Isaac Deutscher 1954
Source: The Times Literary Supplement, 8 October 1954. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Edward Hallett Carr, The Interregnum, 1923-1924 (A History of Soviet Russia, Volume Four), Macmillan, 30 shillings
EH Carr’s History of Soviet Russia holds a unique position in the vast literature on Bolshevism and Soviet Russia which has appeared in recent years. No other work on this subject comparable in scope and scale exists in English or in any other language, including the Russian. Mr Carr’s study has already superseded all other histories, with the exception of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, a work which, curiously enough, has not received from Mr Carr the attention it deserves. Unlike the bulk of the ‘Sovietological’ writings of the past few years, Mr Carr’s study owes nothing to the atmosphere of the Cold War, except perhaps the author’s resolute detachment and determination to keep his historical perspective unblurred by the needs, demands, prejudices and ideological fashions of the moment. Mr Carr is in a sense the first real historian of Soviet Russia, and because of this his work outweighs in substance and importance the output of all the ‘research centres’, institutes and colleges specialising in Russia which have proliferated in recent years, especially on the other side of the Atlantic.
The first three volumes of this History carried the narrative and interpretation of the Bolshevist revolution down to the end of the ‘Lenin era’, to the year 1923, when the Bolshevist regime, recovering from civil war and intervention and having embarked upon the New Economic Policy, was struggling hard to find a new social balance at home and to regain for Russia a place in the international arena. It had been the author’s intention to deal with the subsequent period, the formative years of the Stalin era, in a separate volume under the title ‘The Struggle for Power, 1923-1928’. But after examining the historical materials he has modified his design. ‘The title originally suggested for this period’, he says in the preface to the present volume, ‘seemed too trivial and inadequate to the fundamental issues involved in the struggle'; and so he has decided to devote two volumes, under the title Socialism in One Country, to the developments of 1924-26. The modification offers a new glimpse of the eventual outline of the History, and it leaves the reader wondering about the implication. When Mr Carr confesses that the title ‘The Struggle for Power’ now seems to him ‘too trivial and inadequate to the fundamental issues’, does he foreshadow only a change in the layout and composition of his study or does he throw out a self-critical hint at a shift of emphasis or at a partial revision of his own view of history?
In the meantime Mr Carr offers us the narrative and analysis of that interregnum which separated the Lenin era from Stalin’s ascendancy, ‘the period of confusion and uncertainty during the months of Lenin’s last illness and the first weeks after his death’. This instalment is in every respect up to the standard of the previous volumes, rich and solid in the fabric of historical fact, ranging widely over the economic, social and political problems, painstaking in research, and lucid in presentation. The pace of the narrative is more rapid than before, and the pages are not clogged by an accumulation of tedious detail.
The interest of this volume to the student of Russia needs no further underlining, but much of it is of exceptional interest to the general reader as well. This description of the post-Lenin interregnum is published in the middle of the interregnum which began after Stalin’s death. Mr Carr makes no allusion to this coincidence. Moreover, this is ‘an interim volume’, and so he refrains even from bringing together the threads of his narrative and from making generalisations which might turn the reader’s mind from 1923-24 to the present time. Yet the volume may indirectly contribute to an understanding of the transition phase through which Russia is passing at present. It throws into relief those features which today’s situation has in common with the post-Lenin crisis, and it illumines even more sharply the fundamental differences. The author describes the action, though not yet the interplay, of those diverse factors, economic, social, international, political and personal, which thirty years ago were impelling Bolshevism on to the road of Stalinism.
In the economic field Russia’s problems were then epitomised by the so-called scissors crisis. Under the stimulus of the concessions to private property which NEP had brought, Russian agriculture was rapidly recovering. The famine of 1921 was followed by two abundant harvests and consequently agricultural production was not far below the pre-revolutionary level. This rapid recovery was due largely to the extremely primitive character of Russian farming: it was a recovery up to a traditional, near-barbarian standard. No capital investment, no machinery, no complicated processes of reconstruction were needed to enable the muzhik to put his wooden plough to work and to reap the crops. He had only to be induced to sell his produce; and the revival of private trade had supplied the inducement.
