Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Why reading what the Soviet Union put out about itself is useful--Afanasyev, vanguard

Because the story is slightly different than what other folks have said. I was leafing through a book by V. Afanasyev written in the '70s, put out by Progress Publishers, that dealt with the Soviet Union's take on U.S. capitalism around that time and I found a fascinating passage in the more introductory sections that talked about the Soviet Union. About it's history, etc.. Pretty standard stuff, and given in a thumbnail form, but he did go into how the USSR thought of its workers as being in the vanguard of society, even though Russia at that time was mostly a rural society.

It turns out that in the cities there had been a large amount of investment in factories and industry from the late 19th century up to the Revolution. Possibly not as much as Afanasyev portrays, but still substantial. Along with the new industries came the most up-to-date ways of organizing industry, which meant huge factories, huge enterprises, controlled in a corporate way. The workers involved were organized into the system.

Now, it seems that a lot of the claims to 'vanguard' come from the potential for development that Russia industry had at the time. Whatever the tendencies, industry was still developing, but if it had continued to develop in a capitalist way who knows, it could have developed into an ultra-modern system, in the cities, while being surrounded by a much less developed countryside.

All of this takes place on the background of 'imperialism' or imperial-colonial relations, something that in the case of Russia and how Russia has been portrayed by its defenders is something much less clear than it appears. Russia, even though some of its industry was financed by capitalists in countries outside of it, wasn't a colony of anyone. Instead, it was a colonizer. It was an Empire. Both it and Great Britain had played the 'Great Game' in Central Asia, the result of which was that the Caucuses, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, etc... were absorbed into the Russian Empire. Even Siberia, the vast expanse of the Eurasian continent that we see on the maps, was only added to Russia in the 17th century. Because of this, it's inaccurate to see Russia as a colonial country that was the victim of imperialism.

Instead, it makes more sense to see Russia as a late modernizer, or late developer, with reference to economy and the West. No matter that it bordered Asia, Russia was part of the Western economy, as well as its political life. As a late developer it had the benefit of potentially having the best organization that had been developed previously in other countries with industry at its service. That these ways of organizing things were also oppressive is beside the point.

We may look back at that time now and see the factories and the industry as being the complete opposite of what's desirable, but the socialists and Communists of the era saw the large scale industry as having components that made it amenable to socialization. While people worked doing mind numbing repetitive tasks from dawn to dusk that exhausted their muscles, the thought was that the way factories were coordinated exemplified at least some level of mass cooperation that could be transformed with socialist restructuring into full cooperation. Marx thought at one time, even though I can't remember the reference in his works, that the de-skilling of labor would eventually give way to more creative cooperative forms of arranging work based not on benevolence from the people organizing it but on the fact that cooperation makes better use of people's skills than does doing simple, repetitive, tasks over and over. Whether that was realized or not remains to be seen. Ford, scientific management, Taylorism... in any case the idea that Marx had seems to have to do with the notion that increasing efficiency through the division of labor may not just mean reduction of complex tasks to small ones but also mean the structure of organizing those small tasks in cooperation with each other to ensure greater work flow. It was this work flow that would be thought to presage the socialist organization of labor, on top of formal structures of cooperation.

So through this sort of management applied to factories, that existed in large cities in Russia, the Bolsheviks were claiming that the working class was the most advanced and that through its work it was predisposed to socialist, cooperative, thinking that would enable it to take over factories and form the germ of socialist society.

All of this coexists somewhat tenuously with the state of the rural farmers, referred to as the peasantry, in Russia, who despite being formally freed from serfdom retained many, many, pre-capitalist forms of economic and cultural structure within them. One could say that there was an opportunity there for socialization of factories in the big cities combined with redistribution of land and power in the countryside in a way that built on the collective village traditions, and that both could combine to present a non-capitalist road to development for the future.

In any case, the city would lead the country to the future.

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