations are not accidental. They are manifestations of growing pressure from below.

Almost a similar situation exists in the relations between the regime and industry. The pressure of wartime needs and conditions is forcing the Kremlin itself to lift the veil of secrecy which has shrouded the administration of industry during the Five Year Plans.

In the fourth month of the war, the Pravda has found it necessary to write a leading editorial entitled:


After explaining that the country is engaged in war, the editorial laments:

“The moods of peacetime are still not outlived everywhere. Some of the activists in industry ... continue to work in the old manner” (Pravda, September 15, 1941).

What is this “old manner”?

“There are still directors,” continues Pravda, “... who are not at all averse of boasting of 100 per cent fulfillment of the plan – on the average, on the whole, although individual orders, including orders for the front, remain unfilled.”

For the last twelve years the Kremlin has been issuing boasts of “100 per cent” fulfillments of the plans. The official statistics have been invariably couched in terms of rubles, tons of gross output, averages, etcetera. Leon Trotsky exposed the fraudulent nature of these subterfuges. He explained how such methods served as a cover for the failures to fill vital orders and the piling up of monstrous disproportions. Directors of plants could attain the fulfillment and overfulfiliment of their quotas by the simple device of diverting production into the most convenient channels. For example, a glass factory which according to the plan should have issued a certain number of lenses and other complicated equipment, could achieve its “average” by concentrating on tumblers, plates, bottles, and so on. In the mad chase after records, this is precisely what Stalinist directors did. The “old manner” to which Pravda now scathingly refers is the method inherent in the Stalinist administration and management of industry. Today, the Kremlin finds itself compelled to admit officially that directors of Soviet plants deliberately shunt aside vital military orders for the sake of establishing fraudulent records, simply because these records carry with them premiums, privileges, promotions, in short, are profitable to the bureaucrats.

Stalinist Sabotage of Soviet Industry

We Trotskyists have long ago accused the Kremlin of fostering and advancing to the most responsible posts people who do not hesitate for a moment to sacrifice the interests of the USSR for their own aggrandizement. But of what does Pravda really accuse the directors of industry if not of sabotage of Soviet defense? It is obvious that anyone guilty of deliberately failing to fulfill orders for the front is committing one of the gravest crimes against the Soviet Union. The profound contradiction between the bureaucratic regime and the country’s needs in industry – the most crucial sphere of defense – cannot be covered up any longer.

“Such a director,” continues Pravda, “goes around using his 100 per cent record as a trump card. But who does not know that it is possible to fulfill the plan – on the whole, in terms of rubles, in terms of tons of gross output and at the same time to ruin important orders?”

The editorial concludes by warning all directors who still think that “it will be enough, as has been the case up to now, to report to the People’s Commissariat the average figure (of production), and everybody will still consider such a director an efficient administrator. Now this will not succeed!” threatens Pravda. “Now it is impermissible to take into consideration the fulfillment of the program ‘on the whole’” (Pravda, September 15, 1941. Our emphasis).

Under the hammer blows of events the ranks of the bureaucracy are being shattered. The Kremlin hopes to survive the crisis by “re-educating” its ranks. It tries to represent the situation as if it involves only the failure of isolated individuals to adjust themselves to the requirements of new conditions. The “old manner” of production, we remind Pravda, for which directors were not only considered “efficient” but were honored, feted and decorated was never – “enough.” Pravda darkly hints: “Now this will not succeed!” “Now it is impermissible!”

But the whole point is that the bureaucracy knows no other way of administration than the “old manner.” There is only one force in the Soviet Union that can call to order these people who are drunk with the exercise of unlimited authority, and who proceed from the assumption that they can and do permit themselves anything. Only the restoration of workers’ control in the factories can do away with these abominations.

If in times of peace the direct participation of the masses in carrying out the plans would have unfailingly advanced Soviet economy to far greater heights than were possible under the unbridled and irresponsible bureaucratic regime, then this participation and self-action of the masses in all spheres is an indispensable prerequisite in wartime for the successful defense of the Soviet Union.

The Kremlin Discovers Another “Fifth Column”

At the same time that it cajoles, pleads and reasons with its flunkies, the Kremlin di’aws tighter the screws of its repressive apparatus. Since last July the rabid campaign under the familiar slogan of “exterminating diversionists and spies” has continued unabated.

In September the State Publishers issued a pamphlet entitled Spies and Diversionists Must Be Destroyed. The author is one P. Kubatkin, a Commissar of State Security, i.e., the GPU. The central point of his pamphlet is a plea for the strict enforcement of the ukase of July 6, 1941, which is aimed not against real spies and diversionists but against all Soviet citizens who violate the prohibition of discussing the war or the conditions behind the lines. Any one expressing doubts, criticism or dissatisfaction is thereby guilty of “spreading false rumors,” “aiding the enemy.” This is punishable by 2 to 5 years imprisonment.

The entire press has featured reviews of the GPU pamphlet. A sample quotation from Pravda follows:

“One of the most favorite methods of the fascist bandits is to spread false rumors arousing alarm among the population. The lovers of all sorts of gossip, the men-about-town pick them up and involuntarily become aids of fascist spies in their provocationist work.#8221; (Pravda, September 11, 1941)

The review concludes by urging a mass distribution of this pamphlet:

“Comrade Kubatkin’s pamphlet helps raise the vigilance among the Soviet people. It deserves the broadest possible circulation.” (idem)

On September 21, in discussing the work of the trade unions in wartime, Pravda went out of its way, in a leading editorial, to stress that one of the primary functions of trade unionists is to assist in the enforcement of the July 6 ukase.

“By basing themselves on the advanced section of workers and employees,” instructs Pravda, “the trade union activists must tear the mask from provocateurs and disseminators of all sorts of lying fictions and rumors which play into the hands of the enemy.”

While the Kremlin’s flunkeys abroad are trying to justify the Moscow frame-ups and the blood purges of 1936–38, on the grounds that Stalin destroyed the “Fifth Column,” the Stalinists in the Soviet Union are singling out the trade unions as one of the main arenas for the operations of “Fifth Columnists”

We are asked to believe that despite the remarkable morale at the front and behind the lines, fascist agents, spies and diversionists are carrying on their activities in the open, and that they and their assistants are actually obtaining help, sympathy and cover among the masses of Soviet workers and employes. Not even Goebbels has been brazen enough to make such claims

In our opinion one of the most significant signs of the rising confidence and self-action among the Soviet masses is the fact that Stalin’s ukase of July 6 has met with no response whatever. The authorities have apparently not dared to enforce it openly. Even the courts have been manifesting an unprecedented leniency.

Stalin’s Gag Law Remains Unenforced

On September 27 the Pravda complained bitterly:

“We have not yet rooted out in our ranks a liberal and tolerant attitude toward ‘whisperers’ and others who disseminate false rumors.”

“There are not a few people,” continues Pravda, “ among them Communists – who are quite capable of listening calmly in a street car or in a store to twaddle which is essentially provocationist in nature. They do not at all deem it necessary to interrupt and to call the disseminator of false news to account. Nor have our courts really gotten down to business – Soviet society has still to hear about court sentences meted out to those who are spreading provocationist rumors” (Pravda, September 27, 1941).

From these unprecedented admissions of Stalin’s personal organ it is possible to draw only one conclusion: doubts, questionings and criticism of the regime are becoming more and more widespread in the USSR. By the fourth month of the war these manifestations had already assumed such proportions that the Stalinist apparatus of repressions was no longer capable of coping with the situation through “nornial” channels.


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