The Great Russian Illusion


ALTHOUGH the Russo-German Pact and the Soviet war on Finland caused a mass exodus of fellow travelers from the Communist fold, the Great Russian Illusion has not been destroyed. The belief that there is a more just and progressive social and economic system in the USSR than in the ‘capitalist world’ is still held by hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of Americans, while millions more in the United States and England are convinced that Stalin might have been the ally of England and France had it not been for the hostility displayed toward Russia by the Chamberlain and Daladier governments. This latter thesis, although quite unproven, is repeated as an accepted historical fact in scores of books dealing with recent history and international relations. The realistic and hard-boiled Stalin, who made his pact with Hitler regardless of the insults heaped upon him by the latter during the preceding years, is represented as ‘offended’ by Britain’s attitude, or as driven by the insincerity of Britain and France into the German alliance. These apologists for the Soviet Union never explain why it was that the Russo-German Pact came after Britain and France, by their guarantee to Poland and Rumania, had signified unmistakably that they would fight Germany if and when she again attacked a small nation.

The facts of the case suggest the contrary conclusion that Stalin, admiring and fearing Nazi Germany, which he knew possessed all the terrible advantages and few of the weaknesses of the Soviet régime, was determined never to fight her. Championing collective security at Geneva, and lambasting the British and French Conservatives for their appeasement of Germany, was a safe policy so long as Stalin thought there was little possibility of making collective security a reality; joining up with the democracies to fight Hitler once England and France had come to the conclusion that war with Germany could not be avoided was a different matter. Stalin must have judged it best for his personal security to encourage Hitler to fight England and France by assuring him he would not have to fight on two fronts. No doubt Stalin calculated that totalitarian Germany could not be defeated by the Allies except in a war so prolonged and destructive as to prepare the way for the breakdown of ’capitalist civilization’ all over Europe.

The historian of the future will perhaps discuss the effect on the history of our times of the false belief held in Britain, France, and the United States concerning both the foreign policy and the internal stability of the Soviet régime. For, had not a majority of the people in the Western democracies become convinced by 1939 of two false propositions assiduously propagated by the Comintern and its manifold false fronts, German aggression might have been directed eastward and our Western individualistic civilization saved, or at least given the opportunity to adapt itself to the technological necessities of the age peacefully and gradually in a democratic manner.

The first false proposition was that Fascism and Communism were not twins but opposites, that the USSR was ‘a democracy of a new kind,’ and that it could therefore be counted upon to aid the Western democracies in destroying the Nazis. The second false proposition was that the Nazi régime was a ‘dictatorship of finance capital’ so rotten and so detested by the German people that it would collapse as soon as the democracies ‘stood up to Hitler.’

In general it was imagined that Stalin was playing from strength and Hitler from weakness, whereas the truth, as subsequent events have shown, was precisely the opposite. The exaggerated conception of Soviet strength was based, in the final analysis, upon an uncritical acceptance of Soviet and Comintern propaganda concerning the ‘ gigantic success of the Five-Year Plans,’ and concerning the well-being and contentment of the Russian workers and peasants and their passionate loyalty to the ‘workers’ state.’ Unfortunately for France and Britain, the USSR had never come near to being what either its friends or its foes imagined. It was never either a workers’ state or a socialist paradise, nor was it ever strong enough to constitute a menace to the capitalist world. It was, and is, a gigantic bedlam in which grandiose plans cannot conceal appalling inefficiency, want, and misery; a country in which the whole energy and time of the majority of the people are concentrated on the struggle to secure enough to eat, a room to live in, a pair of shoes or an overcoat, while their main preoccupation is avoidance of arrest by the secret police.

The Russian worker has no more interest in foreign policy, world revolution, or Russia’s national interest than the mediæval peasant had in the feuds of his overlords or in dynastic wars. His own daily struggle to avoid starvation and the concentration camps is allabsorbing. His world is a world of petty cares and terrifying tribulations. His hope is to secure a room to live in and food for his children. His fears are manifold and constant: fear of having his wages docked for being a few minutes late at the factory because he has been unable to fight his way on to one of the crowded streetcars; fear of losing his job because lie cannot, on his meagre diet, always keep up the pace set by the better-fed shock worker or foreman; fear that some fellow worker will denounce him to the OGPU for having grumbled, or for having shown insufficient enthusiasm on the occasion of the most recent reduction of piece-rate wages or rise in food prices.

