Red Letter
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The New Economic Policy Of Soviet Russia
by N.I. Bukharin
Estimated Reading Time: X min

What happened? No, really, that's the question. The Russian revolution is met with a counter-revolution, the western funding of the White Army, the Bolsheviks turn to War Communism and the New Economic Policy as they struggle to maintain power and keep people fed and run an economy. Bukharin is one of the architects and before becoming one of the causalties of the awful show trials to come. What are the readings that get us through this period? I'm not always sure, but we'll start with this simple one.

In order to understand the new policy and its practical importance, we should consider it in connection with the economic and social crises, which we had to go through this spring.  The experience of the Russian Revolution has proved that our former notions of the revolutionary process were rather naive. Even the orthodox Marxian section thought that all the proletariat had to do to take over the technical apparatus after ejecting the upper layers of the bourgeoisie was to capture the reins of power. Experience taught us something very different from that. It proved that during the proletarian dictatorship the complete dissolution of the old capitalist apparatus is a necessary stage in the revolutionary development.

Perhaps some will object that this experience does not give us a theoretical proof and that the development in other countries may assume a different character from that of Russia. They may say that Russia is backward, her proletariat is not numerous, and big industry constitutes a small proportion of the economy of Russia. In Western Europe and in America, however, the development will take quite a different direction. This idea can be refuted not only by Russian experience — we are convinced of the absolute inevitability of an economic disorganization generally during the revolutionary process.

Every revolution is a process of reorganization of social relations. In a bourgeois revolution this process is not so thorough or extensive as in a proletarian revolution, because capitalism has already been developed and only a political transformation becomes necessary. Feudal property had already become private property, and the bourgeois revolution had only to secure this private property and allow it a wider scope of action. It was mainly a question of transferring the political machine from one set of owners to another. But even in this case it was necessary to undergo a certain process of reorganization, which had to be paid for dearly. Even a bourgeois revolution is accompanied by a temporary decline in productivity. Such was the case in the Great French Revolution.

The same was manifested in the American Civil War, where economic development was thrown back for a decade. In a proletarian revolution the same thing takes place on a much larger scale. During a proletarian revolution we must not only destroy the State machine, but completely reorganize the industrial relations. That is the most important point.

What are the industrial relations in the capitalist system? First of all there is a capitalist hierarchy, the subordination of one group to another; higher up there is the class of capitalists, then follow the directors, then the technical Intelligentsia, the so-called new middle class, then the skilled workers and finally the rank and file workers. If these industrial relations are to be recognized it means that we must first of all and immediately destroy the various ties that bind these groups. The workers achieve this not by street fights only, but by struggling industrially by means of strikes, etc. The working class cannot win the army in time of Revolution if the soldiers obey their officers. It is equally necessary to bring about a breakdown in industrial discipline, if the proletariat is to gain a hold over the economic apparatus.

Once these ties between the classes and strata are severed, the whole process of production will be brought to a standstill. When the workers strike or fight on the barricades, no work can be done. When there is a sabotage on the part of the technical intelligentsia, the whole process of production is interrupted.  Only when the proletariat is fully in possession of the whole government machine can it put down such attempts. Until that time the process of production will be paralyzed. Kautsky and Otto Bauer were talking utter rubbish when they spoke of the continuity of the process of production and wish to connect it with the revolution. It would be the same if an army wishing to defeat its officers were to preserve a strict discipline under their command instead of killing them. Either the revolution will win, and then there is an inevitable disorganization of the process of production, or discipline will be maintained, and then there will be no revolution at all. Every revolution is paid for by certain attending evils, and it is only at that price that we can bring about the transition to higher forms of economic life of the revolutionary proletariat.  We need not be afraid of that temporary disorganization. One cannot make omelets without breaking eggs.

Proletarian Dictatorship and the Peasantry during the Civil War

Now it becomes clear that the price to be paid for the revolutionary process is greater where there is a more stubborn resistance on the part of all the other classes and groups to the proletariat, attaining its maximum in the country which is first in adopting the dictatorship. In Russia the class struggle involved not only a civil but also a foreign war. Where civil war is transformed into foreign war against powerful States the revolution has to be paid for at an outrageous rate. This is the chief cause of our impoverishment in the course of the last few years. Nearly 75 per cent, of our small supplies and of our latest products had to be given to the Red Army.  Every intelligent man will understand what this means to our economic life.

It is impossible to live without bread. The bread question is the most difficult problem of the revolution. The process of economic disintegration during the revolution is also expressed by the severance of ties which connect town and country. When the battle of classes is raging and the process of production in towns is paralyzed, communications with the rural districts cease. The ties of finance and capital which bind the large landowners and the rich farmers to the banks are immediately severed. The same happened to the connecting links between the various peasant co-operative organizations. All exchange between town and country ceases. The credit system in particular is ruined. When towns cease to supply anything to the country, there is no stimulus to give anything to the towns. The economic equilibrium is destroyed.

As the town population must exist also in time of revolution, special means must be found to feed it. First the supplies stored in towns are consumed. Then compulsory means may be adopted against the peasants. The third expedient is the consciousness of the peasants that only the proletarian state defends them against the landowners, the usurers, and others.

