Through Bolshevik Russia/Chapter 12

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The Dictatorship of the Communists

ONE baleful result of the late European war has been to weaken faith in political democracy amongst those people whom it most seriously concerns. And the most pitiful part of the tragedy is that the wounds of democracy have been delivered in the house of its friends. That is a big story which will one day be written in full. The important fact remains, that Parliamentary political machinery is in danger of being thrown upon the scrap-heap by those who see in it something antiquated and rusty and so incapable of serving their needs. With this in mind, we sought to discover if Russia had truly anything better to offer.

The vocational franchise upon which the Soviet is based has something to be said for it; but does the Soviet work? Is it what it is claimed to be, a more democratic form of government, and one more accurately reflecting the people's will? To this question it was difficult to get an answer. But whatever it might be capable of doing in a highly educated, industrially efficient country like England or the United States, it does not work in Russia. There is not an ounce of democratic control in the politics of Russia. The theory is that everybody is entitled to vote. But the peasants have only one vote to the townspeople's five, or, to put it the other way, each townsman votes—if he works—but five peasants together cast one vote. All who do no work or who employ labour for profit, or who follow the priestly vocation are disfranchised. Women stand on the same footing as men in theory. But in the villages we explored we discovered a difference in eligibility to the Soviets. An illiterate man may be eligible, an illiterate woman is definitely not so.

The elections are not free. If free, in my judgment there would not be a majority for the Communists. Voting is by show of hands, so that those who vote against the candidates chosen for them by the Executive of the Communist party or sent down from the People's Commissars become marked men and women. In spite of this, the Mensheviki have secured majorities in certain districts where their candidates were well-known and needed no electioneering to carry them in; for, had they needed that their case would have been hopeless. As all the halls belong to the Government it is the simplest device in the world to engage them for the sole use of Communist or approved candidates during an election. And as all the printing-presses likewise are the property and under the control of the Government, its opponents find it well-nigh impossible to have their case presented to the electors.

The Mensheviki have secured a little more than a quarter of the seats on the Moscow Soviet, in spite of all difficulties, which fact speaks volumes for their probable real strength. One story was told us of a factory which voted for an opposition candidate to Lenin by a proportional vote of something like seventy to eight, and when ordered to conduct a new election for the purpose of reversing the decision had the courage to stick to their guns and record seventy and eight the second time; but such instances are not numerous, for the fear of authority is very great.

Theoretically "All Power to the Soviet," a favourite piece of rhetoric, is a true saying, or was so. For I discover in reading carefully the Thesis of the Executive Committee of the Communist International recently published to the world, that a new line is being taken. The pretence of democracy is vanishing. Every species of tyranny by the Communist party over the rest of the proletariat and people is justified, as it always has been in the writings of the principal men of the Communist Movement, until Communism becomes the accepted creed of mankind and the Communist system is firmly established all over the earth.

The Soviet elects an Executive Committee. In Moscow this numbers forty persons. This Committee elects a Presidium. In Moscow this numbers nine. The power which may still linger in the Soviet to a small degree resides in this Presidium. But on this body and over the election of both the Presidium and the Executive Committee, the Government exercises great pressure, and naturally the Government nominees, who are all Communists, are elected to the Presidium, which sits daily.

Great play is made in defending this undemocratic arrangement and these terrific powers, of the "recall," which they allege, operates frequently and is a check on conduct. If recalls are as frequent as is claimed, the efficiency of business must be seriously jeopardised. But the recall is frequently exercised because some elected persons are obliged to go to the front and it is thought wise to put others in their places. Drinking, which is another reason for recall, should not be possible in a prohibition country. Personal spite and jealousy frequently come into the business. And an eloquent speaker, working upon an ignorant and changeable mass can so change their political point of view as to bring their representative easily within the criticism of his constituents unless he changes with them. I have frequently observed in Russia the same person applauding the exactly opposite sentiments, a characteristic by no means confined to Russian men and women!

Seldom does the All-Russian Soviet meet, and then only to do formal business, such as recording the decrees issued by the People's Commissars or to ratify the decisions of the Communist party. The People's Commissars, of whom there are seventeen, have the power to issue decrees without consulting the Soviets at all. More than that, each Commissar can issue decrees relative to the work of his own department; or two Commissars can do this in their joint names on a matter jointly affecting their two departments. These decrees have all the force of law, and must be obeyed under heavy penalties.