No such rapid recovery was possible in industry. Most of Russia’s industrial plant had been destroyed in the civil war; the rest was rusting in idleness. During the civil war and the subsequent famines the industrial labour force had dispersed and disintegrated. The most energetic and socially conscious elements of the working class had either perished on the battlefields or had entered the ranks of the new bureaucracy. A great mass of workers had fled from the starving towns to the countryside and become reabsorbed by the peasantry from which they had emerged in comparatively recent times. In 1922-23 workers were returning to the towns, but few found employment. Industry produced only a small fraction of what it had turned out before 1914. The strong demand for consumer goods, the revival of private trade and the profit motive gave a stimulus to consumer industries, where the wheels began to turn. But heavy industry seemed still paralysed, and industrial Russia had apparently been thrown back half a century.
The disproportion between industry and farming was reflected in the ‘scissors’ (the term was coined by Trotsky) between high industrial prices and extremely low prices for agricultural produce. Industrial commodities were beyond the peasant’s reach, and, in spite of the still prevailing famine of goods, could not be sold, this was the ‘sales crisis’ of 1923. The gulf between town and country, superficially bridged by NEP, threatened to open again. At the labour exchanges crowds of unemployed workers fought with their fists for the few available jobs. Those who obtained employment got starvation wages and were cheated even of these, first by the ‘galloping’ devaluation of the rouble, then by the manipulation of ‘socialist’ managers, acting under pressure of financial stringency. All classes were engaged in a violent scramble for a share in the national loaf, while that loaf was so small that ‘fair shares’ were an economic and physical impossibility. The Bolshevist rulers aspired to ‘build socialism’ in a country where, for the time being, the foundations were lacking not only for socialism but even for any primitive variety of capitalism.
These circumstances boded ill for the egalitarian aspirations of early Bolshevism. What was now to come first – the satisfaction of the peasant’s needs, as Zinoviev, Rykov and others urged, or an improvement in the condition of the workers, for which the workers themselves clamoured? Or should attention first be concentrated on increasing the national loaf, rather than on the claims for respective shares in it? And was the loaf to be increased by methods of state planning, advocated by Trotsky, or by further concessions to property and trade? These questions underlay the incipient divisions in the party. Mr Carr thus sums up the crisis:
The proletariat had seized power; the means of production belonged to it. Yet the revolution had brought it few material advantages. These had gone for the most part to the specialist and the Nepman. The conditions were sufficiently similar to those prevailing in the factories in the worst days of the Tsarist regime to provoke wry reflections on the fate of the workers under the ‘workers’ state’.
Yet this was only a bitter foretaste of what was to come: during the three decades of the Stalin era the workers’ state was to be little better than a myth, at least so far as the workers’ condition in the state was concerned. Incapable of satisfying working-class aspirations, Stalinism pressed the proletariat as well as the other social classes into the discipline of a hierarchical, anti-egalitarian and totalitarian state; and it used that state to further Russia’s industrialisation and collectivisation. What enabled Stalinism to impose the totalitarian discipline was initially the numerical weakness and the physical and moral exhaustion of the remnant of the old working class, and later the political illiteracy and social immaturity of a new and growing working class recruited forcibly from the peasantry. Towards the end of the Lenin era the industrial working class was a mere shadow of its pre-revolutionary self; is it surprising that the workers’ state, too, had only a shadowy existence?
In Marxist terms, the revolution resulted in a temporary collapse of the structure of Soviet society. The political superstructure, the Bolshevist dictatorship, withstood the shock; but it could not be qualitatively superior to the social structure. The workers’ state turned out to be a prodigy of a bureaucratic machine. The painful transition from the dream of the workers’ state to the reality of bureaucratic absolutism was the most important element of the interregnum here described. Another facet of the crisis was connected with Russia’s international position. Mr Carr continues the story of the efforts made by Bolshevism to break out of its isolation. These efforts proceeded on two planes, that of conventional diplomacy, striving to re-establish contact with foreign bourgeois governments, and that of revolutionary action aiming at the overthrow of those governments. Success or failure in either of those fields determined the degree of Bolshevist concentration on the other. Hopes for revolution abroad were at their highest when the Soviet diplomatic fortunes were at their lowest, and vice versa. The defeat of German Communism after the Ruhr crisis of 1923 shattered Bolshevist optimism about the spread of revolution in Europe; and the German debacle became one of the issues in the struggle over the succession to Lenin.