The peasants were greatly influenced by that consideration during the civil war against foreign counter revolution. Our compulsory methods found their economic justification in this circumstance. As regards the arguments of the opportunists that the peasantry was opposed to the Bolsheviks and that the latter rule by sheer force, every Marxist will say that this is nonsense. Not even the Czar’s government was capable of performing such a feat. Our compulsory actions found their economic justification in the fact that the peasants, as a class, fully understand that there is no other force that can defend them from the land-owners, of whose estates the peasants have taken possession. In Russia 82 per cent, of land formerly owned by large landowners was given to the peasants. The close-fisted peasant will not allow this land to be taken from him. He was wise enough to perceive that the main economic problem is to keep fast to the land, as land alone gives him the certainty of growing food. That is why he put up with our methods of requisitions and that is why we were on the whole able to maintain an equilibrium in our social structure. We felt the ground under our feet.

Of course, every war has its laws. The experience of capitalist countries has shown that the economic changes can more easily be effected in war than in peace time. The same can be observed in our country. Certain classes, especially the petty bourgeoisie, were honestly convinced that everything must be sacrificed for war. Due to this we were able to estimate our resources and regulate economy by strongly applying the dictatorship of the proletariat.

But after war was over the contradictions in this economic system came to the surface at once, first and foremost the contradictions between the regulating tendencies and the anarchical tendencies of the peasantry.

Inflexibility of the Peasant and De-classing of the Proletariat

It was proved economically that if we take away all the surplus of the peasants’ produce we take away almost all the incentive to further production. If the peasant knows that he will be deprived of all surplus produce he will only produce for himself and nothing for others. The only incentive that remains is of an intellectual kind, the knowledge that he must support the workers who defend him from the landlord. After the victory at the civil war fronts the effect of his incentive was destroyed. It was observed that the cultivated area diminished. This was also due to the drafting of the labor forces to the army, to the decrease of the stocks of cattle, peasant stock generally, etc. Agriculture was in a critical condition, and we were in danger of being left without sufficient bread.

Naturally this state of agriculture reacted on industry. It is not true that our technical apparatus is totally disorganized. In many important branches of the textile and metal industries, as well as others, we possess a good technical apparatus. But the great problem facing us is how to provide the towns with the necessaries of life. In our country the workers are hungry because the exchange of goods between town and country is paralyzed.

These economic conditions have their social consequences. When large industry is in such a miserable condition the workers seek to find a way, e. g., by manufacturing small articles of every day use at the places where they work, which they subsequently sell. By such methods the proletariat becomes declassed. When in this way the worker becomes interested in free trade, he begins to regard himself as a small producer, a petty bourgeois. This means the transformation of the workers into petty bourgeois with all their characteristics. The proletariat goes back to the village where it works as small craftsmen. The greater the disorganization the stronger the process of degeneration of the proletariat, now demanding free trade.

The proletariat as such is weakened. Moreover the flower of the proletariat was destroyed at the front. Our army consisted of an amorphous peasant mass which was like wax in the hands of the Communist, and non-party men. We have lost an immense number of these proletarians, and it was precisely these who enjoyed the greatest esteem and confidence in the factories. Moreover, we were compelled to utilize the best strata of the proletariat for the State machine, the administration of all the villages, etc. To organize a proletarian dictatorship in a peasant country meant to distribute the proletarians among certain localities like so many pieces on a chess-board, in order to guide the peasants.  One can imagine how the factories suffered in consequence through lack of proletarian forces.  Only the worst elements remained in the factories. And on the top of it all came the de-classing of the workers. Such is the social crisis within the working class.

The peasantry had also to suffer, but not to the same extent. If we take an economic view of the subject, i.e., not in the sense of power and political rights, the peasantry has derived more benefit from the revolution than all the other classes. Economically the peasantry is better off than the proletariat, though the latter is the privileged class. The peasant feels himself stronger than ever. There are other, secondary causes. The peasant obtained a good training in the army. He returned from the war a different man. He is now on a higher intellectual and moral level than he was before. Now he understands politics very well. He says: We are the predominating force and we shall not allow others to treat us as silly children. We want to feed the workers, but we are the senior partners and demand our rights.

As soon as the war was over the peasants immediately presented their demands. They are interested in small trade. They are supporters of free trade, and opposed to the compulsory socialist system of economy. These demands were presented in the form of peasant risings in various districts in Siberia, Tambov, etc. Things did not look so bad as the counter revolutionary press tried to picture it, but these events were symptomatic.  In their eyes the political solution of the economic situation consists in the motto ‘For the Bolsheviks and against the Communists.’

At first this appears quite absurd, but though it is cryptically formulated this motto has an intelligent explanation. At the time of the October Revolution and previous to it we were the party that told the peasant to kill the landowner and to take his land. The Bolsheviks were then thought to be capital fellows. They gave the peasants everything and demanded nothing in return. But in the end we became the Party which gave nothing and demanded everything from the peasants. They were consequently against the communists, who were taking away their bread and moreover preached absurd ideas of communism, unsuitable to the peasants. The second watchword was free trade. The first watchword was ‘For non-party Soviets against the dictatorship of a party.’ If there are even communists who fail to understand that a class can only rule if it has a head, and the party is the head of a class then we can easily under- stand the peasants failing to grasp that idea. Such is the intellectual atmosphere prevailing among the lower middle-class and the peasantry.

