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  Top » Catalog » Pages » Reviews
The New Civilisation? Understanding Stalin’s Soviet Union 1929–1941 By Paul Flewers

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Reviewed by Mike Belbin in Weekly Worker, Thursday December 4 2008

Fellow travellers of statism

In this extensively researched book, Paul Flewers sets out to correct two misconceptions about how the USSR was seen and discussed in the west during the 1930s. This study, though, has implications beyond the detail of the period it covers: it is a contribution to our reckoning with the ways adopted to achieve socialism in the 20th century.

Flewers confronts two myths about western views of the 'Soviet experiment'. Firstly, that only 'official communists' and fellow travellers were sympathetic to the USSR; the legend being that 30s intellectuals were supposed to have seen the USSR as revolutionary socialist, at least in embryonic form or aspiration, and either supported or flatly opposed it. Secondly, that no-one then had much access to the facts on which to base a sound judgement.

Flewers's in-depth research shows that that these ideas are a reading back from the cold war. Such a picture of how people 'chose sides' in the 30s exonerates both the 'official communist' and anti-communist alike: only some were 'taken in', it suggests, and understandably because they lacked the necessary information.

The fashion at the turn of the millennium was to assume that the Soviet Union was regarded in the 20th century with either absolute devotion or dismissed as backward and irrelevant. This certainly neglects how many politicians and commentators over a broad political spectrum once regarded the USSR as an experiment in state intervention, statism, some of which they could learn from; or as an ally, which at a certain time they could unite with.

After the decline of the revolutionary wave across Europe in the early 1920s, western trepidation was often replaced by interest. State intervention was already a growing force in the west, especially during and after World War I. Many who would not have described themselves as socialist or communist simply saw the Soviet Union as an extreme example of such government assistance to society and the economy.

To this 'centre ground', the first five-year plan (1929-34) was of particular interest. In 1929, The Economist commented that the plan was °∞of incalculable value to economists and administrators all over the world°± (April 27 1929). Liberals like Ernest Barker called the politics of the USSR 'a new form of democracy' (International Affairs November 1934). World War I then had provoked a growing interest in planning as such and by the 1930s centrist commentators were struggling to draw up strategies to deal with problems at home and abroad. None other than Neville Chamberlain declared in March 1933 that the development of the Soviet economy could actually be beneficial to world trade.

Not that liberals and conservatives argued for the total transplant of Stalinism to the west. Even the Webbs, pre-war Fabian propagandists for nationalisation, were not totally sold. In their 1937 work Soviet communism, a new civilisation, they expressed admiration for the control of °∞waste°± by the Bolshevik state and the lack of a need to strike by Russian workers. However, they also complained about the new civilisation's 'disease of orthodoxy' and the 'discouragement and even repression of independent thinking on fundamental issues'.

As the depression bit deeper, it concentrated even more minds: free markets seemed the disease, not the cure. When Germany became a greater threat with fascism, the USSR was sought as an ally for 'collective security'.

Nevertheless, the Moscow trials, persecuting often committed Bolsheviks, still provoked special condemnation. The Economist described the defendants' confessions as 'utterly unconvincing in the absence of other evidence'. The otherwise sympathetic civil servant and historian EH Carr dismissed all apologies for the trials.

However, the new pro-Soviet consensus was building - the one that took Nazi Germany to be the greater danger. With the advance of this movement of bourgeois anti-fascism, many began to give Stalin the benefit of the doubt. A critic of the USSR's internal arrangements like Henry Wickham Steed could still write about the trials that beneath the 'highly improbable' confessions must stand 'a considerable substratum of truth' (International Affairs March 1937). In 1938, even Lloyd George and Churchill urged prime minister Chamberlain to forge an alliance with Russia.

The consensus then that George Orwell found himself up against in trying to publish Homage to Catalonia and later Animal Farm was not strictly a pro-Stalinist consensus, but an anti-fascist one. In reply, as it were, Orwell's post-war Nineteen Eighty-Four is an attack on statism, not merely Stalinism, on the degradation of truth by the requirements of a privileged elite. The economy and how it is organised is hardly mentioned.

In the 1950s, debate about the USSR was dominated by polarisation - by anti- and pro-Soviet views, with marginal characterisations of the USSR as degenerated socialism or state capitalist. Flewers covers all this in a telling discursive style.