Anyone who takes the trouble to examine the laws and regulations of the Soviet Union for improving ‘labor discipline,’ and to compare wages and prices, will have few illusions left concerning the material position of the Russian workers or their rights and liberties. Strikes are, of course, forbidden and treated as treason. The trade-unions are state unions whose officials are appointed by the Communist Party and whose function is the surveillance and disciplining of the workers. There is no appeal for the worker against a decision of the manager or foreman. Prior to 1937 the trade-union representative in the factory was supposed to protect the interests of the workers, but, being himself under the orders of the Party, he always placed first the interests of production. In 1937 even the shadow of workers’ control over labor conditions was destroyed. The ‘Troika’ — the joint exercise of power in each enterprise by the manager, the trade-union representative, and the secretary of the Party — was abolished, and complete control over the workers was given to the factory manager, who, as the Soviet press expressed it, was ‘relieved of endless worry and given freedom to do what was necessary.’

As in Germany, each worker has a ’labor book’ in which his record is written down, so that if he has infracted the code of labor laws he finds it hard to get reëmployed. No worker is allowed to move from one town to another, or from one factory to another, without permission, and the factory manager holds the labor book, without which the worker cannot be reëmployed. There is no unemployment pay or poor relief: unemployment in the Soviet Union has been liquidated by the simple device of liquidating the unemployed, who must starve to death. As regards the muchboasted social services, — holidays with pay, leave with pay before and after childbirth, medical attention, and so forth, — these services never compensated for the decline in real wages and were meagre in many respects as compared with those available for the working classes in Western Europe. In 1938 they were drastically curtailed. Since the end of that year only those workers who have remained at one and the same factory for more than six years are entitled to full social services.

Justifying with cruel irony this deprivation of full social services for the majority of the workers, the organ of the Department of Justice stated: ‘All former theories of labor and labor laws in the Soviet Union have been permeated with capitalist counter-revolutionary spirit.’ Free and guaranteed social services to all according to their needs, and the humanitarian spirit which inspires them, are thus now designated as ‘capitalist’ in the socialist fatherland. By implication, Lenin and the other old Bolsheviks were counter-revolutionaries because they decreed annual vacations, free medical services, and unemployment benefits for all the toilers.

Since the war on Finland, labor discipline has been made even more severe. Not only were the working day and the working week increased in 1940, but wages were reduced and work norms increased. In July 1940, a law was passed decreeing that henceforth defective industrial production, or production of goods below standard, would be regarded as ‘wrecking’—that is, punishable by years of imprisonment in a concentration camp.


The Russian worker today, deprived of all civil and political rights, harnessed to the machine and completely at the mercy of the factory manager, liable to summary arrest and imprisonment without trial for the slightest misdemeanor, must, if he is old enough, sigh for the milder tyranny of the Tsar and the capitalist. Nor has he gained anything materially. On the contrary, his standard of living is today much lower than in 1914.

This can be demonstrated by reference to the official figures of average earnings as compared with the price of food and clothing. In 1937, before the steep rise in prices in 1940, the price of all food in the shops was from ten to fifteen times higher than in 1914, as against a fivefold increase in wages.1 Black bread which cost 6 kopeks a kilo before the First World War cost 85 kopeks in 1937. (In 1940 the price was raised to one ruble.) Pork which cost 59 kopeks in 1914 cost 11 rubles in 1937; the price of butter had risen from 1.17 rubles a kilo to 20 rubles, and milk from 14 kopeks a litre to 1.70 rubles. The price of manufactured goods had risen even more steeply, being on an average twenty times higher than in 1914. Moreover, whereas under the Tsar the worker could freely purchase what his wages would buy, today he must stand in line for hours to buy a pair of trousers or shoes, and often also to buy food.

Nor has there been any gain in social and material equality. The high Soviet functionary today enjoys an income of 5000 rubles a month or more as against the worker’s 200 or 300, and in addition enjoys all sorts of material privileges in kind.

The material condition of the Russian peasant has deteriorated as much as or more than that of the worker. Not only does he have to pay the above inflated prices for manufactured goods, which even so are available only in very insufficient quantities, but he is forced by the Soviet State to work on the collective farm and to deliver to the state a yearly quantity of grain larger than he formerly had to give up in the shape of rent and taxes. Under the Tsar the average money income of a peasant was calculated to be about 60 rubles a year. With this sum he could buy, if he wished, two pairs of boots, eight metres of woolen cloth, and a pair of galoshes. Today most of the collective farmers earn little more than 100 rubles a year in cash. Even those who work on the more prosperous and better-managed farms receive only around 300 rubles a year as their share of the farm’s cash income. This sum does not suffice to buy even half the quantity of manufactured goods a peasant could buy in 1914. For today a pair of good shoes costs 250 rubles, and those of the lowest quality 65 rubles, while woolen dress goods cost 125 rubles a metre and heavy woolen overcoating 250 rubles (as against 8.40 in 1914). And these high-priced manufactures are often not available even when the peasant can afford to buy them.

