This Soviet World

Anna Louise Strong


“Among the masses of people, we are but drops in the ocean, and we will be able to govern only when we properly express that which the people appreciate. Without this the Communist Party will not lead the proletariat, the proletariat will not take the lead of the masses, and the whole machine will fall to pieces.”
Lenin at Eleventh Party Congress.

If by some cataclysm of war a section of the Soviet Union should be cut off from Moscow and compelled for a time to exist alone, government in these isolated areas would continue unchanged except insofar as it was crushed by invading armies. A picturesque example of this was given me by a Yakut woman, who boasted that her district of forests and tundra a thousand miles north of the Trans-Siberian Railway had had “Soviet Power” continuously since 1917. The years of civil war that raged along the railway had never penetrated so far north. To my query how this backward bit of territory knew what policies to follow she replied that a few Bolshevik exiles had remained among them and they got occasional news from Moscow over the Great Northern Telegraph which traversed their region. Many other sections of the country were isolated during the Civil War for considerable periods, yet continued to follow a common policy.

For eighteen years the authority of the Communist Party in the life of the Soviet Union has grown steadily stronger; it has kept power now for a considerably longer time than any Party in any other country in the world. The accumulating discontents which in other lands throw out governments do not seem to worry it. The Party itself organizes discontent for the sake of progress. In spite of exposures of graft, inefficiency, bureaucracy, and stupid excesses—indeed through these very exposures—the hold of the Communist Party increases.

To manage the state affairs of the most extensive republic on earth—covering one-sixth of the world’s land surface—might be considered enough for a political party. But to run the state is only one of the Communists’ tasks. For their plan of remaking the world the apparatus of government is insufficient. Great popular organizations like trade unions, co-operatives, physical culture societies and scores of voluntary social agencies must also move in a common, yet flexible plan. But the action of these organizations must be voluntary, arousing the initiative of their members, or their energy and life will die.

How then does the Communist Party lead the country? By the energy and discipline of its members, their contact with all organizations in the land, and by the authority of repeated success. In all government bodies and voluntary organizations the Communists belonging to them act together to induce them to follow the “Party Line.” This line, however, while firm, is not rigid; Party policy itself grows from the discussions and active struggles of its members, each of whom is in touch with some aspect of the country’s life. The members serve as a living conscious bridge between the Party and all the other organizations. They explain to the Party the desires of the people with whom they are associated, and explain to the people the policies developed by the Party in regard to their demands.

The primary Party organizations are set up in factories, offices, state farms, red army units, universities, villages, in any institution which has three Party members or more. In a typical iron and steel plant in the Ukraine, for instance, where 1,600 persons—workers, engineers, office staff—work in the rolling mill, 55 are Party members, 85 belong to the Young Communist League and 30 are enrolled as “sympathizers,” an organized group which is studying Communism with the presumable intent to join the Party. One Communist is paid a salary by the Party as full time organizer; the others are scattered in ordinary jobs through all the working gangs of the factory. Each of them has his assigned “Party work.” Some are editors of the sixteen “wall newspapers” which are posted in every working gang of the mill, filled with news and discussions of the gang’s successes and failures. Others read regular newspapers aloud during lunch hour and conduct discussions on current events. Others stir up “socialist competition” between different working gangs so that skill and production may increase. Others are active in the trade union or help promote sports. Every Communist, Young Communist and sympathizer does some unpaid public work of this kind; those who had none or failed to do it would be dropped from the Party as “passive.”

