Readers Write In #101: The Russian Revolution, Chapter 3 – Stalin’s Era Part 2

Posted on October 5, 2019

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(by G Waugh)

Introduction, Preface, and Chapter 1 are here.

Chapter 2 is here.

Further into the narrative, a quick dive into what essentially is meant by Capitalism, Marxism and Fascism will help us understand the ideological undercurrents that drove the turbulent events of the Second World War (1939-1945).

Capitalism – Origins:

The period of ‘Enlightenment’ in Europe is broadly assumed to begin from the French revolution of 1779. The French revolution marked the defeat of the feudal classes and the nobility at the hands of the mercantile and working classes. As a result, the mercantile classes (who dominated international trade) being the wealthier among the two, naturally assumed political and economic hegemony over that of the other, throughout Europe (the French Revolution triggered similar crises in the rest of European countries and ensured the disenfranchisement of clergy-nobility-feudal conglomerate in favour of the mercantile classes).

The mercantile classes soon grew up to become Industrial capitalists with the advent of the Great Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s. Mechanised production of commodities broke hitherto existing social bonds and created newer forms of association among the masses. Feudal agriculture rapidly gave way to modern industries and huge masses of peasants had to adopt to the changing needs of the newly created ‘market’. Farmers, artisans, priests and the like lost their traditional bondage to their respective occupations to congeal into one homogenous whole called as the ‘Industrial Proletariat’. In a few decades, this restructuring of societal and economic relations began to have telling effects on the psyche of the average European.

The new-born European worker now felt one with a lot of other industrial workers like him and his narrow, primitive identities were rapidly disappearing. He soon realised that he was more overworked than before and the benefits of his hard work, he found out much to his alarm, were being shared more unequally than before. Also his knowledge of traditional crafts like pottery, weaving, dyeing, etc were no longer relevant, as machines and drills produced more goods with much less effort and time. In huge factories where the division of labour was at the highest, all his work was restricted to accessory and supervisory duties. This soon led to a terrible alienation between himself and his output since he had only a very minimal role in producing it.

Extreme division of labour led to massive labour deskilling while a highly skewed distribution of created wealth started generating extreme income inequalities. The political consequences of these sudden and unforeseen changes were also equally significant. Marxist ideas spread all over Europe which stressed the need for integration of the working classes transcending national and racial barriers. Trade Unions were forged based on the new found ‘proletarian unity’ whose potential for collective bargaining served as a counterweight to the ruling/exploiting classes. In many ways by late 1800s, Britain, France, Germany and other industrialised European nations witnessed the ossification of different races, tribes and communities of people into two broad approximate classes- the capitalist and the proletariat (working classes). This phase of socio- economic evolution was, in Marxist terms, called the Capitalist phase.

What was good in Capitalism?

The improvements achieved in intercontinental seafaring, invention of the steam engine coupled with rapid spread of ‘Enlightenment’ values like secularism, freedom of expression, adult franchise, scientific outlook and human equality liberated European masses from their centuries-old feudal chains and pushed them into the Age of Industrial Capitalism. For the first time in human history, millions of people from different geographical locations and diverse backgrounds started working under one roof for a single capitalist. Commodity production during the previous era was petty, in the sense that a weaver in the town of Leicester, on nine out of ten occasions, made cloth for a carpenter who lived only a few miles away from his house. The demand hence, was mostly local and production, therefore was only limited whereas under Capitalism, demand was less local than otherwise and as a result, production was inevitably large scale. To meet both internal and external demand for industrial commodities, agriculture was unofficially discouraged and a peasant uprooted from a town like Yorkshire was forced to rub shoulders with another peasant from Manchester whilst waiting in the long, serpentine queue to get his daily wage from his new factory employer. Races, cultures, languages and religions dissolved quickly into the melting pot of urban civilisation which marked the beginning of a new chapter in the metamorphosis of social evolution.

The exchange of different ideas along with the growing popularity of path-breaking scientific theories (Darwin’s theory of natural selection played a huge role) forced common men to revisit their adherences to traditional religious belief systems. The ability of science to analyse, explain and predict natural phenomena soon began to break the hegemony of local clergymen. Defiance of bishops and priests by the common people soon meant defiance of nobility and serfdom. In most of the countries, lands were owned by Churches and nobles whose methods of exploitation of the peasantry were heavily dependent on carefully preserved superstitious beliefs. Archbishops and godmen made local laws without a semblance of democracy, in close nexus with the nobles and the royal administrators. The transition to industrial Capitalism, therefore meant the overpowering and marginalisation of completely unscientific and obsolescent relations of production which left the disenfranchised ruling classes biding their time for revenge.

