This Soviet World

Anna Louise Strong


“The philosophers have only interpreted the world; our business is to change it.”
‒Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.

Whenever I ask myself what brings increasing visitors to Moscow, what they want here and what they find, and why the eyes of the world turn more and more to the Soviet Union with a questing hope that hardly yet dares call itself belief, there flashes into my mind the remark made to me in 1930 at Dnieprostroy by the young and disillusioned son of a Wall Street millionaire.

Dnieprostroy in those days was the first of the famous giants of the new Soviet Russia, “the largest power dam in the world.”1 Hour after hour we climbed the cliffs and ravines of its mighty construction. We fled from screaming sirens that warned of blasting rock. We saw great stone-crushing plants, saw-mills, locomotive repair shops, temporary power station—all sizable works harnessed to the task of making a greater power station which should in turn serve plants a hundred times their scope. We visited the “socialist city” where discussion raged between advocates of individual cottages or big apartment houses for the future town. We saw hurriedly constructed club houses where thousands of workers busily grabbed knowledge—reading, writing, political economy and the technique of their new job.

Night fell. We stood on the shore of the yet unharnessed river, destined to rise to bury those high banks beneath a man-impounded lake. We far down at the great sweep of electric brilliance that had already shattered the age-old darkness of the Ukrainian steppe. It was then that my companion said: “I think that Dnieprostroy has answered the question that brought me to Russia.”

“What question?” I asked.

“Whether the world is to be changed by trying one at a time to improve human beings or by changing the social environment that makes human beings.”

In the pause that followed the sounds of construction came to us incessantly, rising from the bowels of earth and filling the horizon. The short, sharp puffs of engines, the roar of cliffs torn asunder, the ceaseless beat of mills grinding stone into concrete, the rasp of drills eating down into river granite. Sharpened by night and softened by distance, they blended into a mighty symphony—music of man, the builder, subduing, the earth.

Dark beyond the circling lights lay Hortitz Island, in ancient days the last stand of free-booting bandit chieftains against oppressors. We remembered the husky peasant girl from the island whom we had seen in overalls that morning, gang-boss over twelve men who excavated rock by explosions of liquid air. Dnieprostroy had changed her in a few months from a farm servant to a “brigadier.” We remembered the blacksmith whom we had asked in the glare of foundry fires how he liked his work and who burst forth with fiery will: “You know, we’re going to finish her in 1932”—a simple workman pushing ahead by one year the estimate of Hugh L. Cooper’s world-experienced engineers.2

We recalled how competitions between workers of right and left bank drove the dam ahead, doubling the concrete-laying estimates of the Americans by force of newly awakened will. Signals night by night across the raging torrent told in red and green lights the day’s total, celebrated over-fulfillment of plan by a great red star. Night by night, week by week each bank fought to keep its red star shining. We remembered motion pictures, dramas, concerts, lectures which brought the city’s culture to these thousands who had come from the scattered farms of the Ukraine. The fine new polytechnic institute where workers chosen from the river-gangs were being turned in forty classrooms into engineers. We saw on the high bank the homes of the American consultants, who understood better than the Russians the technique of the great job but were eternally puzzled by its spirit.

Yes, Dnieprostroy gave the answer to my companion’s question. Dnieprostroy was a new form of production under a new social system. It was remaking individuals by wholesale.

Increasingly in the past five years Americans have come to the Soviet Union, scientists, engineers, artists, economists all bent on their own pursuits, dogmatic or bewildered tourists, seeking proof of an old belief or material for a new one. Especially since the crash of 1929 smashed the world which was “inevitably getting better,” they have come, fleeing from the ruins of that earthquake to learn what, if anything, the Soviet Union offers. By no means all of them put their question as clearly as did my young companion; by no means all interpret so swiftly the essence of the first construction job they see. But the question he asked is basically what brings most of them, ab ancient quest of man which has troubled philosophers no less than baffled tourists: “Can our world be remade? And how to remake it?”

