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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 Bill Jefferies in Permanent Revolution, no 10, Autumn 2008

How British Intellectuals Viewed Stalin

Paul Flewers is a member of the Revolutionary History editorial board and over the years has contributed numerous articles on different strands of the left and their understanding of the ex-USSR. He expresses a preference for Hillel Ticktin's analysis of the class nature of the former Stalinist states, reflecting his years in the 1980s as a supporter of the Revolutionary Communist Party (now deceased).

This book is something of a labour of love. Focusing on Britain, he provides an extremely comprehensive survey of the changing attitudes towards the Soviet Union in the period from the first Five-Year Plan in 1929 to the Nazi invasion of 1941, focused on the leftist intelligentsia, like the Webbs, Victor Gollancz, Victor Serge, George Orwell and Bertrand Russell.

The title of the book, New Civilisation, is taken from the Fabian tome of the same name by Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Originally published with a question mark in December 1935, by 1937 the great purges, show trials and Ukrainian famine had convinced them the question mark was an unnecessary qualification and it was taken off! The New Civilisation had indeed been founded under the watchful eye of Uncle Joe.

The Webb's obsequious blindness to Stalinism's flaws was by no means unusual in the period, and a running narrative through Flewers' book is the contrast between the pro- and anti-communist flanks of public opinion. Flewers also refers to a more critical ‘centre ground of opinion' - an odd description for Trotsky, Orwell, EH Carr and Victor Serge.

There is a bewildering assortment of views and counter-views, which leave the reader wondering what the hell was really going on and what any of these various opinions have to do with it in the first place? For example Flewers writes:

There was a widespread sense that the Soviet Union was here to stay, even if this was only implicitly or reluctantly expressed... other observers felt that there would be some sort of convergence between a Soviet economy that accepted certain market measures and a capitalist world... The insistence of some [other] observers...' (p109)

And so on, and on...

Take his discussion of Trotsky's Revolution Betrayed. Flewers first presents it in his discussion as how ‘fulsome praise for the tremendous changes made in the Soviet Union was not limited to the pro-Soviet lobby' (p121). A strange way of introducing Trotsky's devastating critique of Stalinism. He says the book, while a ‘sharp denunciation of the Stalinist regime', ‘opened with a veritable rhapsody to the "gigantic achievements in industry"'. This surely implies Trotsky had been misled by the achievements of the Five-Year plan. Yet Flewers concedes that when considering the developments in production made during the first Five-Year Plans, the ‘statistics look impressive' (p138).

How can the description of ‘fulsome praise' be in any way appropriate to Trotsky's analysis, when, as Flewers points out, the Revolution Betrayed explained that inside the USSR ‘social inequalities were deepening and becoming institutionalised, and it was now ruled by a privileged, totalitarian élite'.

To compound the errors, Flewers adds that Trotsky believed:

The Soviet economy contained contradictory trends, as the means of production were in the hands of the state, and were thus socialised and planned, whereas because of the relative backwardness of the society, the distribution of everyday goods was carried out through the market. (p134)

No he didn't. When Trotsky referred to the bourgeois method of distribution, he was not suggesting that goods were distributed by the market, but rather that the bureaucracy plundered the output of the economy, siphoning off large parts of it to line its own nest, thus entrenching major social inequalities. The trouble is if a reviewer of this period can't even get this right, which is, after all, the major theoretical study of the period, made by one of its key figures, then it's difficult to have much faith in the rest.


A reply to Bill Jefferies from Paul Flewers

I am pleased with the alacrity with which Permanent Revolution reviewed my book The New Civilisation? Understanding Stalin's Soviet Union 1929-1941. Unfortunately, Bill Jefferies' enthusiasm to carry out this assignment has led him to make some assumptions with which I must take issue.

Bill writes: There is a bewildering assortment of views and counter-views, which leave the reader wondering what the hell was really going on and what any of these various opinions have to do with it in the first place?

