This Soviet World

Anna Louise Strong


“To distinguish those who worked from those who talked.”

Not by accident did the first socialist revolution take place in Russia. The World War imposed great strains on many countries and the chain of world imperialism broke at its weakest link.1 More than any other land, Russia was tormented by war and ravenous for peace. Tsardom, that hideous hangover from the Middle Ages, had lost all moral authority and was hated by the entire people. For decades revolution had been brewing in Russia.2 The World War added the last unbearable pressure and the explosion came.

Not least among the factors which made the revolution possible and helped determine its form was the existence of the Bolshevik Party.3 This was no spontaneous creation, born at the moment of revolt; for fourteen years it had been consciously welded by painstaking thought and desperate struggle. Its traditions indeed went back much further. The whole last half of the nineteenth century advanced thinkers in Russia, under the oppression of tsardom, had sought eagerly for the effective revolutionary path. Through fifty years of torment, sacrifice, heroism, incredible energy, careful study, they had tested many methods. They had tried to educate and organize the peasantry; they had tried the terrorist assassination of tyrants. They had failed. They had checked their failures by the history of other nations and a section of them had come to Marxism as the correct program for remaking the world.

If Marx furnished the general program, it was Lenin who developed the theory and tactics, proletarian revolution, and built the organization for the seizure of power. Bolshevism, as a trend of political thought and a political party, exists since 1903, when the Social-Democratic Party of Russia split into groups known as Bolsheviks (majority) and Mensheviks (minority), which correspond to Communists and Social-Democrats today in other countries. The older leaders wanted to “widen” the Party, to take in all “supporters” and give them all a voice in determining the Party’s program. Lenin, though recognizing that any social change must rely on wide masses, not only of workers but of many other “allies,” insisted that membership in the Party itself “must be given a narrow definition to distinguish those who worked from those who talked.”4

To organize and train the Party of Revolution became thenceforth the central task and the greatest achievement of that world-renowned leader, Lenin, who gave his whole life to the study and practice of the science of political power. Power was to him no mere personal achievement of office; it was the organized lifting of the human race one stage forward in history. He studied how to ride the turbulent upheaval which the conflicts in modern society would inevitably produce, how to prepare and lead men for the seizure of the state and the creation of a new order, how at last to organize them for the conquest of nature and of their own destiny. This was to Lenin the science of power.

Starting with the Marxian thesis that the working class is the group in modern society which can be organized to take power and to build a new order, Lenin created for this class a “vanguard” of leaders. They must be men of intelligence, will, daring; yet they must act in a disciplined manner, reinforcing a common direction. They must make the revolution a life-long profession, steadily studying the economic, political and social forces of the society in which they live. They must apply this knowledge in action. They must take active part not only in elections and political movements, but in strikes, trade union work, demonstrations, distribution of literature and all the other prosaic or dangerous activities through which the working class becomes organized and conscious of its power. They must keep close to the workers, learning from them and assisting them, and win the right to lead by the confidence they inspire.

How are such leaders to be found among the great hordes of the dispossessed and discontented? How, if found, are they to be welded into a disciplined, fighting force? Lenin had no illusions; he knew that the mass of exploited men who are squeezed out by the dislocations of capitalism, and who turn in hope or despair towards communism, contains many fools, knaves, fanatics and self-pitying failures as well as men of intelligence and will. He foresaw a long period of difficult struggle, in which men fit to lead would be tested by fire, men capable of learning would be trained by experience, and others would weed themselves out by their follies. Lenin himself gave most of his years to the slow work of building up and training a not very large but thoroughly tested Party, which could give leadership when the hour of revolution came. I have met simple workers to whom Lenin devoted hours of individual teaching, and who remember today the exact phrases he used with them forty years ago. The making of real Communists able to lead the masses is a long and costly process.

Nothing could be more absurd than the two contradictory views of Communists promulgated today by their opponents. They are usually pictured as planless inciters to violence and riot, people who have a crazy desire for chaos, in the hope that something vaguely called communism may somehow ensue. A more sophisticated view, to which no less a person than Sinclair Lewis falls victim in It Can’t Happen Here, portrays them as brainless sheep required to act in blind obedience to the orders of their superiors for the sake of discipline. Neither of these types could possibly lead a successful strike, much less a revolution. A communist who increased risks by recklessness would be early eliminated; a man who only took orders would be useless as a leader. Communists must learn the difficult combination of intelligence with daring; they must learn to act together but they must all know why.

