This Soviet World

Anna Louise Strong


“The conquest by the proletariat of such political power as will enable it to suppress all resistance on the part of the exploiters.”
Program of Russian Communist Party.
“The dictatorship of the proletariat is not an end in itself. . . . (It) is a means, a path leading to socialism”
Stalin in Address to Sverdlov Students, June 1925.

Most Americans shrink from the word “dictatorship.” “I don’t want to be dictated to,” they say. Neither, in fact, does anyone. But why do they instinctively take the word in its passive meaning, and see themselves as the recipients of orders? Why do they never think that they might be the dictators? Is that such an impossible idea? Is it because they have been so long hammered by the subtly misleading propaganda about personal dictatorships, or is it because they have been so long accustomed to seek the right to life through a boss who hires them, that the word dictatorship arouses for them the utterly incredible picture of one man giving everybody orders?

No country is ruled by one man. This assumption is a favorite red herring to disguise the real rule. Power resides in ownership of the means of production—by private capitalists in Italy, Germany and also in America, by all workers jointly in the USSR. This is the real difference which today divides the world into two systems, in respect to the ultimate location of power. When a Marxist uses the word “dictatorship,” he is not alluding to personal rulers or to methods of voting; he is contrasting rule by property with rule by workers.

The heads of government in America are not the real rulers. I have talked with many of them from the President down. Some of them would really like to use power for the people. They feel baffled by their inability to do so; they blame other branches of government, legislatures, courts. But they haven’t analyzed the real reason. The difficulty is that they haven’t power to use. Neither the President nor Congress nor the common people, under any form of organization whatever, can legally dispose of the oil of Rockefeller or the gold in the vaults of Morgan. If they try, they will be checked by other branches of government, which was designed as a system of checks and balances precisely to prevent such “usurpation of power.” Private capitalists own the means of production and thus rule the lives of millions. Government, however chosen, is limited to the function of making regulations which will help capitalism run more easily by adjusting relations between property and protecting it against the “lawless” demands of non-owners. This constitutes what Marxists call the dictatorship of property. “The talk about pure democracy is but a bourgeois screen,” says Stalin, “to conceal the fact that equality between exploiters and exploited is impossible. . . . It was invented to hide the sores of capitalism . . . and lend it moral strength.”1

Power over the means of production—that gives rule. Men who have it are dictators. This is the power the workers of the Soviet Union seized in the October Revolution. They abolished the previously sacred right of men to live by ownership of private property. They substituted the rule: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.”

What characteristics of the new régime most obviously showed its dictatorial character? They were the following:

First, the Bolsheviks took power without waiting for a majority vote—in the elections to the Constituent Assembly they had just received nine million out of thirty-six million ballots—but relying on their overwhelming majority among the industrial workers, and an overwhelming superiority in that part of the army near the capital cities. They maintained power by a shrewd analysis of social classes, and by satisfying the demands of the sections of the population whose support they needed.

Second, they organized the new government on the basis of the workers’ organizations, thus dis-franchising those classes which lived by private ownership, and giving a greater proportionate representation in the higher government bodies to workers than to peasants during the first eighteen years when equal voting by great masses of illiterate small owners would have wrecked policies of social ownership.2

Third, they took control of schools, press and all means of expression, and while encouraging the widest latitude of criticism by workers interested in augmenting or improving the public properties, suppressed any expressions which seemed to the government likely to strengthen the rights of private property or injure the efficiency of socially owned production. At certain periods when they felt their social ownership of production threatened, whether by sabotage, graft, or the strengthening of private owners, they suppressed these dangers as drastically as they thought necessary by means which varied from economic discrimination to deportation or shooting.

These are real characteristics which constitute dictatorship rather than any personal prestige of Stalin. Great men attain leadership under all forms of government; the technical forms through which Stalin leads are fully as democratic as those by which an American president governs, and infinitely more democratic than the dominance of a Morgan. Nor is the existence of a single Party necessarily a bar to democratic self-expression, which can find its way as well through one party as a dozen, as later chapters will show. But the above characteristics are definite indications of dictatorship, a rule to which not all men have equal access. They are the tactics of all owners in all countries and all periods of history when they feel themselves threatened. They are the tactics to which owners of private property resorted in Italy and Germany when the rising votes of communist and socialist workers threatened their ownership. They are resorted to today in sections of America where property feels threatened, whether by farmhands in Imperial Valley or sharecroppers in Arkansas and Alabama. They will be resorted to on a wider scale if American capitalism really feels itself slipping. Nothing in Soviet history indicates that the Bolsheviks were any more “dictatorial” or ruthless than owners of property anywhere under similar stresses. Certainly they were far less bloody and oppressive than any of the “dictatorships of the right”—whether in Hungary, Finland, China, Italy or Germany—established in retaliation or prevention by private ownership which really felt itself in danger.

