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Soviet Russia

Laski Diffusion/Getty
Vladimir Lenin inspects troops in the Red Square. Moscow, Russia in May 1919.
During the years between the wars, there were many moments when The New Republic willfully glanced past the horrors of the Soviet Union. Even after the show trials of the thirties, the magazine’s editor Bruce Bliven was willing to largely exonerate Stalin for his horrific sins. He wrote him an “open letter” in 1938, full of the gentlest criticism and laced with flattery. (“It would be natural for you to say this is nobody’s business but Soviet Russia; such an attitude has been held by many great rulers through history. But you are too wise, I am sure, to hold this view.”) This failure in analysis—the utopian smudge on the lens of rigorous thinking—should not be whitewashed from history. But the same editors who apologized for the purges and executions also published some of the most prescient pieces about the USSR.

Unlike most of the editors of
The New Republic, Keynes had visited Russia, seen the future, and found it grotesque. (He had gone with his wife, Lydia Lopokova, a dancer in Diaghilev’s company.) He understood the very specific perils of the Communist mind-set. They angered him so much that they could provoke his own ugly outbursts. In another essay for the magazine, he sought to blame the rampant mud and rubbish he witnessed on “the beastliness in Russian nature—or in the Russian and Jewish natures, when, as now, they are allied together.” Editors of the magazine attempted to excise the line, but the master economist wouldn’t budge. It was, of course, an expression of a reflexive Bloomsbury prejudice, but the incident is also evidence of the bullheadedness that stopped him from caving to the fashionable politics of his times. 

—Franklin Foer, former TNR editor, Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America

It is extraordinarily difficult to be fair-minded about Russia. And even with fair-mindedness, how is a true impression to he conveyed of a thing so unfamiliar, contradictory, and shifting, about which almost no one in England has a background of knowledge or of comparable experience? No English newspaper has a regular correspondent resident in Russia. We rightly attach small say about themselves. Most of our news is from prejudiced and deceived Labor deputations or from prejudiced and untruthful émigrés. Thus a belt of fog separates us from what goes on in the other world where the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics rules and experiments and evolves a kind of order. Russias suffering the penalty of years of propaganda, which by taking away credence from words, almost destroys, in the end, the means of communication at a distance.

Leninism is a combination of two things which Europeans have kept for some centuries in different compartments of the soul—religion and business. We arc shocked because the religion is new, and contemptuous because the business, being subordinated to the religion instead of the other way round, is highly inefficient.

Like other new religions, Leninism derives its power not from the multitude but from a small minority of enthusiastic converts, whose faith and zeal and intolerance make each one the equal in strength of a hundred indifferentists. Like other new religions, it is led by those who can combine the new spirit, perhaps sincerely, with seeing a good deal more than their followers, politicians with at least an average dose of political cynicism, who can smile as well as frown, volatile experimentalists, released by religion from truth and mercy but not blinded to facts and expediency, and open therefore to the charge (superficial and useless though it is) where politicians, lay or ecclesiastical, are concerned of hypocrisy. Like other new religions, it seems to take the color and gaiety and freedom out of everyday life and to offer but a drab substitute in the square wooden faces of its devotees. Like Other new religions, it persecutes without justice or pity those who actively resist it. Like other new religions, it is unscrupulous. Like other new religions, it is filled with missionary ardor and ecumenical ambitions. To say that Leninism is the faith of a persecuting and propagating minority of fanatics led by hypocrites, is, after all, to say no more nor less than that it is a religion and not merely a Party, and Lenin a Mahomet, not a Bismarck. If we want to frighten ourselves in our capitalist easy chairs, we can picture the Communists of Russia as though the early Christians led by Attila were using the equipment of the Holy Inquisition and the Jesuit Missions to enforce the literal economics of the New Testament; but when we want to comfort ourselves in the same chairs, can we hopefully repeat that these economics are fortunately so contrary to human nature that they cannot finance either missionaries or armies and will surely end in defeat?

There are three questions which need an answer. Is the new religion partly true, or sympathetic to the souls of modern men? Is it on the material side so inefficient as to vender it incapable to survive? Will it, in the course of time, with sufficient dilution and added impurity, catch the multitude?

As for the first question, those who are completely satisfied by Christian Capitalism or by Egotistic Capitalism untempered by subterfuge, will not hesitate how to answer it; for they either have a religion or need none. But many, in this age without religion, are bound to feel a strong emotional curiosity towards any religion, which is really new and not merely a recrudescence of old ones and has proved its motive force; and all the more when the new thing comes out of Russia, the beautiful and foolish youngest son of the European family, with hair on his head, nearer both to the earth and to heaven than his bald brothers in the West—who, having been born two centuries later, has been able to pick up the middle-aged disillusionment of the rest of the family before he has lost the genius of youth or become addicted to comfort and to habits. I sympathize with those who seek for something good in Soviet Russia.

But when we come to the actual thing, what is one to say? For me, brought up in a free air undarkened by the horrors of religion with nothing to be afraid of, Red Russia holds too much which is detestable. Comfort and habits let us be ready to forgo, but I am not ready for a creed which does not care how much it destroys the liberty and security of daily life, which uses deliberately the weapons of persecution, destruction, and international strife. How can I admire a policy which finds a characteristic expression in spending millions to suborn spies in every family and group at home, and to stir up trouble abroad? Perhaps his is no worse and has more purpose than the greedy, warlike and imperialist propensities of other governments; but it must be far better than these to shift me out of my rut. How can I accept a doctrine which sets up as its bible, above and beyond criticism, an obsolete economic textbook which I know to be not only scientifically erroneous but without interest or application for the modern world? How can I adopt a creed which, preferring the mud to the fish, exalts the boorish proletariat above the bourgeois and the intelligentsia who, with whatever faults, are the quality in life and surely carry the seeds of all human advancement? Even if we need a religion, how can we find it in the turbid rubbish of the red bookshops? It is hard for an educated, decent, intelligent son of Western Europe to find his ideals here, unless be he has first suffered some strange and horrid process of conversion which has changed all his values.