Mr Carr describes this process in detail but he still refrains from foreshadowing the ideological impact of the German defeat on the Bolshevist mind. What the German defeat was to bring home slowly but inexorably to the Bolshevists, or rather to their ruling group, was the need to accept, at least for the foreseeable future, the fact of isolation and to shape policies within its framework. The doctrine of Socialism in One Country was to achieve this. It was not that through it Stalinism openly broke with the revolutionary internationalism of the earlier period. That internationalism survived through the Stalin era, but it survived only in a state of hibernation from which it was to be violently awakened by the Second World War, and then tinged with quasi-imperialism. The 1923 interregnum was the prelude to nearly two decades of Stalinist ‘isolationism’. (This term, however, must be qualified: it was only as a revolutionary that the Stalin of the middle and late 1920s and of the 1930s was an ‘isolationist’. As statesman and diplomatist he was during most of that period anything but that.)
The relevance of Mr Carr’s study to the problems of the post-Stalin era consists in its suggestion of a profound difference between the nature of the interregnum of 1923-24 and that of 1953-54. The Russia of today is the second industrial power of the world. Her urban population has grown by about fifty million people in the course of the Stalin era. Soviet society today, with its massive, modernised and still expanding structure, can hardly be contented with the political superstructure which it has inherited from the Stalin era. Its problems and dilemmas are very different from those which preoccupied and oppressed Russia thirty years ago. The bizarre orthodoxy of Stalinism, with its compulsive uniformity and conformity, has become an anachronism: and there is no lack of recent indications of a growing, though as yet uncrystallised desire in Russia to rid society of the constraining elements of the Stalinist heritage. Finally, the isolation of the Soviet Union is now, with China and Eastern Europe under Communist rule, a matter of the past. Nothing illustrates the contrast between the two interregna more eloquently than the fact that the Lenin cult was born only after Lenin’s death, while the Stalin cult has died with Stalin.
Mr Carr correctly describes the beginnings of the Lenin cult as incidental to the struggle over the succession to Lenin. The cult was to help the triumvirs Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev to defeat Trotsky. To this struggle Mr Carr devotes the concluding section of his book. Here he still seems to be groping towards the issues at stake, although he describes the early incidents of the struggle fully, convincingly and impartially. For the first time he now turns from the description of institutions and policies to the motives, ambitions and jealousies of personalities. He is critical of all the chief Bolshevist leaders, but there is a difference in kind between the criticisms he makes of them. In the description of Stalin’s action he uses such adjectives as ‘hypocritical’, ‘sly and cunning’. Trotsky, on the other hand, puzzles Mr Carr because of his tactical errors, his hesitancy and his insufficient militancy against Stalin. ‘The principal members of the opposition’, Mr Carr says, ‘were singularly free from the gifts of demagogy.’ Yet, in spite of Mr Carr’s austerely reticent and deliberately unimaginative language, perhaps even against his intention, the real hero of these pages is Trotsky, already succumbing to defeat. For all his tactical ineffectualness, he emerges from this narrative as the great precursor, the originator of ideas the realisation of which lay in the future, the first determined and brilliant advocate of planned economy, and the only one among the chief Bolshevist leaders to protest against the growth of bureaucratic absolutism. This, incidentally, is the author’s implicit refutation of those of his critics who have seen in him only the worshipper of success and the theorist of power politics with a mind closed to history’s lost causes. To the greatest and the most pathetic of the lost causes of the Russian revolution Mr Carr’s mind seems to be wide open.