What were the conditions which made the Bolsheviks establish a dictatorship? Why could they not wait until they were voted into power, and then take over one by one, by government decree or by taxation, the large-scale properties which they believed must be socially owned? The history of fascist seizures of power in face of the threat of socialist voting is beginning to give the world the answer to this question. The Bolsheviks knew the answer from their Marxian analysis of history. No owning class ever gave up ownership without struggle. The holding of government office is not itself power.

The power of ownership over the means of life is the day-by-day power which works incessantly, buying brains, corrupting or confusing governments, persistently re-establishing itself against any “will of the people.” Anyone who has experienced in a single American city, as I have in Seattle, the intensity and variety of methods which the capitalists use to fight so mild a thing as public ownership of street-cars, anyone who knows what they did to the war-time government-owned railroads, or today to the Tennessee Valley Corporation, must realize the resources possessed by capitalism against anything so mild as a popular vote. When they can no longer prevent a municipally owned utility, they corrupt it. They make it inefficient through graft or sabotage; they subordinate it to control by private banks. Meantime they continue to play through all the arts of high-paid propaganda on the minds of the electors, who waver and turn to other cures.

“The change from capitalism to communism is a whole epoch of history,” said Lenin. “Till it is ended, the exploiters inevitably have the hope of restoration.” Even after capitalists are overthrown on a local scale or on the scale of a single country, they remain for some time “stronger than the workers who overthrew them.” Their strength lies in their foreign connections with international capital, in the money and movable property which they still possess, in their organizing and administrative ability, their superior education, their knowledge of all the secrets of administration, their superiority in the art of war. They are furthermore helped by the force of habit and traditional ways of thinking which remain even in the minds of workers and especially in large sections of the middle classes for a considerable period after capitalism is overthrown.3

Marxists therefore hold that the working class must maintain a dictatorial power for an “entire epoch of history” both to prevent attempts at restoration of capitalism and to re-educate the entire population in habits suited to socially owned production. “You will have to go through fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil wars and international wars,” said Marx to the workers, “not only to change external conditions, but in order to change yourselves and to make yourselves fit for the exercise of political power.”4

The tactics used by the dictatorship in the Soviet Union were conditioned by the economic development of the land and its international relations. In the first years they were affected by foreign intervention and civil war; in later, years they conformed to and created the rapid economic advance and increasing international prestige of the country. Four chief epochs may be noted: the period of Workers’ Control in the first year of the Revolution; War Communism for the two and a half years of intervention; the New Economic Policy from 1921 to 1928; and the final offensive against capitalism ushered in by the first Five-Year Plan.

The new workers’ state inherited a country economically broken by the strain of World War. Peasants were seizing lands of landlords; factories had closed and their workers were hungry; banking was demoralized by the rapid fall of the currency; soldiers without food or munitions were fleeing home from the front. “Peace, land and bread,” was the cry of the country. The capitalists could not satisfy it and this brought the Bolsheviks to power. They at once gave land to the peasants, repudiated all state debts, nationalized banks and transport and created a state monopoly of foreign trade. Industry was left in private hands, but “workers’ control” committees were established from the workers in each industry. These examined all accounts, studied the source of raw materials and fought to keep up production against the attempt of private capitalists to close down the factories as unprofitable. Internal trade remained private; on the second day of the Revolution a proclamation urged traders to continue business as usual. A policy however was announced for the gradual combining of factories into large-scale trusts, which should then be nationalized, and for the gradual socializing of internal trade through co-operatives.

These policies—the normal reaction of a workers’ government wishing to rebuild the economic life of a ruined country with as little upheaval and disruption as possible, for the sake not of profit but of human welfare—united around the government the overwhelming majority of the population, including both workers and peasants. Opposition came from landlords, capitalists and the upper strata of engineers, civil servants and professional people; but if these used violence or sabotage against the new policy, they were suppressed by governing organizations composed of great masses of the common people.