The collective farms must deliver a fixed quantity of grain to the State, the amount being based on their acreage, not on their actual production. The State pays between 1.10 and 1.50 rubles a pood for the rye thus delivered to it, which at the higher figure equals 9 kopeks a kilogram. It sells black bread to the people of the towns at one ruble a kilo — that is to say, at a profit of nearly 1000 per cent. This bread tax — not the industrial enterprises — is the main source of State revenue.

Such is the unwillingness of the peasant to work on the collective farms, and so grossly are these farms mismanaged, that in spite of the capital investments in agriculture, in the form of tractors and other agricultural machinery, the production of grain in the Soviet Union, except for the year 1937, has hardly risen above the level of Tsarist times. The peasant is a serf of the State, and he knows it too well to have any belief that by working hard he could raise his standard of life. He has been cheated too often by the Soviet Government, which once gave him the land and gave him hope, only to deprive him of both a decade ago when he was forced to give up his land and stock to the collective farm. He knows from bitter experience that if he produces more the State will take more, either by increasing the compulsory quota or by decreasing the price of grain. He dare not resist the Soviet Government, for the troops of the OGPU are always at hand to suppress any revolt. But if war came he would be as anxious to destroy his rulers in the Kremlin as his father was to expropriate the Tsarist landowners.

The amazing thing is that so very few people have ever troubled to examine the plain facts of the ‘Soviet way of life.’ Most of those who have visited the USSR have been so determined to find a model socialist society, and so ready to credit the claims of the Soviet Government that material progress has been rapid and great, that they have shut their eyes to all the evidence which would have destroyed their faith. Meeting only the members of the new aristocracy — the Party bureaucrats — and seeing only their conditions of life, they have displayed no interest in the life of the masses. They have been shown the hospitals, schools, rest homes, sanatoria, country houses, and town flats of the ruling class, and have imagined, or professed to believe, that these luxurious places were accessible to the exploited proletariat. They have, of course, never heard the bitter jest current in Russia of recent years: ‘They [the Party bureaucracy] have constructed socialism for themselves.’

Whereas the socialist halo has blinded the Left to the manifold imperfections of Russia, an uneasy conscience has led many of the ‘self-seeking capitalists’ to imagine that this remote country, where there are supposed to be no exploiters of labor, has a mysterious and incalculable strength.

Just as those who inspired and led the great French Revolution imagined that by abolishing feudal privilege and the feudal shackles on private enterprise they would create an ideal society of the free and equal, but found instead that they had got capitalism, so socialists imagine that expropriation of the capitalists and destruction of private monopolies must lead to the millennium — or at least to a freer, juster, and more equalitarian society than the capitalist. They are so convinced that ‘private ownership of the means of production and distribution ‘ is the root of all social evils that they continue to believe that the Soviet Union, where all land and capital are owned by the State, must be the model of a better social order. Even when they admit the evils of dictatorship and deplore the purges and the concentration camps, they argue that this is the result of Russia’s past history, or say: ‘Yes, all is by no means as we should wish in the Soviet Union, but at least the workers and peasants are much better off than before the Revolution, and in any case the all-important fact is that there is no private ownership of capital, and therefore no class exploitation.’ Mr. H. G. Wells, for example, argues this way in his Babes in the Darkling Wood, which contains some subtle pro-Communist arguments based on complete ignorance of conditions in the USSR. Adopting a man-of-the-world, philosophical tone, Mr. Wells argues that, never having himself believed that the USSR was as perfect as its enthusiastic admirers abroad once believed, he has also not been as disillusioned as they, so that he can regard the Soviet Union objectively and see that the good accomplished there outweighs the evil.

This view is not based on any experience of life in the USSR, but on a priori reasoning on the basis of political faith, and it is typical of many of our most popular writers, interpreters of world affairs, and purveyors of hopeful thoughts. Obsessed with the label on the Russian bottle which says ‘Socialism,’ the Left intellectuals, in the United States and in Britain, fail to observe that the contents are just as destructive of all they hold dear as the contents of the German bottle which is labeled ‘Nazi’ and which they know to be poison. The essential difference between Russia and Germany lies not in the fictitious distinction between state ownership and state control, nor in the lip service paid to libertarian principles by the Stalinists as contrasted with the glorification of violence, conquest, and tyranny by the Nazis, but in the efficiency of the Nazi tyranny and the inefficiency of the Bolshevik tyranny. This in turn is largely due to the fact that Hitler has moulded German economy to serve the ends of the Nazi State, whereas the Bolsheviks were constrained by their theories, as well as by the circumstances in which they came to power, to destroy the whole structure of society and build a new one from the ground up. Adhering rigidly to the Marxist formula, the Communists, in destroying private enterprise, have also destroyed the incentive to work.