To the slaves of theory, the abstractionists and dogmatists, the decrees which consent to the modifications in committee management of industry must be considered wholly bad. But when I record the fact that the power of workmen to interfere through those committees in highly important productive and reconstructive work, either through delays, or ignorance, or in the name of a democratic principle run to seed, has given place all over Russia to control by experts, and management on lines of personal responsibility, I am placing on record what I consider to be a good and wise thing.

In Russia Trade Unionism is of very recent birth. In February, 1917, there were three Trade Unions in Russia with a membership of less than one thousand five hundred persons. When the revolution broke out, some of the workmen thought it part of the plan to smash the machinery in the workshops, so ignorant were they of the source of their woes and of the remedy for these. The want of Trade Union training, the lack of discipline, the absence of co-ordination, both in industry and in their organisations, helped still further to increase the sufferings of the people, by delaying the work of rebuilding. The fear of bourgeois technical and scientific experts, who were accused freely of sabotage, caused their necessary skill and labour for a long period to be refused; this still further aggravated the situation. And it appears to be entirely creditable that, in those matters where the special training and specialised mind are essential, the Communist rulers have seen proper to change their method.

But it is too dangerous a step on the road to complete centralisation of power to have made of the Trade Unions, as is practically the case, a Government department working under the control of the Supreme Economic Council.

The Supreme Economic Council, when its structure is complete, will have fifty productive departments under its control, a department of finance and a department for the co-ordination and supervision of the local Economic Councils which are spread all over the country. A Collegium of three or five members is in charge of each department, whilst the greater body, the Supreme Economic Council itself is controlled by a Presidium of eleven members, nominated by the Executive Committee of the Trade Unions and confirmed by the Council of People's Commissars.

We had speech with Miluitin, assistant to Rekoff, the People's Commissar for this department, who told us that, of the five thousand nationalised enterprises, seventy per cent were working more or less satisfactorily; but that whilst war and the blockade continued they could not hope to do more than maintain their industries in the condition of their comparative efficiency. They hoped, however, to develop and extend later on. All large industries such as coal, gold, iron, platinum, petroleum and their products, machinery, railway engines, etc., are nationalised; textiles, railways and large shipping; retail shops and banking. Banking has become the book-keeping department of the State. Money is still in use, but it is hoped to establish a system of exchange which will remove the necessity of money altogether.

Russia has complete conscription of labour. All men and women of from eighteen years to fifty are obliged to work. The forms of Labour organisation are being militarised. A worker must go where he is sent and do what he is told under very heavy penalties. Late-coming and dilatory behaviour are punished heavily. Nobody is allowed to be idle, except, of course, the very old and the infirm.

This cannot be wholly condemned in Russia's present terrible condition. Those who would wish to stand idle in such circumstances ought to be constrained by hunger if public opinion is not sufficient, and if the discipline is at times over-severe, the breakdown of Russia's economic life is a very substantial excuse, if not a complete justification.

Those soldiers of the Red Army drafted into the Labour Army and the many civilian corps added to their numbers are doing good work in reconstruction in the mines, on the railways, at the oilfields and in the workshops. They are a mobile force, and are drafted in tens of thousands from one place to another as the need requires.

I was told that every effort was made not to disturb industries that are running satisfactorily by taking their workpeople for the Labour Army. As far as possible the least usefully employed are diverted to the Labour Army. There have been administrative difficulties of a minor sort, and occasional revolts against the conscription of their labour by men who objected to leaving their homes and families, but on the whole the plan has worked well and has been of great benefit in the restoration of the railways and the oil supplies. It is not proposed to demobilise the Labour Army until the economic life of the country is reestablished.

The Co-operative Societies have also become a great Government department, and it is hoped to hand over to them completely the work of the Food Commissariat. When their new organisation on these lines is completed the Co-operative Society, or "Centrosoyu" as it is called, will work under the authority of the Supreme Economic Council for the distribution of all articles of monopoly, such things as wheat, bread, coal, sugar, fur, textiles, clothing and timber. In distributing goods which are not monopolised by the Government at present the Centrosoyu will be guided by its method in respect of the other things. The Co-operative Societies are represented on the Supreme Economic Council, and the chairman has the right to attend the meetings of the People's Commissars, but he may not vote. Citizens are informed that there is no compulsion on them to join the Co-operative Society, and there is no longer the attraction of the dividend; but as theirs is the monopoly of bread, and the only other source of supply is the outlawed "speculator," whose charges are prohibitive—four hundred roubles for a pound of black bread—it is obvious that the freedom is illusory.