What makes ‘Capitalism dig its own grave’ ?

What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable

This was Karl Marx in the late 1800s when Industrial Europe was waking up to the unforeseen, yet dramatic effects of the new capitalist relations of production.

Let us first look at why Capitalism is often equated with ‘exploitation’ by Marxist writers. Capitalism, according to Marx survives on the most important condition of ‘accumulation of surplus value’. Surplus value here refers to the amount of labour that a worker offers to the capitalist, more than what he is paid for*. Under Capitalism, on every single day, a worker is forced to sell his labour for a price that equals only the cost of replenishing his labouring potential for yet another day of work. But the commodity he produces and hands over to the capitalist has a ‘market’ value which is almost twice than what he is being paid**. This extraction of surplus labour power out of the worker helps the capitalist to acquire a disproportionately larger share of created wealth. Hence this system of production relations breeds economic inequality leading to an ever widening chasm between the rich and the poor.

With the advancement in technology, capitalists find it easier to replace labour with machinery and this in turn creates a permanent industrial reserve army of unemployed people. The more the capitalist accumulates, the more his tendency to mechanise production and the more mechanised an industry gets, more number of people find themselves scrambling for a rapidly shrinking number of jobs. Hence the presence of an industrial reserve army helps the capitalist to keep wages low and extract more labour.

During the beginning of the capitalist cycle when the supply is suitably met by commensurate demand, the economy is alive and kicking as the domestic consumption is higher and the growing demand for goods, in turn creates more and more jobs (Boom). More jobs means more money at the hands of the workers to spend and hence the cycle continues efficiently. Competition among businesses tend to reduce market prices and a concomitant overproduction of goods triggers deflation and a further downward spiral of prices. To compensate for the falling prices which means a lower rate of profit, the capitalist resorts to replacing labour with machinery. But soon at a particular juncture, the unsustainability of the cycle comes to the surface when all the competing capitalists resort to mechanisation of production triggering a wave of worker retrenchment. When more workers find themselves out of jobs, their consumption reduces which in turn reduces domestic demand. Lesser demand can be met with lesser labour and lesser machinery and this throws another round of workers out of the workforce. This cycle builds and builds and all we have at the end is a terrible phase of stagnation and ubiquitous poverty (Bust).

During these phases of bust, the workers find themselves at sea and look for political solutions for their economic problems. The feudal era didn’t produce much goods and hence barely offered any scope for rapid unilateral accumulation by one particular class. The feudalist system mandated a particular share of the agricultural produce to be handed over by the tiller to the landlord and allowed him to keep the rest for himself. Artisans and craftsmen worked in collaborative formations called guilds which involved communities of people who usually took care of both production and marketing themselves. The created value, hence was being distributed more or less equally among themselves and the scope for exploitation was quite minimal. Most importantly, the feudal era witnessed very less unemployment even though poverty was widely prevalent.

But for the first time in history under capitalism, the human society found herself not only tremendously unequal but also, in contrast, unmistakably pregnant with a new and a radical idea seeded by the finest values of European Enlightenment and nourished by the ruthless excesses of capitalist exploitation, whose time for emergence, it was widely believed, had fortunately come.

Why Marxism?

Falling wages and rising unemployment, compulsory overtime for workers, labour deskilling and worker ‘alienation’, widespread poverty and growing starvation, ever increasing income inequalities, all of which together tended to drive the average European to extreme desperation. He was terribly confused as to why he couldn’t buy enough bread even when there was a glut in the market. He couldn’t understand why all of a sudden the knowledge of his inherited occupation was deemed completely useless. He couldn’t understand how marbled palatial houses and luxury restaurants sprang beside cesspools dotted with nasty shacks and sootcovered huts. He couldn’t understand why an unemployed adult was respected less than a child- labourer inside a family. He couldn’t understand why more and more people were beginning to resort to any means at hand, to extract an extra cent from the other.