The problem is especially pressing upon the American middle class of today, which has seen its old world taken from it in ways that it hardly understands. The independent small property owners, mostly farmers, who formed a hundred years ago 80 per cent of the American people except in the slave South, bequeathed to their descendants ideals of democracy and freedom, the “liberty and equality of men owning their own means of livelihood.”3 But large scale industry, developing through a century, wiped out the small enterprisers, increased the number of salaried employees and made the farmer dependent on banks and markets, thus changing America to a “nation of hired workers.” Only 12 per cent of the people live by ownership of their own property, in place of 80 per cent a century ago.

The myth of property remained long after the reality had vanished. Millions of these salaried people still felt hat they owned something—no longer a store, a small workshop, an unencumbered farm, but savings in stocks, bonds, insurance—which lifted them somewhat above the ranks of laboring hands. Crashingly the world economic crisis destroyed this illusion. As if to emphasize how little control these small people had over their own property, the value of their liquid wealth shrank from twenty-seven billion dollars in 1929 four billion in 1932.4 Millions of the middle class were thrown into the same abyss of ruin with millions of wage-workers; they wait together on bread-lines, study together the government relief programs, hunt together for a boss. For all of them alike, as long as the capitalist world remains, most put their trust in bosses, someone who owns and will give them access to the means of production and of life.

Their situation is the more distressing because for most of our Western world the past hundred years has been what John Strachey aptly calls the “century of the great hope.”5 Millions of men became better fed, better housed, better clothed through the industrial revolution which took production out of the home workshop into the factory and knit together the ends of earth by railroad, steamship, telegraph. Especially America—where the arrival of the new machines and technical methods coincided with a continent-wide expansion into lands of vast wealth, developed by energetic oilers from all nations for the first time unhampered by any remnants of feudalism the belief in inevitable progress and increasing prosperity was both a conscious and unconscious national faith. The little red schoolhouse bade every boy aspire to be president. “Go west, young man.” . . . “Don’t be a bear on America,” said successful plutocrats. But far deeper than these conscious preachings spread the atmosphere of determined optimism which made every man who was not a good booster seem subtly immoral to his friends. Did not the great lands of America, the efficient industries of America, the productive energy of America, offer the basis for a good standard of life for everyone—an “American standard”? It was easy to prove that they did—and do!

What happened to that faith in inevitable progress? If it sell survives in some circles as a despairing habit, elsewhere it has been replaced by belief in inevitable doom. “Inevitable drift to fascism,” “inevitable twilight of the West,” “the old standard of prosperity can never return,” are phrases common on lips that not long since hailed inevitable advance. Others begin a frenzied search into the faiths of past ages, to know if elsewhere than with us abides the truth. These learn that belief in the inevitability of progress has never been a universal faith. It has been confined to definite periods of economic advancement, and to certain nations within those periods or certain classes within nations. Did not whole centuries of the Middle Ages view the world as an essentially unchanging garden of human souls from which religion culled a few for heaven, leaving the rest for hell? Even today do not hundreds of millions of people—those great suppressed races of the East—find life’s processes so fundamentally evil that their essential faith is Buddhism in which Nothingness is bliss?

Even in our West, as capitalism decays into fascism, there arise new denials of the inevitability of progress. Ideals of the past—the Roman Empire, the Germanic gods, the feudal Britain featured by fascist-striving novels—gild with emotional glamor the tenets of fascism: that science and machine production are evil, that democracy, peace and the conquest of poverty are futile dreams of a decadent society, that murderous war is man’s noblest end. For fascism is the last stand of a desperate capitalism which can no longer use the fruits of science and machine production, which dare no longer permit either peace or democracy, since it must brutally refuse to its victims that abolition of poverty which is already technically possible in the world.

Can human reason find a way to reorganize human society—a way which human wills can follow? Must we go backing blindly into the future, cheered now by faith in inevitable progress, damned now by faith in inevitable doom, and claiming from some supernatural world a just and rational balancing of the unjust, irrational chaos found in this? Or can that continuous, collective application of human thought known as science, which we have learned to take as our best, though still unperfected guide in rationalizing and controlling subhuman phenomena, be expanded to rationalize and control our human destiny? Can man master the machines he has made which today threaten increasingly to enslave him? Can he subdue to his will those tremendously productive forces which his science and technical knowledge have released, and which seem adequate to abolish poverty, yet which at present give increasing unemployment, economic crises, Wars?