Some years ago I visited an open meeting of a Party organization in a factory near Moscow. Not only the Communists but many non-members had gathered to hear the semi-annual report of the Party secretary of the plant. As he sat down a storm of questions arose. “Why have we no report about the Young Pioneers? . . . Has the Party looked into the question of our workers’ club building and observed that we have no summer playground? Why haven’t we a sanitary organization? Why haven’t we a ‘Friends of Aviation’? Does the co-operative housing organization report regularly to the Party, and if so, when are we going to get the houses?” From the secretary’s answers it became clear that this factory had many voluntary organizations among its members: a “Friends for Children,” an “International Labor Defense,” an organization to “Increase Production,” a “Society for Contacts with Rural Districts,” and many more. All of these had been launched with Party co-operation, usually first as small committees, and had then grown into larger organizations by the influx of people who were not Communists. The number of organizations that would be started would depend partly on popular demand and partly on the capacity of Party members to stimulate and organize interest. It would be difficult for an organization to start without Party sanction; it would not be precisely forbidden, but a score of difficulties would discourage it. On the other hand, if a popular demand arose for any new kind of organization—from a drama club to an Anti-Tuberculosis Society—some Party members would take part in it either on their own initiative or by request of the workers or the Party, and would be expected by everyone to keep the organization in touch with any Party policies which affected it.

There were several ironic remarks and cat-calls in the meeting during a report by the plant’s director, who was clearly not popular with the workers. I happened to know that the Party secretary had recently recommended to the higher organizations that the director be removed to some other plant where he could profit by the mistakes he had made in this one and start without the accumulated friction. The manager also knew that his transfer had been recommended, and quite possibly concurred. At the meeting, however, the Party secretary said no word of this recommendation but put himself in the unenviable position of explaining the manager’s actions to a group which was almost howling him down. Both he and the manager were disciplined Communists, who did not wish to increase dissension but to work together for the good of the plant.

The proportion of Communists in rural districts is very much less than in factories, as might be expected from the fact that the factory workers were the most active elements in the Revolution and also more literate than the peasants. A typical Party organization in a village of two hundred families—I take here the collective farm “Postishev” in the Ukraine—has five Party members, ten “sympathizers,” and twenty-seven members of the Young Communist League. The latter organization is nearly always much larger than the Party in the villages, since it is the youth on the farms which is progressive.

Of the five Party members in this village, one of them, Povlichenko, is organizer, giving full time to Party work. He was born in the village, worked some years in a city factory, and was sent back in 1931 on Party order to help organize collectivization. From comments of peasant women I judge he was high-handed in that period and stirred up some antagonisms which he has not lived down. He is, however, a very energetic person, a once half-starved, half-educated farmhand with a passion for schooling which the Revolution enabled him to realize. He runs the Party school where members study Party history and current politics, teaches an elementary course in Leninism and the Soviet Constitution for the sympathizers, and organizes talks and discussions on special events, such as Party congresses, or new decrees affecting the farms. At the time of my visit these remote villagers were studying, more or less assiduously, the reports of Dimitroff and others at the recent congress of the Communist International. Povlichenko also takes active part in pushing the local school, the village club, the motion pictures, the local newspaper and all forms of education and culture.

The second Communist is a local peasant, president of the collective farm since 1931, but now leaving for a three-year course in an agricultural school. His salary comes from the farm, not from the Party. The third is an electrician sent to this village because “we needed a Communist in every field brigade.” When he came he was entirely ignorant of farming, but his craft made him useful in a village just beginning to import electricity from the great power plant on the Dnieper. Recently the Party planned to transfer him to township work, but the local farmers checked this by electing him president of the village. “The Party,” he said, “always considers the desires of the masses.” He may or may not have helped organize those desires. For Party work he is attached to the third field brigade and is also adviser of the Young Communist League. The fourth party member is a woman who earns her living as saleswoman in the co-operative store, and whose Party assignment is to help the village women organize a day nursery, a first-aid society and get vacation on pay from the collective farm at time of childbirth. This right is automatic in state-owned enterprises, but not all the farmers’ organizations give it yet. The fifth Party member is manager of the local co-operative store, who, since he makes twenty or more trips to the city every month, is used by the Party for city contacts rather than for regular village work.

It is plain that these five Party members have their hands on the whole life of the village. Besides their general work, the first three each keep in touch with a different field brigade of forty or more workers whom they are expected to know personally. “I must know what they want, their economic conditions and working abilities. This is called political watchfulness. If we did not know this, it would be bad for us. We could not possibly lead the masses,” said Povlichenko.