This implication of incoherence is unwarranted. I did, as can be assumed, compile a vast array of material on the subject, taking in a wide scope of differing outlooks and opinions; indeed, so contradictory were some descriptions of the same phenomenon that one could almost think that the authors were looking at different things altogether. What I then attempted to do was to deduce from this mass the various schools of thought about the Soviet Union. A swift glance at my book might leave a reader with an impression of a bewildering agglomeration of rival viewpoints; however, at the risk of sounding arrogant, a more in-depth perusal will show that I have succeeded in giving a reasonably accurate portrayal of these various schools of thought. Of course, I would state that there were those who wrote this, and others who wrote that; how else could I describe this huge battle of ideas that was raging during the period under review?

Bill correctly states that alongside the pro-Soviet and the anti-communist schools, I investigate what I call the ‘centre ground of opinion', which, he adds, is ‘an odd description for Trotsky, Orwell, EH Carr and Victor Serge'. Indeed it would be, but a more careful look at my book would show that I was writing about totally different people. What I refer to as the centre ground was a range of commentators, from moderate conservatives through liberals to right-wing social democrats, who, in the light of the contrast between the deep slump in the West following the Wall Street Crash and the growth of the Soviet economy under the Five-Year Plans, and without forgoing their rejection of Stalinist coercion and terror, looked at the latter to see whether the capitalist world could learn anything from it. Alongside this was the idea that the Soviet Union was no longer a revolutionary threat to capitalism and might start to play a helpful role in the field of international relations. This was accentuated after Hitler came to power and German imperialism was recognised as an incendiary factor in Europe, and the centre ground duly called for an alliance of Britain, France and the Soviet Union to face down the Nazi threat.

I devoted quite a lot of space to the centre ground for two reasons; firstly, because it has been very much overlooked in standard scholarship; secondly, because this period was most unusual in that a sizeable sector of mainstream politics in Britain felt that the West could learn something positive from the Soviet Union in the economic and social fields, and that the Soviet Union was actually capable of playing a moderating role on the international stage. This was in sharp contrast to the usual portrayal of the Soviet Union in mainstream politics, and particularly during the Cold War, as a totalitarian threat to Western civilisation.

Trotsky and Serge were, as I pointed out, dissident communists. Orwell was unusual for a left-winger as he pretty much dismissed the entire Soviet experience. Carr differed from the typical centre-ground figures in that he opposed, on the basis of realpolitik, an Anglo-Franco-Soviet alliance against Germany. Carr did to some degree reflect the views of the centre ground of the 1930s, but not until the latter part of the Second World War, which was beyond the scope of my book.

I am taken severely to task when it comes to Trotsky's analysis of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, I stand by my contention that The Revolution Betrayed was - as I wrote - a ‘brutally incisive work' that was also ‘at times contradictory'. Why did I consider that it started off with ‘fulsome praise' to Soviet industrialisation? I cited from it: ‘Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not in the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth's surface - not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity.' How else can that be described other than fulsome? As Bill noted, I did write that the Soviet statistics ‘looked impressive'; indeed they did. But, apart from the various points that were raised by critical observers at the time, which I described at some length, concerning the reliability of the statistics and such key factors as the quality of Soviet produce, did such a quantitative increase of production merit the words ‘socialism has demonstrated its right to victory...'? One would certainly expect them from a Stalinist, eager to show the superiority of his ‘new civilisation', or from a naive left-wing social democrat, unaware of the real nature of Stalinism, but not from a revolutionary Marxist. These words stood in contrast to the complex analysis of the Stalinist socio-economic formation in that book.

I am then accused of misinterpreting Trotsky, in that I confuse his definition of the bourgeois method of distribution with the market, when he was actually meaning that ‘the bureaucracy plundered the output of the economy, siphoning off large parts of it to line its own nest, thus entrenching major social inequalities', whereas I state that ‘the means of production were in the hands of the state, and were thus socialised and planned, whereas, because of the relative backwardness of the society, the distribution of everyday goods was carried out through the market'.