Moreover, Hitler has compelled all classes to serve the Nazi State, while Stalin by his senseless purges of the engineers, technicians, and other ‘specialists,’ has liquidated the only people who could have ensured the proper functioning of the new industries created at such a huge social cost. Hitler, on the contrary, has assured maximum efficiency and the full utilization of German resources by retaining the old owning and administrative classes as the executives of the State-controlled enterprises. The retention of the old economic structure with the institution of a new type of management has made Germany infinitely stronger than Russia, where the Bolsheviks have attempted to create an entirely new economic structure in opposition to the desires of the great majority of the population, in particular the peasants.

In a significant passage in Rauschning’s Voice of Destruction, Hitler shows his appreciation of the fact that in the new ‘socialist’ order the decisive factors are the supremacy of the State over all persons, and the absolute control of the State by the Party: —

There will be no license, no free space, in which the individual belongs to himself: this is socialism — not such trifles as the private possession of the means of production. Of what importance is that if I range men firmly within a discipline they cannot escape? Let them own their lands or factories as much as they please. The decisive factor is that the State, through the Party, is supreme over them, whether they are owners or workers. Why need we trouble to socialize banks and factories? We socialize human beings.

Unfortunately, many liberals and socialists lack Hitler’s political insight. They ignore the basic question: ‘Who owns the State?’ For them the question of political power apparently ceases to be of any importance once the capitalist system has been destroyed. They have forgotten what is the basis of liberty, and in their obsession with the question of economic power they fail to perceive that such power is derivative, not primary. If state ownership of land and capital is all one cares about, then Egypt under the Pharaohs, or the Congo under the notorious Leopold II of the Belgians, must have been a socialist or nearsocialist State. If one is indifferent to the question, ‘ Who owns the State? ‘ one can count some of the most horrible forms of exploitation of man by man as socialist and therefore admirable. Yet Lenin himself always stressed the fact that political power is the basis of economic power, not vice versa. In both Germany and Russia political power is monopolized by a small minority that ruthlessly suppresses all who oppose its rule; yet many of those who detest the Nazi tyranny admire the Communist one.


The stubborn refusal of so many people to see the USSR as it is, instead of as they would like it to be, creates the illusion that sooner or later Russia will enter the war against Germany. Stalin has only to crook his little finger at Britain or the United States for a chorus to go up proclaiming that he is about to break with Germany. Few people will believe that Germany and Russia can be allied, because it is thought that Communism and Fascism are irreconcilable enemies.

Even a famous political theorist like Professor Laski is so blinded by his hopes and fears that he still writes of Russia as if it were the socialist and democratic antithesis of Nazi Germany. (See his recently published book, Where Do We Go from Here?) He recognizes that the Nazis have subjected capital equally with labor to the State, but whereas he views the Nazis as outlaws or gangsters concerned only with their own power, he thinks Stalin is constructing socialism, and that the Russian régime is ‘built upon ideas incompatible with Fascism.’ For him, as for so many others, it is professions rather than performances which count. He is, accordingly, not only willing but eager that England should ally herself with the Russian totalitarian tyranny in order to conquer the German totalitarian tyranny. He is entirely oblivious of the fact that not only would such an alliance destroy the British claim to be fighting for democracy and liberty, but it might finally deliver the Continent of Europe to an even worse tyranny than that of the Nazis.

He is instead anxious only that England should make herself worthy of Russian friendship and convince Stalin that she is truly democratic. He writes: ‘The good will of the Soviet Union depends upon our ability to produce the conviction in her rulers that this defeat [of Fascism] is in sober fact a defeat of those forces which, ever since 1917, have threatened her security.’ From this he goes on to argue that if England, by a revolution by consent, can convince the rulers of the Soviet Union that she is on the road to socialism, Stalin will fight Germany and save England and democracy.

These views are typical of those of many well-meaning people in the United States as well as in England who, still clinging to the Great Soviet Illusion, consciously or unconsciously want the present conflict to become a war to make the world safe for Stalin. They are tragically blind to the danger that the desired revolution may lead us, not to the democratic socialism of their dreams, but to the socialism which history has presented us with in Russia and Germany.

Knowledge of the actual state of affairs in Russia leads to the conclusion that Stalin’s policy must be governed, not by any political or ideological principles or prejudices, but by the fact that Russia is too weak to resist Germany, and above all by the consideration that involvement in the war on either side would be likely to destroy his tyranny even more rapidly than the First World War destroyed the autocracy of the Tsars.