The Party organization of this village is open to criticism from strict Party principles in that its members hold too many local government jobs. They are supposed to keep a better balance between office-holders and members “in production,” and to stimulate and train non-Party people for some of the government work. Hogging the offices by Party members is considered a bad sign; it means that they have not stirred up wide enough interest. The Postishev organization is trying to do this through their work with the ten sympathizers and the Young Communists, each of whom has also Party work of a less responsible character. They read and discuss the newspapers in the field brigades, organize traveling libraries, chess games, football teams, initiate competitions in reaping and threshing, help start the musical or dramatic circle, or assist in the “cottage laboratory” where sixty farmers are studying scientific methods.

These primary Party organizations are correlated by the township1 organization which in turn comes under the larger regions up to the All-Union organization. The lower bodies elect the higher but are in turn subordinate to their decisions; the system is known as “democratic centralism.” The highest power within each organization is vested in its general meeting or congress which elects a standing committee to serve between sessions. The highest power of the entire Party is the All-Union Party Congress and between its sessions the Central Committee. The Central Committee organizes a political bureau for the day-by-day determination of political policy, an organizational bureau for general guidance of organizational work, and a secretariat. Stalin is general secretary of the Party, but there are several other secretaries who share this work.

Some years ago [ saw a district congress of the Communist Party in action in the city of Red Lugansk of the Donetz Basin, the valley of coal and steel. Four or five hundred men and women gathered for a two day session—miners and mine managers, employees and head of the locomotive works, some teachers and health department officials—Communists all, sent as delegates from the local Party organizations of the factories and mines of the district. The problems for discussion were the policy for heavy industry and for minor nationalities. They had been announced by the Central Committee as the immediate pressing problems; “theses” on them had been published by the leading authorities and every local Party organization had discussed them for weeks.

The delegates wasted no time in preliminaries and compliments. Man after man spoke hotly and strongly on the concrete difficulties of heavy industry in the mines and factories they knew. They prepared reports based on the industry of their district and elected delegates to carry their hottest criticisms to the regional Party Congress in the coal center, Bakhmut, where delegates were again chosen to the All-Ukrainian Party Congress. Then all over the Soviet Union the special trains began running. From Kharkov, from Tiflis, from Minsk, from Central Asia and Siberia, they bore the chosen delegates to Moscow where two weeks’ discussion in the All-Union Party Congress hammered out the “Party Line.” Thence the results rolled back again to the Donetz, the Caucasus, the Far East to Vladivostok, borne by returning delegates whose first duty was to explain and carry through the decisions through trade unions, cooperatives, farms, government, whatever organizations they influenced.

This is the most widely organized thinking ever attempted in history. It is actually the energetic thinking of three million men and women, gathering up the ideas of tens of millions of their neighbors, which beats upon the All-Union Party Congress and affects its decisions. The ideas are worked over by the ablest economists of the Party, familiar with the experience of the revolutionary movement in all countries. The decisions reached are explained to the country through every channel of organized publicity; they are discussed and studied in every field brigade and factory and put into action simultaneously throughout the land. For the test of organized thinking is organized action.

The Communists do not merely reflect the will of the masses, as a ballot might, or a showing of hands. They do not merely analyze what the “majority want” and hand it out. It is their job to lead, to organize the people’s will. No group of unurged soldiers would ever vote to storm a trench. Certainly the workers of the Soviet Union would not have voted, unurged, unled, for the hardships of the Five-Year Plan of rapid industrialization taken out of their own food and comforts, for the painful speed of farm collectivization without adequate machines or organizers. But when the Communist Party analyzed, urged and demanded, showing the world situation and the need of making the USSR well prepared industrially and for defense, showing the enemy classes which must be abolished to attain the goal of a socialist state, they were able to find, organize and create, deep in the heart of the masses, a will that carried through. Without that will in tens of millions, the three million could have done little. “To bring about a revolution, a leading revolutionary minority is required,” Stalin told H. G. Wells. “But the most talented, devoted and energetic minority would be helpless if it did not rely upon the at least passive support of millions.”2

As an example of the interrelation of Party, government and voluntary workers in action, let me take the “mobilization” of automobiles and mechanics in the spring of 1931 to save flax sowing in Moscow province. Collective farming came that year to the province in a great drive of organization and propaganda backed by hundreds of new tractors, which were being used chiefly to increase the area of flax. In the first week of sowing, telegrams from the newly organized tractor stations poured into Moscow, announcing that there was a “break.” Tractors all over the province stood in the fields, not moving, for causes yet to be analyzed.

