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The Russian Continent

ISSUE:  Winter 1934

Other Fires. By Maxim Gorki. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, $3.00. Toward the Seizure of Power. By. V. I. Lenin. Two vols. New York: International Publishers, $5.00. The Revolution of 1917. By V. I. Lenin. Two vols. New York: International Publishers. $6.00. Always a Grand Duke. By Alexander, Grand Duke of Russia. New York: Farrar and Rinehart. $3.00. Red Virtue. By Ella Winter- New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00. The Great Offensive. By Maurice Hindus. New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas. $3.00.

In “Other Fires” Maxim Gorki appears again as the critic of pre-revolutionary Russia, of the ideas and sentiments of the class of people whose sheltered life was a denial of the norms of social existence they had worshipped. He deals with the abortive revolution of 1905-06, peasant uprisings, barricades, punitive expeditions “enjoining the people with guns,” solitary acts of terrorism against the Government, and he is at his best in brilliant narrative and in his power of handling social masses, notwithstanding the obstructions of unnecessary characters, details, scenes, conversations. This novel is important as a social document of nascent political feeling, of strange religious longings after the defeat of the revolutionary forces, of sensualism and mysticism, and of unforgettable bravery for a cause. The first revolution was without great leadership, without direction, and without faith in the creative spirit of the masses. We see only individuals who worship intellect and culture, who hate all that degrades, who unquestionably know how to die for a cause, but whose idealism is rarely organized and integrated about a supremely practical social end. But Gorki applauds his heroes who could speak the language of daring and action, who could burn up with enthusiasm for an interest outside of themselves; he knows that their inner value is superior to their actual life and that they were the precursors of new men with power to build a new Russia; and he declares, through the simple assurance of a working-man, “If not this time, then next.”

When “next” came there were assurance, a programme, and leadership of a new order. Lenin’s “Toward the Seizure of Power” and “The Revolution of 1917” reveal a wealth of special materials, an outstanding collection of articles, editorials, letters, speeches, and notes in the fields of history, economics, and politics. They are not of the nature of memoirs, of things past recollected in tranquility, but the contemporary records of a man dealing with the pattern of history in the making, with events, trends, policy, and strategy. They reveal Lenin as a chronicler and as a maker of history, a mind at once revolutionary and cautious, aspiring and negotiative, at once passionate and detached in his outlook. These hundreds of documents show him as an incomparable strategist, directing, comprehending, masterly, and self-effacing. He makes his choices daily, hourly, acting on the basis of immediate facts; he advances; he retreats; but his mind is always on the distant goal, the ideal of a socialist planned society, guided and controlled in the interest of workers and peasants. He is confident that the forces of history are upon his side. Lenin held that the Russian revolution took place under certain favorable specific conditions and that “a repetition of such conditions in another country is not very probable.” He had no faith in demonstrations, street fights, barricades, and the romance of an insurrection. He had no fixed idea that a “bloody revolution” must take place. Early in October, 1917, he wrote that “it is quite possible that right now we might seize power without an insurrection,” for he believed that the masses were ready to exert revolutionary pressure, ready for new leadership, ready to vote the control of the State into the hands of the Soviets in which the Bolshevik party had a majority. And in the same month, before the seizure of power, he insisted: “We must do our best to insure an eleventh hour peaceful development of the Revolution; for this we must expound our programme, bring its popular character to light and prove that it corresponds entirely with the interests and demands of the vast majority of the population.”

It was late in September, 1917, on the eve of the October Revolution, that Lenin wrote the pamphlet, “The Threatening Catastrophe,” in which he described the economic and social disintegration in process and summarized his previous theses and projects. He accused the provisional Government of timidity and inaction, and attacked the old group of capitalists for their social callousness in watching for the breakdown of economic life and the collapse of the young democracy. “If our state,” says Lenin, “really wished to realize control in a businesslike, serious manner, if its institutions had not doomed themselves through their servility before the capitalists to absolute inactivity, the government would only have to draw liberally from the very rich source of control measures that are already known and have already been adopted.” He contends that “even the old regime , . . was familiar with the fundamental measures, with the main method and way of control: uniting the population in groups according to profession, purpose of work, branch of labor, etc.” He asked for the convocation of a congress of employers, workers, engineers, shareholders, in order to organize and unify all interested groups for the task of economic regeneration; he called for the introduction of a complete, detailed, and uniform accounting system, declaring that the unification of business in industrial syndicates “does not change one iota the relations of private property and does not deprive a single owner of a single kopeck.” He asked that the state place the responsibility for the scrupulous execution of common agreements and policies on manufacturers and directors as well as on the organized trade unions and office workers. Except for two particulars—control by organized labor and the organization of consumers in defense against monopolistic capital—there is a striking resemblance between Lenin’s prescription in the national crisis of 1917 and President Roosevelt’s system of “a partnership in planning and a partnership to see that the plans are carried out. . . .” Repeatedly Lenin stressed the idea that economic rationalization and consolidation were the way to achieve the orderly transition to a functioning economy. True enough, he regarded socialism as the future economic system emerging from the very nature of modern large-scale production, as the next step forward from a state-capitalist monopoly, but he did not favor immediate socialization or the transfer of administrative responsibility to the Soviets. He called for action, for authority in government, and at the same time he warned the coalition state that “it is impossible to appeal to the heroism of the masses without breaking with imperialism, without offering to all the peoples a democratic peace, without transforming the war from a war of conquest, a predatory, criminal war, into a just, defensive, revolutionary war.” But the governing classes were timid, slow, and powerless before the serious problems of industry and agriculture, and demanded the carrying on of war for some imperialist ends. Meantime there had been spontaneous uprisings against the state. And even when power passed into the hands of the Bolsheviks, Lenin offered his programme of peaceful economic reconstruction through the method of state-guided capitalism. The old classes in power refused their co-operation, and by quick stages Russia was forced in the direction of socialization despite herself. These facts sound strange to us, so accustomed are we too think of Lenin as the violent preacher of insurrection. But the careful reader of these hundreds of documents soon apprehends that while Lenin’s tactics and strategy rest upon the use of Marxian dialectics, the latter was only an instrument and not a faith, only a tool in Lenin’s hands for the analysis of political and social processes. He in no sense regarded the Marxist theory as something complete and unassailable. It is impossible to describe his strategy, for it was related to such imponderable elements as environment, leadership, morale, opinion, etc. He saw the masses bent on destruction, and he came forward with a definite programme of action, a goal, a technique. He had seen long before that it takes brave men to make a revolution, and braver men to hold on to it and to guide the masses into new constructive ways. Even in 1903 he predicted the downfall of reformist parties, both socialist and liberal, because they were divided in mind and hesitant in action. And in 1917, underneath the disorders and lack of discipline among workers and soldiers, he saw the inherent contradictions of the provisional government, that the unofficial Soviets enjoyed popular trust, and that the existent dual power was not real state power. Lenin combined in an uncommon degree an alert practicality with theoretic keenness, erudition with clarity of vision. He dreamed of a classless society based on the labor of men under industrialism, reached not at once but through the slow processes of education, science, and the temporary dictatorship of the proletariat. He despised revolutionary cant, mere idealistic eloquence, and indecision; he demanded alertness, hard work, and preparedness; he took over the state from weak and timid hands, and restored order—with blood and iron if necessary. Maxim Gorki remembered “the unity, completeness, directness and strength” of his speech, that his words “always gave one the impression of the physical pressure of an irresistible truth,” and that they always “brought to my mind the cold glitter of steel shavings.”

