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Russia and the Five-Year Plan

ISSUE:  Summer 1931

The Last Stand, By Edmund A. Walsh. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $3.00, The Russian Experiment. By Arthur Feiler. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00. The Pive-Year Plan of the Soviet Union. By G. T. Grinko. New York: International Publishers. $3.50. Russia’s Productive System. By Emilc Burns. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $4.00. Piatilctka: Russia’s Five-Year Plan. By Michael Farbnian. New York: The New Republic. $1.00. The Economic Life of Soviet Russia. By Calvin B. Hoover. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.00. These Russians. By William C. White. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.00.

All theories aside, there is something striking in the spectacle of a great nation like Russia mobilized for construction and economic betterment on a scale so audacious as the Five-Year Plan. There is contagion in the very situation that for the first time in human history a nation is setting out on a program of economic and cultural advancement and the spirit of the people is aroused for the conquest of poverty, and ignorance. The challenge lies in the meaning of this effort of vast, integrated communal planning, by processes created by human intelligence and will, and inspired by the belief that in economic affairs the social welfare shall not be a precarious by-product of competition for private gain.

The tenth anniversary of the State Planning Commission or “Gosplan” was celebrated on February 22. “Our most important problem,” wrote the chairman of the Gosplan, Mr. Kubyshev, in reviewing the work since its foundation, “was to set against the disorganized elements of petty capitalism the organized economy of the proletarian state, to unite all its separate parts, and, controlling the ‘commanding heights’ of the economic sphere, to guide our economic development toward socialism. The old laissez-faire tendencies in economic development had to be combatted with a single will and a single program of action, which could be expressed only in a plan.” The early attempts were cautious: it was planning ‘by bits,’ planning what particular factory to start going first, what most needed funds and help, until the Five-Year Plan was developed for the country as a whole in 1928, coordinating all the different branches of national economy and the various regions.

In a revolutionary, change of such vast proportions it is not a difficult matter to account for conflict, oppression, and evil, granted the attitude of obdurate, consecrated prejudice. Father Edmund A. Walsh is openly a political opponent of the Soviet regime and its plans, and his criticism is not free from vindictiveness. He relies on newspaper reports, anecdotes, the evidence of private informers, the files of the Fish Committee. Nobody is happy in Russia; all labor is forced labor, and the work of reconstruction is carried out with complete disregard for the wishes of the people. Russia, he declares, has developed “a vast multitude of semi-illiterate, corrupt, immoral, uncontrolled and uncontrollable young men and women whose highest ideal is to satisfy the cravings of licentious appetite.” He is horrified by certain particulars, but passes in silence the forms of social insurance, cultural autonomy, the educational activities. The plan itself may produce more goods, but it was promulgated as “a measure of despotism,” by a desire to profit by the world-wide spiritual exhaustion, to undermine the existing order everywhere by a “contemplated deluge” of raw materials and manufactured articles. He bemoans the fact that the youth of Russia is stimulated and challenged by a national program of electric power, conservation, economic geography, machine production, and tractor farming; that Mother Goose has been banished from childhood, and nursery, rhymes are composed in terms of factories and tractors. One has a right to opinions, yet one must be fair in the handling of primary facts. It is difficult to understand the unusual accusation that the Soviet state is counterfeiting its own paper money, this on the evidence of an unnamed returning tourist; it is puzzling that in criticizing the great cost of the Plan the gold value of the ruble should be stated as fifty-one cents, and as seven cents when discounting the size of the workingmen’s wages; it is unworthy, too, in an author to describe a cartoon from the official Izvestia picturing the clenched fist of Soviet labor against the face of world imperialism and calling upon the workers of all countries to defend the Soviet Union against capitalist war plotters, as the threatening fist of Sovietism “raised against America because of its support of the Kellogg Pact.”

At the other extreme is the work of Arthur Feiler, former editor of the liberal Frankfurter Zeitung. Mr. Feiler is not concerned with his own fears and opinions, but mainly with the task of comprehending the mood and the direction of the revolution. His work is more than a piece of vivid reporting of the working of the plan. True, he hears the machinery creaking and running with all kinds of disquieting noises, he sees vast general projects marred by trivial failures in detail; but the essential facts emerge in their full social significance, for the author feels the immense and profound pathos of the revolutionary task. He sees “elevated spirits” who have risen above themselves and their individual fates to an objective participation in this national enterprise. He is particularly impressed by the far-flung campaigns against ignorance and confusion, by the colorful life of the masses in their literary and recreational clubs, and, as a Westerner, impressed that the theatres are splendid, the popular concerts magnificent, the museums crowded daily with working people until it looks “as if the whole nation were being brought for the first time into contact with the treasures of the mind, formerly the privilege of education and wealth.” He is impressed by, the fact that the differential treatment of the classes is being softened and that national freedom and self-government has been conferred upon every racial group in a country of so great diversity of speech, faith, tradition, and culture. The Bolshevik doctrine may call for a world revolution, but necessity has forced them to live by the non-Marxian principle that the upbuilding of socialism is possible in one country; the foundations of Sovietism may be materialistic, yet through it all gleams the eternally young tradition of European revolutions. If Mr. Feiler is critical of the drift into collective thinking, predicting that its realization would ultimately lead to a new revolution of liberation from mass influence, he hastens to make the qualification that the Russians are taught not to want that mental freedom of the West which characterizes capitalist civilization with its competition and private profit-taking enter-prize. “There is still the old, deep spiritual urge, still the old enthusiasm for theory,” he declares. The Russian is socially-minded, but alive, creative, and “in spite of everything he holds his head several inches higher than he did under the old regime” — especially the youth of Russia, the new, self-reliant, constructive youth taught to regard the reorganization of the country as its special task.