Who moves in such a case? The Moscow Committee of the Party moves. Sorting over in its office the reports of all Moscow’s daily emergencies, it decides that the break in flax is serious and calls for a “mobilization” of mechanics.

The call goes out to Party organizations in a hundred shops and factories. It is announced by trade-union shop committees and factory newspapers. Not a single mechanic is compelled to answer, but any mechanic willing to give a day or two for tractor repair to help the sowing will be helped by foreman and fellow workers to arrange his job. He may work at this sanctioned public task without forfeiting wages, while others fill in the gap in his regular work. What is the motive? The fun of participating in saving the sowing, of helping the country, of living a varied, useful life. Automobiles also are “mobilized” to carry the mechanics to the farms, and those who lend machines for such public work may hope for a cut in automobile taxes. I volunteered for a two-day trip.

One hundred and fifty miles north of Moscow we came to the tractor station to which we were assigned. Of thirty-three new tractors from Putiloff Works, eleven could not move out of the railway station. The rest were breaking down in the fields, under the hands of worried peasant boys and girls who had seen their first machine one month before. All night our volunteer mechanics repaired tractors. All night the local tractor drivers stood up to watch in their eagerness to learn. The following day I drove my car to Moscow with sleeping mechanics in the seats. They had worked twenty hours on end in a public emergency about which they would report next morning to their interested fellow workers in Moscow factories. They had also prepared a technical report charging the Putiloff tractor with certain grave defects. It was printed within two days in the Industrial Gazette, the organ of heavy industry, and led to a conference of industrial leaders on improving the Putiloff tractor. Three weeks later the flax sowing of Moscow province, which in early season threatened to lag at 50 per cent of plan, went over the top 108 per cent, the best flax record in the Union.

“It was the work of the social organizations that saved us,” said the Moscow Tractor Center. What were the organizations concerned? The state, the Party, the trade unions, the automobile association had all taken part. The state owned the Putiloff Works, financed the tractor stations, and also owned, through the Commissariat of Heavy Industry, the Industrial Gazette which exposed the defects. The trade unions organized the volunteers and took care of their jobs during absence. The automobile association organized autos. But the driving will that saved the situation was the will of thousands of Moscow workers organized and assigned to their tasks by the Moscow Committee of the Communist Party, of which most of the mechanics were not even members.

Even on vacations Communists are supposed to be always watchfully aware of their responsibility for organizing the life of the country. I was slipping down the mighty Volga on a large passenger steamer when I saw a sign asking members of the Party who might be traveling to register with the secretary of the boat organization. I learned that any Communist traveling on the boat was likely to be drafted into speaking at a meeting on deck among the peasants, or at a political school for Communists of the crew. Some of the city Communists used the occasion to criticize hotly the boat Communists for lack of attention to sanitation. The river Communists, mostly untrained sailors, thus got their first lesson in modern hygiene.

The ultimate destination towards which the Soviet ship of state is steering was fixed by the Revolution. The rate of speed and the daily and early course is charted by the Central Committee of the Party to take advantage of varying winds and tides. Yet it is a course which every active worker or farmer may take part in fixing. It arises from the experience of three million Party members, each keeping in touch with some section of the people, all of them interacting, discussing, comparing results. Communists of longest experience and best records have the greatest authority; but, be it noted, they do not call it “power.” “Power” resides in the will of the working masses; “authority” is that prestige of character and insight which enables its possessor to organize and release this power.