Another importance of the book is that it shows that there was constant informed criticism of the USSR's planning regime.

In 1935, an anonymous exile, a Russian engineer, published an appraisal of the planning process, calling it 'chaotic' and adding that 'managers did not know what orders to follow'. Economist Michael Polanyi referred to the plan as 'a series of loosely connected tasks' and writers such as Walter Citrine and even Oswald Mosley referred to the formation as 'state capitalism'. On the Comintern's part in the Spanish civil war Louis Fischer wrote in the New Statesman that 'the truth is that the communists' saving, dynamism and discipline can have unpalatable by-products'. Even Chamberlain thought that the USSR was a revolutionary force no longer. The Comintern, he recorded, was a 'lifeless, bureaucratised institution'.

The turning point for most anti-fascists was the non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler in August 1939. Most of the disillusioned broke not with a USSR that had lost its revolutionary credentials, but one that could no longer be considered reliably anti-Nazi.

The next move Stalin made excited even more hostility from previous sympathisers. Seeking a buffer zone, the Kremlin began to push at the border with Finland. The Finns refused any such arrangement and the Red Army invaded. The cold war had begun, but, with Hitler's attack on Russia, it was put to one side for the duration.

Flewers does not explore any of the individual psychology involved in a leaning towards the USSR - none of the usual speculations about the search for an alternative patriotism, the outsider's resentment or the giving of significance to a life. With regard to the centre ground, the main attraction, he proposes, is 'the lure of the plan': the belief in 'the potential and viability of the Soviet economy', whether defined as embryonic socialist or a rule of experts no longer repeating the failure of free-market capitalism. Indeed, for HG Wells Stalinism was not authoritarian enough.

One might add another reason: the tendency found in anti-fascism of siding with 'my enemy's enemy'. Recently, this tactical option of the late 30s, faced with the undoubted challenge of full-blown fascism, has become a philosophy (file under 'multiculturalism') where, for example, the discovery that a Muslim leader is 'anti-imperialist', or rather anti-American, is grounds for adopting them as a progressive ally. Here anti-imperialism slips from anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism into an 'anti-Eurocentric' support for the right of a national ruling class to rule their 'own' people.

Finally, a broader point: centrist opinion in the 1930s could take Stalinism as a useful experiment in state 'intervention', because socialism - both social democracy and communism - had long since become identified with statism: that is, focussing on the state as the key to social change. Many theorists and tacticians contributed to this identification, from Bernstein and the Webbs to those Bolsheviks who supported the defensive and nationalist policy of 'socialism in one country'.

Even those in reaction to this interpretation of Marx and Engels, those who simply rejected the state - anarchists, Trotskyists - assumed that an instant revolution could be produced, while too often not taking seriously enough the political legacy of democratic republicanism: free speech, human rights, right to factions, etc.

Flewers shows us, then, one period where the interest in statism was not confined to 'left opinion' - and how 'left opinion' found itself confined within general bourgeois trends to selective nationalisation and anti-fascism.

As Mike Macnair has argued, left strategies of statism and anti-statism in the 20th century were not so much defeated as mistaken; not failures of will, but the wrong road. The statist left, in order to uphold 'broad' bourgeois movements and national 'progressive' governments, practised diplomatic discretion and fell into lies and 'bureaucratic centralism'. Among the 'anti-statists', the question of promoting accountability was bypassed for policies of 'practical' action - the mass strike, terrorism - which, it was assumed, would liberate the consciousness of the working class. Socialists acquired the reputation of being either coalitionist sell-outs or spontaneist utopians, both authoritarian in tendency, instead of patiently getting together a movement that promoted criticism and practised democratic centralism.

Tactics of permeation and coalition, however, are now plainly irrelevant: the ruling class is not playing ball. Sure, there are tax breaks for the market and bailouts for bankers, plus the odd consultation exercise, but social democracy is buried in the landfill of history. On the other hand, with the passing of Stalinism so recent, spontaneous revolution looks too scary a gamble.

In the Critique of the Gotha programme Marx wrote: 'Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society to one completely subordinate to it.' The only strategy remaining unsullied is to join together and subject the state to an international democracy of a socialised world.

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