“What we build cannot be built by passive people,” said one of the secretaries of the Russian Communist Party to me. “We all had strong convictions; we fought for them and went to jail for them,” said another veteran Bolshevik. “Then in jail we fought with our imprisoned comrades over details of past policies, studying and learning from past errors. Often we found that the mistake of a few words in our theory had cost us a year in prison.” Again and again groups which could not agree split off from the others. Lenin made no effort to detain them; he distinguished sharply between those allies with whom co—operation was possible for a longer or shorter period, and the smaller group which would stick through everything. Thus was built up that Party of men who had placed their lives in each other’s hands so often that they could rely on each other with absolute assurance, not through blind submission but through a habit of mutual consultation and swift acceptance of joint decisions.

The most famous picture of the ideal Communist is given by Krupskaia, widow of Lenin, in an article entitled: “What a Communist Should Be Like.” “First of all a Communist is a social person, with strongly developed social instincts, who desires that all people should be well and be happy. Second, he must understand what is happening about him in the world—the mechanism of the existing régime, the history of the growth of human society, the history of economic development, of the growth of property, the division of classes, the growth of state forms. He must clearly picture whither society is developing—to a régime where the happiness of some will not be based on the slavery of others and where there will be no compulsion except strongly developed social instincts. And the Communists must clear the road, as you clear a path in the wilderness, to hasten its coming.

“Third, the Communist must know how to organize creatively. If he is a medical worker, for instance, he must know medicine, then the history of medicine in Russia and other lands, then the Communist approach to the problem of medicine, i.e., how to organize wide masses to create from the ranks of the toilers a powerful sanitary organization in the cause of health. He must know not only what Communism is and what is coming, what his own job in it may be and his approach to the masses. Fourthly, his personal life must be submitted to and guided by the interests of Communism. No matter how much he regrets giving up the comforts and ties of home, he must if necessary cast all aside and go into danger wherever assigned. . . . Body and soul he must be devoted to the interests of the toiling masses, of Communism.”

Men who have risen high in the Communist Party are characterized by these qualities listed by Krupskaia. They are usually reticent about their deepest motives; it is not the thing to gush one’s devotion. One learns of their qualities chiefly through others. Krupskaia, speaking to intimate Party friends at the funeral of her husband Lenin, found the completest expression in the words: “Lenin deeply loved the people.” Radek tells how Stalin, answering greetings sent him by the Party on his fiftieth birthday, “said something which, in the mouth of such a reserved man, sounded as though it came from the very depths of his being. Stalin said that he was ready to shed his blood ‘drop by drop’ for the proletariat.”5

Men who would lead the masses in changing the world by the Marxian method must obviously strive for constant growth in two directions: in ever-deepening understanding of social and economic forces and in ever-widening participation in workers’ struggles. Perhaps the first thing that strikes an outsider is the amount of time which all Communists devote to the study of Marxian theory. Managers of great steel plants and busy county officials under the pressure of harvest will find time, at unearthly hours like eleven at night or seven in the morning, for their study of Marxism or their class in current events, deeming these things. as essential as their other pressing work.

Visitors to the Soviet Union are not infrequently amazed to find that a Party secretary in a rural township can discuss international affairs with an assurance and abundance of detail which few foreign editors of an American metropolitan news-paper can show, and will handle statistics and history with a good deal more ease than the “Brain Trust.” A prominent American politician once expressed to me doubts of the accuracy of the published interview of H. G. Wells with Stalin. Stalin’s references to the Cromwellian revolution seemed to him too detailed to have been available for conversation. “People,” he said, “don’t talk that way” But any Communist in the Soviet Union who did not know the essentials of Cromwellian revolution, and of other historic revolutions from which he is expected to learn, would join a class to “raise his ideological level.” A Communist who allowed himself to become as ignorant of world affairs as is the average American politician would be ruthlessly “cleaned out” of the Party, or told to join the group of “sympathizers” to learn what he has to know.

The emotional vagueness which is a feature of all capitalist political platforms, and which is indeed desired in order to win wide support without being too definite, is the exact opposite of Communist statement. The Communists even seem to be painfully definite, to “take refuge in formulæ,” or to split hairs over the exact interpretation of phrases. All science and technical knowledge, however, advance by just this splitting of hairs to find the exact chemical formula which produces the alloy or the mathematical relation which strengthens the arch of the bridge; discussions in any congress of physiologists or electricians are full of this “dull theory” without which no scientific progress can be attained. Communists take Marxism as such a science; to rise to eminence among them demands years, even decades, of close and penetrating study of social forces. This is no dogma to be learned once for all; it is a developing body of thought, constantly applied to and affected by new conditions. By the very theory of dialectics, these forces are changing. The speeches of Lenin and Stalin and other Party leaders never deal in stirring oratory or spell-binding generalities but in close and careful analysis. Stalin would no more attempt to sway a Communist congress by “force of personality” expressed in brilliant oratory and colorful phrasing, than Edison would have expected to convince a group of American engineers of the reliability of some new formula by emotional words. One such attempt would ruin either an Edison or a Stalin.