We are asking, in other words, can men master destiny? Are all those gleams of human reason which have given us increasing dominion over material phenomena but will-o’-the-wisps, luring to a swamp which will engulf us the more the false, brief light they gave? Or are they gleams of dawn that may brighten into an ever-increasing daylight, in which not only a few isolated phenomena but the whole of man’s own nature and his organized society can be planned by human reason and carried through by human wills?

No less than this is the search that brings men over the seas to the Soviet Union. For if to millions in our Western world the century now passing was the century of the great hope, there are other millions in two great half-continents uniting Europe and Asia, who look upon it rather as the century of the great plan. The reference is not to that Five-Year Plan which the Soviet Union made famous, but to a plan far more comprehensive which prepares and includes all five-year plans in all lands and all the future. A plan for remaking the world drawn up eighty-eight years ago on instructions from a London congress of working-men of many nations, and issued in 1848 under the title Communist Manifesto, the work of the German economists Frederick Engels and Karl Marx.

The Communist Manifesto is usually thought of as the defiance flung at the world by an illegal revolutionary party of hunted people. So it was. But it was also man’s first attempt to apply science to the analysis of human society in order to draw up a plan for remaking the world. Previous attempts to analyze the world were exercises of philosophers, not directed towards change. Previous attempts to change the world were confined to threats or exhortations to secure specific conversions or reforms. Many Utopian pictures had existed of how beautiful society might be when once made over. But the Communist Manifesto tried to answer the question: How can the thing be done? Born in the middle years of that century in which the scientific method was consciously remaking the material world, it sought to analyze the elements of human society, the nature and cause of the changes we see in history, for the purpose of producing social change in a desired direction. That is why it claims to be Scientific Socialism.

The followers of Marx see in him the genius who combined the three chief currents of thought of the nineteenth century—classical German philosophy, classical English political economy and French revolutionary doctrines. The philosophic basis of Marxism is “dialectics,” which views every reality, whether of nature, the mind, or society, as in process of continual change through the development and clash of “inner contradictions.” This theory applied to the study of history shows how economic, political and social systems are constantly changing, at times slowly, at times by leaps, catastrophes, revolutions. American capitalism of the Civil War period is not the capitalism of today. The democracy of the New England town-meeting is not the democracy of the modern imperial nation. They may be called by the same but names deceive; the thing changes even while you look at it to disdain or admire. Even your disdain and admiration changes, the meaning of your words and concepts. What was true, right, desirable yesterday may not be true, right, desirable tomorrow. Systems have their day and cease to be.

Is there any law in this change? Is there in this constant interaction and conflict of systems and ideas anything basic, changing which will change the rest? “The economic structure,” says Marx, is “the real foundation. . . . The mode of production . . . determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life.”6 For Marx the fundamental thing about any human society is not its system of ideas or religions, nor the form of government nor the nature of its family life. These things are important bur derivative. They are determined by the ways in which human beings get food, clothing, shelter, by the stage of their advance and the tools they use in these fundamental operations. In a world whose economic structure fails to reward honesty and altruism, a Marxist would not spend his efforts preaching these virtues, but in creating an economic system where honesty really prospered, where each man’s success must be build on the success, rather than the ruin, of others. The new economic system would make new people; under it, education in the new ideals would be swift and hopeful.

How then do economic systems change? Marx finds the key in his theory of “class struggle.” Man’s science and invention create new ways of production, and these in turn create new “classes” of human beings, i.e., groups of people who have different and conflicting relations to production. Between these classes a struggle goes on around the ownership of the process of production, which is the means of life. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”7

Thus at different stages of human history new classes arise from new ways of working and the struggle between them produces social change. Modern capitalism has not done away with class antagonisms, but it has this distinctive feature—it has simplified them. “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into . . . two great classes directly facing each other—bourgeoisie and proletariat,”8 those who live by owning and those who can live only by selling their labor power, by seeking a boss.