A vivid example of dictatorship in this period is given by Lenin, in a contrast drawn between dictatorship by property and dictatorship by workers. “The state has forcibly to evict a family from a house. This is done time and again by the capitalist state and will be done by our proletarian state. . . . The capitalist state evicts the workers’ family which has lost its breadwinner and is unable to pay rent.” After describing the enforcement by a squad of police of the rights of property against poor people, Lenin continues with the picture of the dispossession of a rich man by the workers’ state.

“Our detachment of workers’ militia consists, let us say, of fifteen people—two sailors, two soldiers, two class-conscious workers (of whom only one, let us assume, is a member of our Party or a sympathizer), one intellectual, and eight members of the toiling poor; at least five are necessarily women, domestic servants, unskilled workers, and so on. They come to the rich man’s house, inspect it, and find that there are five rooms occupied by two men and two women. “This winter, citizens, you must confine yourselves to two rooms and place two rooms at the disposal of two families that are now living in cellars. For the time being, until with the help of engineers (you are an engineer, I think?) we build good dwellings for all, you will have to put yourselves to inconvenience. Your telephone will serve ten families. This will save about a hundred hours’ work in running to the stores and so forth. The student citizen in our detachment will write out two copies of the text of this state order and you will be kind enough to give us a signed declaration that you undertake to abide by it faithfully.”5 This is a vivid example of a dictatorship over property enforced by great masses of the common people.

Under pressure of foreign intervention and civil war, the limited nationalization of “Workers’ Control” merged into the period of “War Communism.” Attacking armies separated Soviet Russia for two and a half years from her chief food and fuel bases. The granary of the Ukraine, the cotton of Turkestan, the coal of the Donetz, the oil of Baku, the mines of the Urals were in enemy hands. The dictatorship adopted “War Communism,” the tactics of a besieged land. It requisitioned all grain and necessities of life, and rationed them under direct government control; it seized all factories and used the broken machines of one as spares to repair the scarcely less broken machines of another. This policy alienated large sections of the peasantry by crop requisition. It ruined industry more thoroughly than any modern industry has ever been ruined, being an efficient device for using up the last ounce of raw material and the last spare bolt. But the policy of “War Communism” enabled an already exhausted land to carry on for two and a half more years against the attacking armies of the world.

Soviet power survived. With the coming of peace Lenin at once introduced the New Economic Policy, an attempt to build up the country’s economic life as rapidly as possible by a “two-sided process of the development of capitalism and the development of socialism.”6 Grain requisitions were replaced by limited taxes with permission for free trade. Private capitalists were allowed to enter both trade and industry, the state retaining the “commanding heights” of land, finance, heavy industry, transport, and foreign trade. This policy brought the peasant, small enterpriser and professional classes back to loyalty—a wavering loyalty, for if some had been won to socialism, others now hoped to grow personally rich. Capitalist nations abroad echoed the belief that Russia was swinging back to the ancient order. But the Soviet workers, led by the Communists, gave time on holidays to great collective drives for repairing factories, making street-cars and new equipment as donations to their country. During “War Communism” they had worked for rations; now they worked for low but steadily increasing wages, building up out of their own sacrifice the first socialist accumulation which should give them economic power for the final offensive against capitalism. Thus industry which in 1921 produced one-fifth the pre-war standard was driven by fivefold increase in 1928 to “normalcy.”

Russia in 1928 was only half socialist. Most of industry was socially owned but farming was in the hands of peasant proprietors, the stronger of whom were petty capitalists, struggling not only to survive but to grow. Class strife went on between these emerging rural capitalists and the impoverished farmhands. Youth was leaving the farms and flooding the cities with unemployment. Discussion had racked the Communist Party as to whether socialism could be built in a single country, particularly a backward peasant land. Following the analysis of Stalin, the Party decided that it could be done by swiftly creating modern heavy industry and simultaneously industrializing farming. The Soviet Union plunged into that now famous struggle known as the Five-Year Plan, and emerged with large-scale industry and the largest scale farming in the world, both of them socially owned.