It is authority rather than power that Stalin possesses. Though his standing is far higher than that of any man in the Soviet Union, though he is cheered and quoted at all congresses as high authority, men never speak of “Stalin’s will” or “Stalin’s power,” but of the “Party Line” which Stalin reports but does not make. The Party Line is accessible to all to study, to know and to help formulate. The greatness of the man is known by the range over which he can do this. “I can plan with the workers of one plant for a year,” said a factory manager to me. “Others much wiser than I, like the men in our Central Committee, can plan with wider masses for years. Stalin in this is our ablest. He sees the inter-relation of our path with world events, and the order of each step, as a man sees the earth from the stratosphere.”

“The earth from the stratosphere”—the man who said this was himself an aviation engineer. Men in the Soviet Union tend to see Stalin in terms of their craft. Railway workers call him “locomotive driver of the Revolution.” An economist said to me, speaking of the leaders of Party and government in the Red Square on May-day: “Our brains are there in the tribune.” Harvester-combine operators addressed Stalin as “friend and teacher”; managers of industry say informally “the boss.” Yellow-skinned Kazaks of the desert on the fifteenth anniversary of their republic hailed him “great leader of toiling humanity.”

Millions of simple folk in all callings have felt the direct impact of Stalin’s analysis, giving a solution for the chief problem of their lives. It was sometimes a way that was harsh to follow, but it was the one clear path to the goal that the millions desired. There have been statements by Stalin that ushered in great changes, as when he told the agrarian Marxist conference that the time had come to “abolish kulaks as a class.” Yet he only announced the time for a process which every Marxist knew was on the program. His famous article “Dizziness from Success” which called sudden halt on March 2, 1930, to widespread excesses of Communists in rural regions, was regarded by foreign correspondents and peasants alike as an “order from Stalin.” Stalin at once disclaimed any personal prestige therefrom accruing, stating in the press: “Some people think that the article is the result of the personal initiative of Stalin. That of course is nonsense. The Central Committee does not exist to permit personal initiative of anybody in matters of this kind. It was a reconnaissance undertaken by the Central Committee.”

Stalin does not rule personally. To a lifelong habit of collective action he adds his personal genius, that of supreme analyst of situations, personalities, tendencies. He leads as supreme combiner of many minds and wills, When Emil Ludwig asked him who really made decisions, he answered: “Single persons cannot decide. . . . Experience of three revolutions has shown us that out of a hundred individual decisions which have not been tested and corrected collectively, ninety are biased. The leadership of our Party in the Central Committee, which directs all the Soviet and Communist organizations, consists of about seventy people. Among those seventy members of our Central Committee there are to be found the best of our industrial leaders, our cleverest specialists and the men who best understand every branch of our activities. It is in this Supreme Council that the whole wisdom of our Party is concentrated. Each man is entitled to challenge his neighbor’s opinion or suggestion. Each man may give the benefit of his own experience. If it were otherwise, if individual decisions were admitted, there would be serious mistakes in our work.”3

“The art of leadership is a serious matter,” said Stalin earlier, in concluding his article “Dizziness from Success.” “One must not lag behind a movement because to do so is to become isolated from the masses. But one must not rush ahead, for this is to lose contact with the masses. . . . Our Party is strong and invincible because, while leading a movement, it knows how to maintain and multiply its contacts with the millions of the workers and peasant masses.” This may be taken as Stalin’s analysis of leadership.

There are plenty of stupidities and violences in the Soviet Union, yes-men and careerists, hardship and injustice, wastage of youth and life. All man’s essential progress costs heavily in human suffering; the Soviet Union has not escaped this law. What makes it endurable is just this fact that it is caused not by behest of one man or even of three million, but is part of the slow process—history will not call it slow—whereby the tens of millions achieve the organized and conscious planning of their lives.


1.  Rayon, a district about equivalent to a township.

2.  H. G. Wells’ Interview with Joseph Stalin, July 23, 1934

3.  Joseph Stalin’s Interview with Emil Ludwig, Dec. 13, 1931.

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