Even the little war against Finland taxed Russia’s creaking economy and inadequate transport system so severely that there was an acute shortage of food in the cities both during the war and afterwards. Even the partial mobilization called for by the international situation, combined with the endeavor to increase armaments production, led in 1940 to a great accentuation of the already heavy demands made upon the workers and peasantry: bread prices have risen 15 per cent and other food prices between 35 and 100 per cent; gas, water, and electricity charges have increased from 50 to 100 per cent; hours of labor have been lengthened and the working week increased to six days; social services have been curtailed, wages reduced, income taxes increased and made payable by workers earning as little as 150 rubles a month; freight and passenger traffic rates have been raised; the compulsory grain and meat deliveries from the peasants have been increased.

Since 1937, Soviet statistics have become more and more scanty and are now usually given, if published at all, in value figures only, which, in view of continued inflation and the absence of price indices, are practically useless. But occasionally the Russian press lifts the veil that hides from outsiders the true state of Russian economy. In the campaign for better labor discipline there have been references to the failure of the iron, steel, and coal industries to fulfill their plans and to the unsatisfactory condition of other vital branches of production. It has been admitted that the total volume of industrial production in the first half of 1940 was ‘no higher than’ during the first half of the previous year. As production in 1938 and 1939 was already slipping backwards or at best standing still, and as the fact that no figures of volume or quantity have been published since 1937 suggests failures, it is to be presumed that the condition of the national economy is causing grave disquiet in the Kremlin. Foreigners returning from the USSR after long residence there report that the material condition of the people has declined to as low a level as in the terrible years of the First Five-Year Plan, and that there is a chronic shortage of food and clothing in spite of the high prices.

From the political point of view, the most significant development in the USSR over the past year has been the virtual admission that the majority of the working class are today opposed to the Soviet regime. The blame for the decline in production, or for the failure to increase it, is today no longer ascribed to the non-Party specialists, as during the First Five-Year Plan, or to the ‘Trotskyist vermin,’ as in 1936—1938, but to sabotage, wrecking, or slackness on the part of the workers. At the end of 1939, Stalin referred to the ‘ disorganizes ‘ among the workers, to the ‘individual, ignorant, backward, or unscrupulous people who cause industry, transport, and the whole national economy great damage.’ Since a few wicked workers could hardly damage the whole national economy, it is to be presumed that it is the majority of the working class that is now wrecking and sabotaging in the ‘Workers’ Fatherland.’

Although the Soviet Union is in no condition to wage war, and although Germany, if not England, must be aware of this, it must also be remembered that Hitler is a cautious man, and may prefer for that reason to get his way without fighting even if this entails some delay. He is unlikely to involve himself in war with the Soviet Union unless and until he can conquer England, or unless the war should be so prolonged as to make it necessary for him to acquire control of Russia to secure the production there of food and war materials for Germany. Even though Germany could in all probability defeat Russia with greater ease than she defeated Poland and France, it would require a great deal of gasoline and other war supplies which Hitler must husband with care, and such a conquest would yield little or nothing for some years. Russia’s very poverty protects her, at least for the moment. She is already supplying Germany with all she can spare in the way of metals, and she has no surplus of food even if the state of the Russian railways did not preclude any great increase in RussoGerman trade.

Moreover, the value to the Nazis of good relations with the USSR cannot be estimated in purely material or strategic terms: the aid of the Comintern is not to be despised. Were the Communist Parties all over the world to turn against Germany and throw their weight behind the war effort of the countries opposing Hitler, as they certainly would if Russia were menaced by Germany, the Nazis might lose more than they could possibly gain by conquering the USSR. Undoubtedly any such swing over in Comintern policy would cause many of those Americans who now support isolation to advocate the entry of the United Stales into the war.

Stalin cannot have realized that Germany would triumph so easily over France, but it is now too late for him to change his policy of collaboration with Germany. Only a British victory can save the USSR from becoming a Dominion of the German Empire, but Stalin dare not openly do anything to help England. Germany is too near and too powerful, and Stalin may well feel it is better to be Hitler’s Gauleiter in Russia than risk a war which, whatever its outcome, would be likely to cause a revolution in Russia and destroy him altogether. Also, no doubt, he hopes that England and Germany will fight each other long enough to produce such starvation and despair in Europe as to enable the Communists to establish their own tyranny over the ruins of Western civilization.

  1. The average wage of ‘workers and employees in 1937 was 231 rubles a month, according to the official figures. In 1914 mechanics in large-scale industry ‘of average qualifications’ earned 43.68 rubles a month. — AUTHOR