Trotsky referred to the relationship of state planning and the market several times in The Revolution Betrayed. He noted that the Soviet regime had twice attempted to implement a non-market form of distribution only to revert to the market within a few years, in 1921 and again in 1935, when ‘the system of planned distribution again gave way to trade' (p 113). He then referred to the prevalence of market relations in the distribution of everyday goods:

Present market relations differ from relations under the NEP (1921-28) in that they are supposed to develop directly without the middleman and the private trader between the state cooperative and collective farm organisations and the individual citizen. However, this is true only in principle. The swiftly growing turnover of retail trade, both state and cooperative, should in 1936, according to specifications, amount to 100 billion rubles. The turnover of collective farm trade, which amounted to 16 billion in 1935, is to grow considerably during the current year. It is hard to determine what place - at least not an insignificant one! - will be occupied by illegal and semi-legal middlemen both within this turnover and alongside it. Not only the individual peasants, but also the collectives, and especially individual members of the collectives, are much inclined to resort to the middleman. The same road is followed by the home-industry workers, cooperators, and the local industries dealing with the peasants. From time to time, it unexpectedly transpires that the trade in meat, butter or eggs throughout a large district, has been cornered by ‘speculators'. Even the most necessary articles of daily use, like salt, matches, flour, kerosene, although existing in the state storehouses in sufficient quantity, are lacking for weeks and months at a time in the bureaucratised rural cooperatives. It is clear that the peasants will get the goods they need by other roads. The Soviet press often speaks of the jobber as of something to be taken for granted.

As for the other forms of private enterprise and accumulation, they play, it seems, a smaller role. Independent cabmen, innkeepers, solitary artisans, are, like the independent peasants, semi-tolerated professions. In Moscow itself there are a considerable number of private small business and repair shops. Eyes are closed to them because they fill up important gaps in the economy. An incomparably greater number of private entrepreneurs work, however, under the false label of all kinds of artels and cooperatives, or hide under the roofs of the collective farms - as though for the special purpose of emphasising the rifts in the planned economy. The G-men in Moscow arrest from time to time, in the character of malicious speculators, hungry women who are selling homemade berets or cotton shirts on the street. (pp 117-19)

Trotsky was well aware of the dangers represented by the market: ‘An abundance and variety of speculators coming to the surface at the least sign of administrative weakness like a rash in a fever, testifies to the continual pressure of petit-bourgeois tendencies.' (p 122)

Trotsky recognised that the revival of market relations was a serious matter in the agrarian sector, in particular the renting of land and the official encouragement of the peasants' private plots, about which he wrote: ‘Without in the least exaggerating the scope of such ugly phenomena, which are of course not capable of statistical calculation, we still cannot fail to see their enormous symptomatic significance.' He continued:

They unmistakably testify to the strength of bourgeois tendencies in this still extremely backward branch of economy which comprises the overwhelming majority of the population. Meanwhile, market relations are inevitably strengthening the individualistic tendencies, and deepening the social differentiation of the village, in spite of the new structure of property relations. (p 128)

We can conclude from all this that Trotsky recognised that whilst the market, which was largely tied in with the production and distribution of everyday goods, was an unavoidable factor as a result of the overall backwardness of the Soviet economy, and could not be eradicated by way of bureaucratic methods, it nevertheless posed a direct danger to the planned production and distribution of everyday goods through the state, and a less direct but ultimately no less serious danger to the entire planned economy. Hence there was in Trotsky's analysis a contradiction between plan and market, unavoidable under the conditions of the time, but nonetheless one of a fundamental nature. I accept that my conspectus of Trotsky's view of the contradictions within Stalinism might have been better expressed. Nevertheless, Trotsky did recognise the seriousness and centrality of the contradiction between market and plan within the Soviet socio-economic system, and that Trotsky's definition of the bourgeois method of distribution did not exclude a recognition of this contradiction, but actually incorporated it.









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