But Communists must not only be scientific; they must also learn to work with the masses. In this they face a special difficulty; the man who has thought for years in Marxian categories may find it as hard to explain them to simple people as an electrical engineer would find it to explain the theory of turbines to men in a candle-lighted world. This is more serious for the Communist than for the engineer; for the latter can build his turbines without help from the candle-lighted individuals, but the Communist cannot make a revolution without the people. Fortunately actions may speak as well as words, and all Communists are required to do active work which brings them in touch with the masses. When intellectuals apply for Party membership, it is a common practice to give them some tasks around a factory, such as teaching night classes in Russian language, civics or Marxism, or practical assistance in trade union work. After a year or two of such testing, the opinion of the workers is taken as to whether the candidate is fit to be a Party member.

Any Communist Party at any stage in its development in any country considers persons who cannot co-operate with workers’ movements as unfit for Party membership. In the Soviet Union where the rank and file of non-Party workers have already considerable knowledge of the Party’s ideals, it has become a common thing for them to assist in helping the Party in its selection of members. Two hundred thousand workers who joined the Party some two years ago were actually nominated by the non-Party workers, through repeated meetings and discussions as to what persons in their ranks should be recommended for Party membership. From time to time the Party “cleans out” its membership, and this is always done at open meetings to which all workers of the given institution are invited. Each Communist in the institution must give before this public an extended account of his life and activities, submit to and answer all criticism, and prove before the assembled workers his fitness to remain in the “leading Party.” Members may be cleaned out not only as “hostile elements, double-dealers, violators of discipline, degenerates, career-seekers, self-seekers, morally degraded persons” but even for being merely “passive,” for having failed to keep learning and growing in knowledge and authority among the masses.

People admitted to the Communist Party—this admission demands a period of study and probation—must give considerable time to unpaid “Party work” i.e., the various tasks of strengthening the organization and organizing the masses around it. Having chosen as the chief purpose of their life the achievement of the socialist revolution, they must learn how to build a joint program. They take part in the discussions from which arise the decisions of the Party and they are expected to carry out these decisions energetically but never blindly. For they must know why the decisions are made; they must understand the Party Line and be able to promote it without bothering other people for orders. They must have strong opinions and fight for them; but they must know when to fight and when to yield. If they cannot learn this, they will find themselves outside the Party, thrown out either as “passive” or as “opposition.” It is not an easy lesson; there have been many political mortalities.

Party members must learn to decide and act collectively, not only in determining the general line, but also in deciding their own work in it. They must consult and accept their comrades’ judgment as to where they themselves can be of most use. In the Civil War Communists were expected to be the first to volunteer for every battle-front. In the Soviet Union today they are first to be sent to difficult posts in industry and farming. They may be torn from jobs in which they are successful and sent to work which they hate; they must there-upon cease to hate it and do it well as an important task. I know of a high official who was taken from a train by a telegram sent through an obscure local secretary in a town through which he passed, and ordered to return for a different assignment. But no order is ever the command of a superior officer; it is the decision of a group of comrades with whom one has chosen to work. This is the famous Party discipline; known as “iron” discipline but also as “conscious” discipline, for it is based not on passive submission but on understanding participation and collective choice. The reward for this discipline is conscious participation in the making of history.

The Communists expect not only to lead the masses, but to learn from them in a constant interaction. They must “organize the proletariat”; they must “guide it in its class struggle.”6 They must “see ahead of the working class,” and be the “experienced general staff” which “every army at war must have if it is to avoid certain defeat.”7 But they do not consider themselves a separate caste of leaders, but a “vanguard” intimately a part of the working class they lead. They modify their program to grant temporarily some “backward” demand of the masses, or to include permanently some new form or method which the masses invent. An example of the first was Lenin’s response to the peasants’ demands for splitting up the land, a backward step taken to secure peasant support and “in order that they may educate themselves by fulfilling their desires.” An example of the second was the adoption of “soviets” in government and “artels” in farming, neither of which forms had been foreseen by the Party until they arose. It is the working class which must dictate and not the Party; in 1925 when Zinoviev argued for dictatorship by the Party, Stalin fought against this “narrow point of view,” saying that the confidence between the masses of the people and the Party must not be destroyed by any peculiar Party rights, “because in the first place, the Party might be mistaken, and even if it were not, the masses might take some time to see that it was right.”8