Similarly with the Trade Unions. Technically, I suppose, there is no compulsion to join a Trade Union; but as it is impossible to live unless one does, since the more important part of the pay is in the food given to a worker and his family, and since such privileges as tickets for supplies of boots and clothing and other necessaries and free passes for the theatres and the concert-halls are supplied through the Trade Unions, or the Soviets, which are largely Trade Union in character, the wise man does not care to remain outside. These facts may account for the phenomenal increase in Trade Union membership, which is said to have leapt to nearly five million during the last three years. Five millions out of a population made up of eighty-five per cent peasants is a very considerable proportion of the industrial population, and constitutes a miraculous conversion of the multitude on any other supposition than the one I suggest.

And by all these signs we learn what the "dictatorship of the proletariat" really means. Let there be no mistake whatever about this. I am wholly hostile to the artificial dictatorship of any class in those matters which are the serious concern of all. I believe in the dictatorship of the idea, that is in the power of the idea to conquer without force, and the right of the majority to decide all those matters of high policy which cannot be settled amicably without a vote; but I consider that the sources of information should be available for all, the right of propaganda be universal and unrestricted, and the liberties and rights of the minorities safeguarded in all those things where the well-being of the community is not manifestly to all threatened by too great concessions. I believe that the Parliamentary machine needs very considerable overhauling; that something of the nature of proportional representation should be devised; that a chamber elected upon a vocational basis might very usefully replace the hereditary House of Lords. I believe in the devolution of power in national and local affairs, and would give not only to Ireland, but to Scotland and Wales and England their separate national one-chamber Parliaments. I would extend the vote to all adult women, as in Russia, and encourage the work of committees; all this to better secure the expression in politics of the real will of the people.

But the Russian dictatorship does not do this. It is, at the best, an attempt by a few men to compel the people of Russia to have what in their opinion is good for them. It may very well be that what they seek to impose and the methods by which they seek to impose it will in some ways benefit a lethargic race, unused to the ways of freedom. I express no opinion on the point, beyond saying this: That the argument of unfitness to manage one's own affairs has a very familiar ring about it to women. It was the favourite argument against granting the vote to women of a certain class of English opponent. Our good was sought, not our freedom.

But though the freedom was denied for so long, the good lingered also; and the Russian people might reasonably protest, and in many cases do protest, that there the good is lingering also. The great and fundamental question for all who are thinking seriously about these things is this: Has a handful of brilliant and thoughtful men, however good and sincere they may be, the moral right to enforce upon a whole community the system they believe in but the community as a whole rejects, with all the tyranny and cruelty such dictatorship must inevitably mean? Had the men of Russia the moral right to break up their own National Assembly, however inadequate and faulty, thereby bringing upon their country civil war and alien aggression, for the sake of a theory however magnificent?

It might be suggested that the majority in Russia does not reject the idea of Communism, because the whole population is behind the Government; which is perfectly true. But the population is behind the Government because it is a patriotic population, and it is threatened once more by the horror of foreign invasion. This is why the experiment in Russia has been spoiled. The really big things which are being attempted cannot be judged on their merits. Their success or their failure are inextricably mixed up with the various wars which Russia has suffered since the Revolution and with the blockade so cruelly drawn around her. When the history of these times comes to be faithfully written, it will not be the Russian Communists whose records will blacken the pages of history most. It will be the records of certain Allied statesmen, hitherto believed to be gentlemen and Christians, which will throw into bright relief the courage and resourcefulness of the present rulers of Russia.

No words can be too strong with which to condemn the action of those who first intervened to destroy Revolutionary Russia; and no loss to the world is more to be regretted than that loss of a valuable social experiment which would have shown the rest of the world what to imitate and what to avoid in its march towards a happier lot for all mankind.

It is the old, old story of force breeding force, and evil producing evil. The inhabitants of Russia lived so long with the evil system of the Czar's bureaucracy, with its Cossacks, and knouts, its prisons and scaffolds, that the thing has entered into their very blood, and under the necessity of maintaining their power, the Communist rulers slip easily and naturally into the same institutions and methods, adopting even the old machinery and the ancient servitors. But the cruelties and suppressions, said by them and their supporters to be necessary and inevitable in all the circumstances, will breed a resistance amongst themselves which will bring the structure tottering to the ground, unless the madness of their foes continues until the grip upon the people becomes too strong. Even so, such a thing will come to an end in time.

In the interests of Russia herself it is for those who care, to stop all alien wars against her, and so give her people a chance of shaking themselves free of tyranny, both within and without.

And for ourselves, we shall be wise to move as quickly as may be along the sure and peaceful paths of political and industrial democracy, seeking by education and by constant endeavour and sacrifice to convince the minds of men and women that the world has something better to give them of culture as well as comfort than the best of them have ever dreamed.