Yet we shall miss the essence of the new religion if we stop at this point. The Communist may justly reply that all these things belong not to his true religion but to the tactics of Revolution. For be believes in two things—the introduction of a New Order upon earth and the method of the Revolution as the only means thereto. The New Order must not be judged either by the horrors of the Revolution or by the privations of the transitionary period. The Revolution is to be a supreme example of the end justifying the means. The soldier of the Revolution must crucify his own human nature, becoming unscrupulous and ruthless and suffering himself a life without security or joy—but as the means to his purpose and not its end.

What, then, is the essence of the new religion as a New Order upon earth? Looking from outside, I do not clearly know. Sometimes its mouthpieces speak as though it was purely materialistic and technical in just the same sense that modern Capitalism is—as though, that is to say. Communism merely claimed to be in the long run a superior technical instrument for obtaining the same materialistic economic benefits as Capitalism offers— that in time it will cause the fields to yield more and the forces of Nature to be more straitly harnessed. In this case there is no religion after all, nothing but a bluff to facilitate a change to what may or may not be a better economic technique. But I suspect that, in fact, such talk is largely a reaction against the charges of economic inefficiency which we on our side launch, and that at the heart of Russian Communism there is something else of more concern to mankind.

In one respect Communism but follows other famous religions. It exalts the common man and makes him everything. Mere there is nothing new. But there is another factor in it which also is not new but which may, nevertheless, in a changed form and a new setting contribute something to the true religion of the future, if there be any true religion. Leninism is absolutely, defiantly non-supernatural, and its emotional and ethical essence centres about the individual’s and the community’s attitude towards the Love of Money.

I do not mean that Russian Communism alters, or even seeks to alter, human nature—that it makes misers less avaricious or spendthrifts less extravagant than they were before. I do not merely mean that it sets up a new ideal. I mean that it tries to construct a framework of society in which pecuniary motives as influencing action shall have a changed shall be differently distributed, and where behavior, which previously was normal and respectable, ceases to be either the one or the other.

In England today a talented and virtuous youth, about to enter the world, will balance the advantages of entering the Civil Service and of seeking a fortune in business; and public opinion will esteem him not less if be prefers the second. Moneymaking, as such, on as large a scale as possible, is not less respectable socially, perhaps more so, than a life devoted to the service of the State or of Religion, Education, Learning, and Art. But in the Russia of the future it is intended that the career of money-making as such will simply not occur to a respectable young man as a possible opening, any more than the career of a gentleman burglar or acquiring skill in forgery and embezzlement. Even the most admirable aspects of the love of money in our existing society, such as thrift and saving, and the attainment of financial security and independence for one’s self and one’s family, whilst not deemed morally wrong, will be rendered so difficult and impracticable as to be not worth while. Everyone should work for the community—the new creed runs—and, if he does his duty, the community will uphold him.

This system does not mean a complete leveling down of incomes—at least at the present stage. A clever and successful person in Soviet Russia has a bigger income and a better time than other people. The Commissar with $25 a week (plus sundry free services, a motor-car, a flat, a box at the ballet, etc., etc.) lives well enough, but not in the least like a rich man in London. The successful Professor or Civil Servant with $30 or $35 a week (minus sundry impositions) has, perhaps, a real income three times that of the proletarian worker, and six times those of the poorer peasants. Some peasants are three or four times as rich as others. A man who is out of work receives half pay, not full pay. But no one can afford on these incomes, with high Russian prices and stiff progressive taxes, to save anything worth saving; it is hard enough to live day by day. The progressive taxation and the mode of assessing rents and other charges are such that it is actually disadvantageous to have an acknowledged income exceeding $40 to $50 a week. Nor is there any possibility of large gains except by taking the same sort of risks as attach to bribery and embezzlement elsewhere—not that bribery and embezzlement have disappeared in Russia or are even rare, but anyone whose extravagance or whose instincts drive him to such courses runs serious risk of detection and penalties which include death.

Nor, at the present stage, does the system involve the actual prohibition of buying and selling at a profit. The policy is not to forbid these professions, but to render them precarious and disgraceful. The private trader is a sort of permitted outlaw, without privileges or protection, like the Jew in the Middle Ages—an outlet for those who have overwhelming instincts in this direction, but not a natural or agreeable job for the normal man.

The  effect of the social changes has been, I think, to make a real change in the predominant attitude towards money, and will probably make a far greater change when a new generation has grown up which has known nothing else. A small, characteristic example of the way in which the true Communist endeavors to influence public opinion towards money is given by the campaign which is going on about the waiters in communal restaurants accepting tips. There is a strong propaganda to the effect that to give or to receive tips is disgusting: tip in a public way, and a not unknown thing for a tip to be refused!

Now all this may prove Utopian, or destructive of true welfare, though, perhaps, not so Utopian, pursued in an intense religious spirit, as it would be if it were pursued in a matter-of-fact way. But is it appropriate to assume, as almost the whole of the English and American press do assume, and the public also, that it is insincere or that it is abominably wicked?