The publishing of Das Kapital in 1867 by Karl Marx took a long while to trigger tsunamis that it was meant to, in political and intellectual circles. Marx wrote another masterpiece which went by the name ‘Communist Manifesto’ in collaboration with his friend Friedrich Engels. These seminal books along with a few more came to form the theoretical basis of Marxian Socialism.

Marx was the first popular intellectual in Europe to analyse, contextualise and predict the future progress of Industrial Capitalism thereby answering almost all the questions of the confused average European. The Communist Manifesto envisioned a Utopian society of the future that would exist without a government where people did occupations that they were naturally good at and earned enough to satisfy their basic daily needs. People shared all work with each other in small agglomerations called Communes where social, racial and economic hierarchies had no business to exist. The lack of a government meant complete absence of a police force since it was believed that a Communist society would have no criminals. People were to be judged based on what they actually were rather than by the amount of economic value they created. In other words, Communism called for the complete obliteration of traditionally oppressive, social, racial and economic structures and invited every worker, peasant and craftsman in every country to dissolve himself in the great international proletarian sea.

As you may see, Communist ideas had plenty of reasons to appeal to large masses of people across countries and continents beckoning all of them to join in the revolutionary struggle against the exploiting propertied classes. Marxism, in other words called for a scientific, rational and egalitarian society which spelt nothing less than a formidable threat to the existence of all currently hegemonic classes that have been thriving hitherto purely based on exploitation.

Why Fascism ?

To accurately define the ideological contours of fascism is a completely useless task since fascism is anything but ideological. Fascism can suitably be reduced to a logical approximation of many-hued yet uniformly impulsive calls for self-defence by all the existing or rapidly dwindling hegemonic classes in response to the inescapable threat from the disgruntled proletariat.

Any country under consideration, it is to be noted, does not move seamlessly from one form of production relations into another as a whole, in one single stroke. Feudal or semi feudal forms may co-exist for a while with advanced capitalist forms until the latter consumes the former completely. As a result, these feudal classes do continue to exist, exerting their influence on national politics as well even if their presence is rudimentary. These classes who are waiting desperately to return to the old order also find themselves gravely threatened by the proletarian challenge. In various countries, these feudal classes form the backbone of right wing fascist movements reminding people of their pre-capitalist identities such as race, religion and communities. Their influence on public opinion is never to be underestimated because identity politics comes in handy even for their capitalist allies in order to break the unity of the rising proletariat.

When the masses are confused as to why they remain poor and deprived of opportunities even when national wealth, as a whole is increasing, only Marxism responds to them by accurately pointing fingers at the exploiting propertied classes. Solely to counter this challenge, Fascism looms up to instantly divert the attention of the masses away from the propertied classes towards the masses themselves, blaming everything on a tiny racial or religious minority, whose loyalty to the country is brought into question. This can be understood better if we relate this phenomena to that occurring in India under the current Hindu Nationalist regime where the establishment keeps blaming Muslims and Pakistanis whenever uncomfortable questions regarding economy are raised.

Fascism, in addition to attacking Marxism does not, shy away from targeting the values of ‘Enlightenment’ as well- secularism, liberalism, scientific outlook, democracy and free speech, etc. solely because these ideals were instrumental in the construction of the Marxist theory. In short, Fascism is against anything that is deemed progressive, and hence often referred in common parlance as wholly ‘reactionary’ in nature.

Now that we are sufficiently abreast of the ideological basis of early 20th century European crisis, we can comfortably return to our story.

Economic Depression of 1929 and rise of Fascism:

By the end of 1920s, the industrial United States and Western Europe had exhausted the ‘boom’ phase of the capitalist cycle and were fast dwindling into its inevitable ‘bust’ phase. 1929 was the year when an unprecedented Stock Market crash occurred in the US which triggered a cascading economic collapse in all countries commercially linked to the economic superpower. Italy, France, Germany, Britain and other trading partners of US were the worst hit with millions of workers losing jobs everyday thereby setting off a crisis in almost all sectors of the national economy.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 which had installed a Communist Government at the helm of the largest country in the world, had been inspiring Communist movements in almost all parts of the world. Since the end of the First World War, Germany was showing all signs of suitably following the Russian model when the electoral domination of the German Communist Party was growing manifold. In parallel, special circumstances such as the imposition of the humiliating Versailles treaty on Germany by all other Western powers at the end of the WW1 and the dismantling of the Second Reich at the same time to pave way for democracy, also had given necessary and sufficient grounds for the revival of German nationalism.