How can three million Communists lead one hundred and seventy million people? Because they are not alien to those millions, but are the most energetic part of them, whose capacity to lead has been repeatedly tested and recognized by the others. Millions of non-Party people today in the Soviet Union work loyally, even enthusiastically under Party direction, yet do not venture to call themselves Communists. One of my best friends was a woman who gave her life to the care of homeless children, and who said to me once: “My life began with the Soviet Power; it alone gave me the chance to fight for children. . . . I care more for the Party’s success than for anything in life.” Yet when her fellow-workers voted her “worthy of being a Communist,” she declined the honor, knowing she could not honestly join while she disagreed on one or two points in the Party program.

A fifty-two-year-old wheelwright, Rosenberg, whom I met in the Jewish Autonomous Territory of Birobidjan, had courageously dismantled his home in the Ukraine and taken his family of ten to pioneer in the Far East. He had fought through incredible hardships to build a collective industry which made carts; he was now a member of the city government giving much unpaid time to civic work. “When the Party decided to develop Birobidjan,” he explained, “I knew it would be a great future. It goes higher and higher to the building of socialism. I myself can’t build it, but if I work and others work, we’ll build it.” Few could have expressed the Communist goal more sincerely than Rosenberg, yet he did not think of joining the Party. “I don’t know enough,” he said. “I am just studying the first political courses. Serious reading is not so easy for me. I am fifty-two years old.”

In the Far North fourteen years ago I met Rimpalle, who had risked his life to run the Finnish border and “help the Revolution.” He organized the first quarries and mines in a hungry Arctic land; he created a trade union, a co-operative and a night-school for illiterate natives of the forests. He made $100,000 for the state that first summer and got for himself—it was the time of War Communism—only “rations of potatoes and good, fat gravy and one resoling of my boots.” Rimpalle said to me: “It’s a useful job. Up here so near the border and the propaganda of the White Finns, we needed to have an industry to give food to the people.” He was already a candidate for the Communist Party, expecting to be admitted to full membership in a few months.

These examples show what is required of Communists. Devoted activity under Communist direction, such as the Jewish wheelwright gave, is not enough. Ninety per cent allegiance, such as the social worker offered, is not enough. Nor was it enough for Rimpalle to work self-sacrificingly to increase socially owned wealth; he must understand consciously the political purpose of his work. I have in the course of fifteen years in the Soviet Union met an occasional Communist who was a grafter, and many more who were stubborn bureaucrats and unenlightened fanatics. But I have also seen how the Party throws out dead wood—not always accurately—and renews itself from the working class it leads.

Such is the organized Party which carried through the Revolution and which today welds into shape the great masses of the Soviet Union, with its vast distances, its once backward populations, its hundred and eighty-two nationalities, its foes on all borders. It succeeds by choosing its members with discrimination, by keeping them firmly organized, forever studying and continuously on the job.

The Communist Party does not expect to last forever. “When classes disappear and the dictatorship of the proletariat dies out, the Party also will die out.”9 It sees its task as belonging to a definite stage in human society, with a beginning, a development and an end. No other political party in the world has this type of historic consciousness, this supreme confidence; all others live from election to election, and make no long time plans. The Communist Party considers that it has a specific job in history and confidently expects to stay in power for the time required to carry it through.


1.  Hillquit called the Russian revolution an “historical accident,” since it occurred in a backward peasant land. Norman Thomas on the contrary holds it occurred just because the Russians were so backward that they would endure a dictatorship such as no other people would stand. Stalin says: “The objective conditions for the revolution exist throughout the whole system of imperialist world economy, which is an integral unit.” Answering the theory that the revolution must come first “where the proletariat forms the majority, where culture is more advanced, where there is more democracy,” he says: “No, not necessarily where industry is most developed; it will be broken where the chain of imperialism is weakest, for the proletarian revolution is the result of the breaking of the of world imperialism at its weakest link.” From Stalin’s Lectures to Sverdlov Students.

2.  Marx noted chis as far back as 1877 in his Letter to Zorge. See Letters of Marx and Engels.

3.  Today called Communist Party (of Bolsheviks).

4.  Lenin’s Account of Second Congress, Selected Works, II

5.  Radek, Problems of Soviet Literature, 144. [ComLib/Edward: This seems to refer to Radeks speech at the Soviet Writers Congress in August 1934. A copy is available here:]

6.  Program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

7.  Stalin, Leninism, I, 88-89, Cooperative Publishers, Moscow.

8.  Stalin, Leninism, I, 51.

9.  Stalin, Leninism, I, 96.

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