The proletariat, too, insofar as it was de-classed, of necessity shared the same views.  In some places even metal workers took up the watchwords: “Free trade,” against the “Communist,” for class dictatorship but against Party dictatorship. Thus the equilibrium between the proletariat and the peasantry was destroyed. A misunderstanding arose which threatened the whole system of the proletarian dictatorship. The crisis found its expression in the Kronstadt mutiny. The documents which have since been brought to light show clearly that the affair was instigated by purely white guard centers, but at the same time the Kronstadt mutiny was a petty bourgeois rebellion against the socialist system of economic compulsion. Sailors are mostly sons of peasants, especially Ukrainian peasants.  Ukraine is more petty bourgeois than Central Russia. The peasants there resemble more the German farmers than the Russian peasants. They are against Czarism but have little sympathy for communism. The sailors were home on leave and there became strongly infected with peasant ideas. This was the cause of the revolt.

As is known we acted with all speed; we mobilized and sent against Kronstadt one- third of our Party Congress, we lost many comrades, but we quelled the rebellion. But victory could not solve the question. We had to take certain measures. Had there been a revolution in Germany we could have brought workers from there and have made a surgical operation. But we have to act on our own.  There was one principle which we had to maintain at all costs: the preservation of the dictatorship. It was clear that we were making no concessions to the peasants. We had the picture of the Hungarian affair before us. It is true we should have come into power again after a few months or years, but the bourgeoisie would try its method of reorganization, which costs something, and then we would again try ours. The disorganization of national industry would be so terrible that no one can even guess whether any tolerable state of things could ever result from this chaos.

When the State apparatus is in our hands we can guide it in any desired direction. But unless we are at the helm we can give no direction at all. Consequently we must seize power and keep it and make no political concessions. But we may make many economic concessions. But the fact of the matter is we are making economic concessions in order to avoid making political concessions. We shall agree to no coalition government or anything like it, not even equal rights to peasants and workers. We cannot do that. The concessions do not in any way change the class character of the dictatorship. When a State makes concessions to another class it does in no way alter its class character, no more than a factory owner, who makes concessions to his employees, becomes a worker. If we look at it from a social and political standpoint the significance of the concessions lies in the pacification and neutralization of the lower middle class. Our former investigations brought us to the conclusion that the economic difficulties consisted in the lack of an incentive to increase production. Now this incentive has been offered in the substitution of a tax in kind instead of requisitions. Now the peasant knows that he will have to give up more if he produces more, but he knows also that he will keep more. Experience has already shown that such are his calculations. As soon as we decided on this new system at our party congress the area under cultivation increased at once to that of 1916 and even 1915.

Politically a general pacification has set in.  The guerilla warfare in the Ukraine has lost its intensity. These political measures succeeded in putting an end to the Makhno gangs.  Some will naturally doubt the wisdom of making these concessions to the petty bourgeoisie.  They may say that a period of accumulation, such as existed hitherto, has been inaugurated, that usury will result which will transform itself into industrial capitalism. We are faced by the same danger as we were at the time of the Brest Peace, when we stood in danger of being engulfed by German capitalism. However, such a state of things is only temporary.  Our position now is that we want bread and a pacific peasantry, or else we shall go to the dogs. Even the worker will revolt against his own government if he has nothing to eat.

Communism requires a certain time to mature and this process under our conditions of life is more painful than it would otherwise be.  We have in our hands large industry, the coal industry, transport, etc. A whole period of history is required to transform the peasant into a capitalist. Our view is that capitalism will rise slowly from below, but we will keep under our control the chief branches of industry. Once this is achieved all the industrial processes will assume their normal course.  The declassing of the proletariat will cease, we shall be able to invite foreign workers, etc.  We could then pass on to the technical revolution, and will be able to realize the electrification of Russia, which is now in an embryonic stage. If we succeed in realizing even a part of our program then we shall get the better of the petty bourgeois tendencies. If the peasant receives from us electric light and power he will be transformed into a social functionary and his proprietary instincts will not be offended.

If the tendencies of capitalist growth gain the upper hand over the tendencies to improve large industry, then we are doomed. But we hope the contrary will be the case — then we shall master all difficulties in the field of economics.

Paul Levi and all the opportunists of the world say: ‘You see, the Bolsheviks are making concessions to the peasants and we make concessions to the masses.’ But this analogy is not correct. We make concessions to secure the equilibrium of the Soviet system, Levi makes concessions to maintain the capitalist equilibrium, and he does not seem to notice this little difference. We might as well say that there is an army in France and there is an army here, a police system there and an Extraordinary Commission here. The essential point is — what are the class functions of these institutions, and which class do they serve? Whoever makes an abstraction of the class lives in the skies, not on earth. And I think it would better if our enemies remain in the skies and we remain on solid earth. 

Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
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