The interaction of Communist and the contrarian Nationalist influences on the psyche of the average German produced remarkable societal effects. The economic depression whose impacts were manifest in the early 1930s squelched all public confidence in the parliamentary system of democracy and drove Germans to find solutions in authoritarian models. Strategic blunders time and again by the German Communist party along with the reluctance of the centre-left Social Democrats to sufficiently diagnose the extent of the Fascist pestilence led to the electoral victory of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party (Nazi) in 1933. The Nazi party grew on inherent, yet rudimentary anti-semitism of the Germans and amplified it disproportionately to suit its political ends. The economic troubles of country were blamed on both the Jews and the Western Powers and Hitler called for ostracization of the local Jews to ensure Aryan racial purity. German Fascism inspired similar movements in Poland, Austria and even in the United States.

Germany and Russia – Strange bedfellows:

Hitler assumed power in 1933 and soon passed a series of acts that were aimed at undermining democratic institutions. The Communist party was banned and a great purge of Communist and trade union leaders followed. Jews were handpicked from every nook and corner of the country’s streets and forced to work in ghettos (concentration camps). Hitler abolished the post of President with the death of Hindenburg and declared himself, the sole Chancellor of Germany. He called his new Government, the Third Reich, a reference to Germany’s supposedly glorious years under monarchy.

The rise of Hitler alarmed communists all over the world and his alliance with Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini raised a lot of eyebrows in the Western Capitalist camp as well. Hitler kept bullying his smaller sovereign neighbours with his military might and kept on signing a string of treaties allowing German expansion in the West. Most of these treaties were blessed with the reluctance of French, British and American Governments to confront Hitler since none of these countries were by the end of 1930s ready to venture into another war. Russia’s Stalin continued to call for strategic alliances with the Western Powers to counter the threat of Hitler and kept his propaganda machinery working overtime to keep people all over the world vigilant to the rising threat of Fascism. Communist parties all over the world were ordered by Stalin to take the lead in countering local fascist movements. When none of the Western Powers responded positively to his calls, Stalin was forced to fend for himself at the end.

Hitler by the end of 1938, had managed to re-arm Germany to its pre-1914 strength. Millions of marks were spent on arms and ammunition manufacturing and the German defence forces grew manifold during the Nazi years. He was now setting his sights far higher. He wanted to bring the whole of Europe under his control but was equally wary of the threat posed by Communist Russia. He wasn’t ready at that point of time to open a war at two fronts simultaneously and hence decided to reserve Russia for the future.

So he called for a non-aggression agreement with Russia and a desperate Stalin acquisced immediately, culminating in the Molotov- Ribbentrop pact signed on August 23, 1939 at Moscow. The pact recognised bilateral sovereignty and agreed to not interfere in each other’s expansionist aims. Germany and Russia recognised mutual ‘spheres of influence’ in the future event of possible rearrangement of territories belonging to Poland and the Baltic countries.

Hitler’s hand was enormously strengthened by this historic pact with Stalin which propelled him to attack Poland the very next week on September 1, 1939, that unforgettable date often considered to be the date of the beginning of the Second World War.

Stalin, on the other hand knew very well that the only tangible advantage that the pact had given him was nothing more than an interim breathing space that could enable him to plan for the inevitable – that final face-off against the formidable Germany, which was expected to happen sooner than later, even if Hitler was proving to be unusually amiable to him, for the time being.

*a very difficult attempt has been made by me to simplify Marxist theory of surplus value as much as possible. I hereby acknowledge the possible inaccuracy of my assertion with respect to what Marx had actually said.

**the prices and values were calculated by Marx in Capital Volume 1 based on hypothetical market conditions.

References:

  • Capital by Karl Marx
  • Fascism and Social Revolution by RP Dutt.
  • The Revolution Betrayed by Leon Trotsky
  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer.
  • How to Change the World: Marx and Marxism 1840-2011 by Eric Hobsbawm.
  • The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State by Friedrich Engels.
  • The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 by Eric Hobsbawm
  • Dialectical and Historical Materialism by JV Stalin.