It was a bitter fight, carried through against the upper sections of the peasantry and part of the middle class. An epidemic of sabotage broke out in the industries among the higher engineering staff, who had consciously or half-consciously expected to advance towards privilege and wealth. Men high in the canning industry put broken glass, animal hair and fish tails into food destined for workers. A township veterinary who hated collectivization inoculated six thousand horses with plague. An irrigation engineer tried to discourage the policy of settling yellow-skinned nomads on the soil by using antiquated surveys which he knew would not deliver the water. These cases and thousands more are taken from confessions of men who were later repentant. The dictatorship fought back, shooting the most serious offenders, imprisoning and exiling others. The energy of loyal workers and engineers carried through the Five-Year Plan. Its success won over many earlier saboteurs so that by 1931 Stalin was able to announce that the intellectuals were turning towards the Soviet Government, and should be met by a policy of co-operation.7

The most spectacular act of ruthlessness which occurred in those years was the exiling of several hundred thousand kulaks—rural property-owners who lived by trade, money-lending or by exploiting small mills, threshers, and hired labor—from farm homes in European Russia and the Ukraine to Siberia or the northern woods. The usual assumption outside the Soviet Union is that this exiling occurred through arbitrary action by a mystically omnipotent G.P.U. That organization did of Course organize the deportation and final place of settlement in labor camps or on new land. But the listing of kulaks who “impede our farming by force and violence” was done by village meetings of poor peasants and farmhands who were feverishly and not too efficiently organizing collectively owned farms with government loans of machinery and credits. The meetings I personally attended were as seriously judicial as a court trial in America. One by one there came before the people the “best families,” who had grabbed the best lands, exploited labor by owning the tools of production as best families normally and historically do, and who were fighting the rise of the collective farm—which had the right to take the best lands away from them—by every means up to arson, cattle-killing and murder. Obviously the situation offered chances for wreaking private grudges. Obviously the occasional agitator from the city was unconcerned with kulak “rights.” The meeting of farmhands and poor peasants discussed each case in turn, questioned the kulaks, allowed most of them to remain but asked the government to deport some as “trouble-makers.”

It was a harsh, bitter and by no means bloodless conflict, but not one peculiar to Russia. I was reminded of it again in 1933 by the cotton-pickers’ strike in San Joaquin Valley of California. California local authorities deported pickets who interfered with the farming of ranchers; Soviet authorities deported kulaks who interfered with the collectively owned farming of the poor. In both cases central governments sent commissions to guard against the worst excesses. But the “property” which could count on government support was in California that of the wealthy rancher; in the USSR it was the collective property of the poor.

Through all these struggles of eighteen years in the Soviet Union the Marxists had guessed right—one class held firm. Steadily the industrial workers supported and fought for their socialist state. Theirs was the dictatorship, the ownership, the rule. Led by Communist analysis, they made alliances with other parts of the population—with the great mass of the people to overthrow big landlords and capitalists and later with the poorer peasants to overthrow the richer. The middle classes changed back and forth in their loyalty; but the workers held through.

Today the chief fight of the dictatorship is against corruption and bureaucracy. The workers, in other words, struggle with their own government, not to overthrow it but to improve it by weeding out inefficiency. A vivid example of this was given by a letter from three railway-workers published in Pravda. They told how the workers of their station, hearing that Sizran station was considered a model, chose three delegates to go and study it. “The election fell on us. However, to our great regret, we convinced ourselves that Sizran is no model.” The letter proceeds to expose fictitious bookkeeping which compelled engineers to list repeated repairs as new in order to protect the reputation of the repair shops, and other false entries which hid inefficiencies. They noted employees who had been demoted for calling too open attention to troubles. They did a thorough and technically accurate job of debunking Sizran, a station on a different railroad to which they had gone in search of good methods. Imagine workers from a station on the Erie giving this attention to study, analyze and reform a station on the Pennsylvania! Imagine their securing ready access to all the records of an alien line! Imagine this as routine news in a metropolitan daily paper, leading to check-up and reprimands of railway superintendents for inaccuracy in reporting their work!

This is today’s routine in the Soviet Union. Scores of letters like this appear daily in the press throughout the land. Some of them are ironic, some statistical, some outraged. But all of them express men who know themselves owners, and through ownership dictators of the land in which they live.


1.  Stalin, Leninism, I, 46.

2.  This difference is commonly stated as a five to one proportion, but such was not the case. Industrial districts had in the higher organs one representative for 25,000 electors, while rural districts had one for 125,000 population, which included children. The proportion is thus nearer two to one, a much less disproportion than exists (in the reverse direction) between rural and city votes for many state legislatures in America. This disproportion in the Soviet Union was abolished when the rural districts reached literacy and large-scale farming. See next chapter.

3.  Quoted and condensed from Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, Chap. 3.

4.  Marx, Revelations on the Communist Trial in Cologne, 1851.

5.  Lenin, Will the Bolsheviks Retain Power? published October, 1917.

6.  Stalin, Leninism, I, 314.

7.  Speech delivered at Conference of Leaders of Industry, June 23, 1931.

Table of contents

previous page start next page