Between these two remain for a time the middle classes, distraught survivors of those small property owners and independent craftsmen who once embodied the demand for private property against a feudal past. They suffer deeply under advancing capitalism which dislodges them steadily and painfully into the ranks of hired hands. They struggle against their fate, but their strivings are confused, for their instinctive desire is to go back to small scale property. Their cry is to “share the wealth,” to start over again that old society of small owners which led to the present-day monopolies Which would lead to them again if it could be revived. The right to private property was once revolutionary pledge of freedom, but this also has changed with the passing of history. Private property in farm plots and hand tools freed serfs from feudal masters; private property in steel mills creates a new slavery. Even small ownership today, wherever it survives or comes into being, is at the mercy of large scale finance.

Who owns the world? That is the basic question conditioning all hopes of social change. What is wrong with the world today, according to Marxists, is private ownership of the great productive processes which are socially operated. The way out is not backward to subsistence farms and handicrafts it is forward to social ownership. Not “share the wealth,” but jointly owned wealth, jointly organized by and for all who work. Only thus can the great machines be subjugated; only thus can science and modern technique produce plenty for all mankind. Only thus can the present vision of men into owners and workers be abolished, a division which is wrecking the world by social strife and international war. It must be superseded by one united class of people—joint worker-owners of the world. From this economic equality, all other forms of equality will grow. First a stage of socialism where men have equal access to labor and receive according to their work. Then when the habits of human beings have been changed by joint ownership, will come the stage of communism in which men freely co-operate in work according to their abilities and receive according to their needs.

Who will bring about this change of ownerships? Clearly not the present private owners: their interests lie the other way. Nor can the disintegrating middle classes achieve it, except insofar as they come to understand that their future lies with the workers. Only one class of people can develop the will to carry through this difficult long epoch of change—the working class which is bound to the mighty mechanism of modern production, mastering it yet enslaved by it. Joint ownership s their only path to freedom; when they understand this, they will accomplish it. They are thus the “really revolutionary class,” in whom social ownership of modern production is a living need and can become a flaming passion carrying humanity forward to a higher stage.

The task of every Marxist is to help them understand, to make them “class-conscious,” aware of their power and function as creators of social progress. Millions of Americans resent the very idea of classes, and are indignant at “inflaming class-consciousness” where it does not yet exist. But Marxian classes are not epithets inciting to riot; they are categories in a scientific analysis. Marxists say that unless human society is to go down in a catastrophe of slavery, war and ruin, men must own their tools and the wealth which these create; that tools and wealth have grown too complexly social to be owned individually and must therefore be socially owned; and that only the working class can develop the fighting will to seize the power of ownership and through it remake society. The less the workers are organized, the less conscious they are of their power and function, the more will the coming changes in human society be protracted, painful and blind. The more conscious the workers are of their great task in history, the better they are organized, the more they are able to rally around them the middle classes, the swifter will be the change and the less will be the human suffering.

Two generations of economists in many countries developed the Marxian theory. Lenin built on it the Bolshevik Party which in 1917 carried through the Russian Revolution. Stalin is honored today by Bolsheviks not only as statesman and organizer, but as the far-seeing analyst and guider of social change, who continues and develops the scientific method of Marx, Engels, Lenin. One-sixth of the world today is being remade according to the Marxian program—the first consciously devised pattern that men ever applied to society as a whole.


1.  Since then surpassed by the Boulder Dam.

2.  The workman’s estimate won out. The dam was finished in 1932 a year ahead of schedule.

3.  See Lewis Corey: “Crisis of the Middle Class” The Nation, Aug. 14, 1935.

4.  Figures from Robers R. Doane on liquid wealth of persons with incomes under $5,000. Quoted by Corey.

5.  John Strachey, The Menace of Fascism.

6.  Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

7.  Communist Manifesto, 10-11.

8.  Communist Manifesto, 11.

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