1937-06 Life in Soviet Russia [SPGB]
(Socialist Standard, June 1937)
The claim that the only person who can know what is happening in a country is one who has been there is not even a half-truth, but it dies hard. It rests on the notion that “seeing is believing.” But those who make the claim overlook that it is a physical impossibility to “see” more than a microscopic part of the area of even the smallest country and equally an impossibility to know the life, work and thoughts of the population by "seeing" them. Moreover, the observer himself, even if supplied with full and accurate information and given free access to places and people, is useless if he does not know what to look for and how to interpret it. There are millions of workers who have lived in capitalist Britain all their lives, yet who hardly realise that capitalism exists, and who are quite content to vote for their own exploiters. Some of the conditions of a sound interpretation are: unbiased statistics, freedom from censorship, and the unfettered expression of opinion by the population themselves through their own voluntary organisations, journals and meetings. Most of these conditions are lacking in greater or less degree under the dictatorships, including Russia. That is why an 88-page booklet by M. Yvon, Ce Qu’est Devenue la Révolution Russe (“What the Russian Revolution Has Become”) has a value much greater than its size would indicate. Yvon was a skilled worker, active member of the Communist Party, who worked for 11 years in Russia, returning to France in 1934. He was in turn a factory-hand, foreman and director, and he worked in Moscow, Leningrad, Siberia, Turkestan and elsewhere. His booklet is a plain account of working-class life in Russia, supplemented for the years since 1934 by information from the Russian Press. (It is published by La Révolution Proletarienne, 54, rue du Chateau d’Eau, Paris 10, at two francs.)
What he experienced in Russia has convinced him that Russia is not Socialist nor heading for Socialism, but giving birth to a new régime, new classes and new forms of exploitation in place of the old. He writes (page 85):–
“. . . it is no longer a question of a Socialist régime with the defects and errors of infancy, nor of a regime of a specifically Russian nature, but of a new social system with new classes . . . There are in the U.S.S.R. privileged and exploited classes, dominant classes and subject classes. Between them the standard of living is sharply separated.
The classes of travel on the railways correspond exactly to the social classes; similarly with ships, restaurants, theatres, shops, and with houses; for one group palaces in pleasant neighbourhoods, for the others wooden barracks alongside tool stores and oily machines. .It is always the same people who live in the palaces and the same people who live in the barracks.
There is no longer private property, there is only one property – State property. But the State no more represents the whole community than under preceding régimes.”
The “new classes” Yvon sees in Russia are the so-called specialists and persons holding responsible positions, administrators, directors, and men and women in the professions.
Everything that he says is backed with detailed information. He writes of the acute housing shortage – for the workers, not for the privileged – of the penalty of ejection by the police if you are rash enough to express discontent with the Government, with, however, the benevolent provision that are immune from ejection in winter – that would mean being frozen to death.
He points out (page 7) that social divisions have become the accepted thing even in the factory canteens on working days. There are separate rooms or separate tables for the highly-paid minority. The factory staffs are graded as follows for the separate dining rooms: the factory heads, the engineers and technicians, the “shock-workers” and the rank and file. He replies to the contention that the higher prices charged in the special rooms equalise the pay of the various grades. It is true that the charge in room 1 will be from 1.2 to 1.5 roubles, while in room 4 it will be .6 to .8 of a rouble, but this difference only reflects the different quality of the meal. As Yvon dryly remarks: "It is true (in Russia) that the poor pay less, but it is quite a long time since bourgeois society adopted this same plan of a good meal costing more than a bad one."
Yvon mentions that the food of the workers is so lacking in quality and quantity that in 1931 dockers loading salt fish for abroad used to regard a broken barrel as a god-send.
Regarding the unequal rates of pay, Yvon quotes the following typical rates in Moscow in 1936:–
Industrial workers, ranging from 70 to 400 roubles a month, most of them between 125 and 200 roubles.
Domestic servants 50 to 60 plus food and lodging.
Clerical and technical staffs, 300 to 800.
Big bosses and specialists, highly-placed officials, certain professors, artists and writers, 1,500 to 10,000 and more, in some cases 20,000 to 30,000 roubles a month.
He shows how the free services (paid holidays, health services, etc.) are hedged about with conditions and granted or not according to the “pull" of the individual and the whim of those in control.
Regarding the speeding-up methods of which the Russian Government is so proud, Yvon says (page 43):–
“Soviet Russia is the country par excellence of rationalisation: all work is piecework or on the conveyor belt system. Now, as a result of stakhanovism, the piecework system, with bonuses on excess output, is being adopted generally; the famous sweating system that capitalism had not succeeded in rivetting on the workers.”
Yvon deals with many other questions, including the restrictions on the individual and on organisation, the activities of the Communist party, and on the outcome of this Bolshevist system. The class struggle continues and shows its customary forms in such conditions as exist in Russia. Thousands of workers are in prison for their resistance to the exploiting State machine which functions for the privileged minority, but discontent spreads and shows itself in spontaneous strikes and in attacks on individual members of the privileged class.
The picture Yvon draws of Russia under the Bolshevist dictatorship is a gloomy one, only relieved by the knowledge that the lessons it taught one former supporter of the Communist Party are bound to be learned in time by the Russian workers.