“If what you loved in Russia was limited to the boundaries of your family, then you can never forgive the Soviets. But if you have spent your life as I am spending mine, hoping and wishing for the preservation of the Empire . . . then why hesitate? Why not have sufficient courage to admit the achievements of those who replaced you?” This is from Grand Duke Alexander, grandson of Czar Nicholas I, who confesses that the Soviets have succeeded where the Romanoffs have failed. The Grand Duke writes frankly of the record of things lost and opportunities squandered, and is not too hard on the Bolsheviks for having smashed the old Russian order. He writes: “true enough that they had killed my three brothers, but they had likewise saved Russia from becoming a vassal state of the Allies.” He is happy that his fifty years of grand-ducal enslavement, misery, terror, and chaos are over, he holds that the Soviets will endure, and that the five-year plans—and he predicts many of them—will succeed. “The Czars could never have accomplished a problem of such magnitude because their perspective was clouded by too many scruples, diplomatic and others. The present rulers of Russia are realists. They are unscrupulous in the sense that Peter the Great was. They are as unscrupulous as your [America’s] railroad kings were fifty years ago and your bankers are today, with the only difference that there is more personal honesty and unselfishness in their case.”

I believe Grand Duke Alexander is right, if one views the affairs of humankind without passion and with historical detachment. What makes things in the Soviet Union tolerable is that a system of social organization has replaced the predatory anarchy of laissez-faire, and that it is a system founded upon social justice and economic security. The im- portant concern is not this plan or that, seeing that all plans are merely sketches of things hoped for and intended in their inception to be adaptable and modifiable, but the principles of social organization and social efficiency. Milton says somewhere that truth comes to us first in hideous mien. Indeed, the world will not be improved by some mystic and self-acting social idealism; there is no place for quietism in a social philosophy of true progress; for the work of lifting up mankind from an age of exploitation to an age of social service and social justice demands an active moral imagina-tion and every ounce of organized social energy.

From this angle of understanding no better books for the thoughtful layman have appeared within two years than “Red Virtue,” by Ella Winter (Mrs. Lincoln Steffens), and “The Great Offensive,” by Maurice Hindus. They are objective in method, simple and clear in structure and style. Fortunately, too, the authors are highly trained in the social sciences, and have command of the Russian language. Both authors cover almost the identical subjects—the new incentives, the worker, woman and the home, sex education, the child at play, schools, crime and punishment, housing and city planning. Russia is concerned with the gigantic tasks of building socialism with masses of toilers accustomed to the slow customary ways of rural life, and now for the first time brought in contact with conveyor belts, reapers, bind-ers, dynamos, and the most advanced machinery human sci-ence has devised. The authors study the various aspects of social life as it pulsates with the tempo of the Five Year Plan of purposive national economy. What they do, they do as social analysts, never waylaid by present shortcomings or failures or excesses. They see back of Russia’s national effort the power of a great and challenging ideal. The real challenge is not in this or that doctrine or fact, but in the new social machinery for the training and development of men and women, the philosophy of guidance and control of the forces of modern industrialism toward social ends, in order to abolish poverty, ignorance, superstition, the long working day, in order to raise the standard of living for all and to socialize the opportunities of life. This philosophy of progress runs contrary to the vulgar notion of Marxism as a doctrine of social fatalism. The authors do not neglect to treat of the liabilities of the Russian system—the low level of industrial skill, the severity of class struggle, etc.; but they are of the opinion that a new world and a new humanity, a classless society founded on the principles of social justice and economic security, are being forged in the furnace of the Soviet Union.


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