Between the works of Father Walsh and Mr. Feiler lie a number of objective studies, all more or less successful, each a worthy product of serious scholarship. The Vice-Chairman of the State Planning Commission, Mr. Grinko, has prepared a clear-cut defence of the Plan and its achievements, and although advanced as a political interpretation, the material is mainly economic and statistical, bristling with detailed accounts of industry, agriculture, finance, education, housing. The collective socialist forms of national economy have aroused the enthusiasm of the masses in ways unknown to capitalism, and now there is no turning back. It appears that at bottom the system of communal enterprise is more than a method of social service, for as an integrated economic order it cannot get along without a large number of central coordinating organs of a special kind, without taking thought, without the conscious execution of details that under private enterprise are left to be worked out by themselves. The work of Mr. Burns is the most valuable as a summary of the mechanism of Russia’s administrative machinery. He too bears witness that wherever the plan has been extended there has taken place more coordination of capital and effort, working hours reduced, real wages improved, housing bettered; and in spite of many setbacks and temporary shortages “no economist, no politician, no employer and no worker can afford to ignore a new productive system which is giving such results.” Even more pithy in style and outline, particularly in his appraisal of agriculture, is the short work of Mr. Farbman, who originally carried out his researches for the readers of the London Economist. Mr. Farbman is not primarily concerned with proletarian politics, plots, dictatorships, and schisms. The significant fact to him is the spectacle of a great nation starting at scratch in equipment, skill, and wealth, and building a new industrial order from the ground up, on a scale “quite unprecedented,” without resort to foreign aid. What is arresting is the new social-economic theory that an industrial civilization can be built without the profit motive by engaging the moral imagination through a supreme concentration of will power. The present tempo may be too severe and the sacrifices too great, but the progress is genuine, and the idea of a new life has been awakened among the active members of the younger generation in town and village.

The work of Mr. Hoover is comprehensive and rich in details, especially in the chapters on Soviet industry. The Soviet state has demonstrated its ability to accumulate industrial and financial capital and to operate without the gold standard. Mr. Hoover admits that the results of the first year of the Plan are “fairly favorable” but he would hardly call it a plan, because the authorities are continually changing the estimates and because the great gains in some areas are matched by great shortages in other areas. There are bureaucracy, inefficiency, defective workmanship, high costs of production, crowded living conditions, and recurrent maladjustments in industry. There are bitterness, repressed anger, violence, ill-feeling; and the struggle for power has replaced the struggle for wealth. He fears that unless the Plan is modified the regime is headed for a smash; only in a decade, perhaps, would Russia “offer a standard of living which will compare favorably with that of the more poorly paid manual workers in capitalistic countries.” However, Mr. Hoover’s observation that “one rarely sees a smile or hears a laugh” in Russia and his ventures into philosophic assessment of revolutionary effort are naive and without historical perspective. Things appear sinister because they are new. The enthusiasm for material betterment is held up as a force destroying art, cultural values, freedom, the family, religion, and human dignity. Wading out beyond the safety-line of statistics the author becomes incautious of his facts; thus the average standard of living for the entire country is declared to be “much inferior” to that of tsarist times, without the support of evidence, without differentiating between peasant and worker, without taking account of the peasant who is discovering new and rising standards, organization, machinery, and even political-mindedness. It is incomprehensible why a partially, successful Plan, not having the full support of the masses, should become a menacing threat to the future of capitalism in the world. Nor is the author’s examination of the agricultural situation adequate, for on the one hand there are certain conditions inherent in Russian history and the character of the peasant that paved the way for collectivization, and on the other, there was the fact that it would be impossible to restore the country’s economic life and modernize industry without bringing the peasantry within the economic and cultural orbit of the Plan.

The problem of sacrifice borne by the population is the theme of Mr. White’s “These Russians.” Mr. White has not allowed himself to be waylaid by economic generalizations and statistical estimates. He has travelled widely in Russia, drunk tea in many towns and villages, listening to stories of individual men and women of all shades of sympathy and neutrality, ever interested in the impact of the great revolution on human life. These fascinatingly vivid, impressionistic sketches of seventeen lives are from factories, shops, market places, hospitals, barracks, villages. The portraits are synthetic, although suffused with individual truth, irony, heroism. Thus the woman student Adamova is a typei of Bolshevist zeal and her fiery devotion to the cause is unrelieved by her hatred of class opposition. If the revolution is a task completed, then poverty and grumbling and persecution have social validity; but if the revolutionary surge has not exhausted itself, and nothing final has been achieved, the answer of the grumblers may be different tomorrow. If there are elements of doubt in statistical estimates, there are even greater elements of doubt in human feelings at a time of great social stress. It is doubtful if Russia’s mood or future could be read in the evidence of sacrifices, shortages, and present insufficiencies. The main problem is: Has the work of reconstruction gripped the imagination of Russia? Is the ideal compelling enough to subordinate present wants to the need for plant equipment, tractors, locomotives, and all other schemes of long-range planning?

In summary, all the works under present review carry the conviction that the Russian Revolution still remains, after the Reformation and the French Revolution, the beginning of a third crisis in modern times, the first act in the drama of economic emancipation. The new movement of planned economy constitutes an attempt to attach to the idealistic temper the pragmatic habit, to translate the democratic doctrine of the obligation of mutual service into concrete programs of emancipation and cooperation. Fraternity is becoming social polity, dramatizing itself in terms of achievable undertakings, creating the social setting that will deliver life from the tyranny of things and profit. The authors agree that there is no reason not to suppose that systematic education of the new generation will not succeed in making this new social idealism the normal driving force of individual and national effort.


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