Thursday, December 13, 2012

Civil War, War Communism, NEP, and the 1920s

In the Civil War period, the Party put an end to its experiments with popular sovereignty at the local level.   The soviets lost their independence and influence, worker control of factories subsided, and an officer corps reemerged in a professionalized Red Army.  War Communism helped the Reds to win the Civil War, but extreme centralization decimated the Russian economy, leaving the cities barren and devoid of adequate food.  In this period of plague and famine, the harvest almost completely collapsed.  Peasants refused to plant for want of incentive, and many turned to open revolt against the Bolsheviks.  Peasants frequently attacked grain requisition teams sent from the cities.  Then came the Kronstadt Rebellion, in which radical sailors now turned against Bolshevism in favor of a free, collectivist, decentralized form of political organization, and the emergence of the Workers' Opposition movement, in which proletarian leaders advocated for a form of democratic centralism.  Then came a series of workers' strikes.

In response to these political challenges, Lenin wisely coupled political coercion with N.E.P., or the New Economic Policy of the 1920s.  During this period, the Party loosened the reigns on economic control and the economy quickly rebounded.  During the mid-1920s, trade revived, shops proliferated, cities grew, cafes and services sprang up everywhere, grain requisitions ended, and economic activity finally reached pre-war levels in 1926.  The Party's stated goal in this period was to control "the commanding heights" of industry, including banking and large-scale manufacturing and international trade, but leave the local merchant or small-time manufacturer relatively free of governmental interference.

Bukharin, "the Party's darling," advocated policies that were roughly commensurate with NEP assumptions, which favored market surpluses, the production of consumer goods, gradualism, and evolutionary socialism. According to Steinberg, Bukharin offered economic, political, and even ethical objections to more radical Leftist currents in the Party.  Bukharin wanted to avoid violent class struggle.  The goal was a "bloodless path to socialism."

Notwithstanding the economic successes of N.E.P., the country's new found freedom led to widespread discontent in the Party.  Old Bolsheviks were appalled at rampant crime, which Steinberg reminds us, orthodox Marxists could only attribute to the reemergence of capitalism.  The Bolsheviks also resented widespread prostitution, which they also believed resulted from exploitative economic relationships.  Party members generally believed that NEP had been a necessary evil, but it had to be overturned if the country ever hoped to become truly communist.  The majority of Bolsheviks believed that Russian backwardness needed to be forcefully overturned by an aggressive and intrusive state apparatus

Although Soviet institutions were affected by the violence of the Civil War, Bolshevik thinkers of the 1920s remained sincere about the transformation of society and they therefore pursued a wide variety of radical artistic projects and anticipatory social reforms.  These reforms included granting women equal legal rights, making divorce and abortion freely available, organizing communes, and vigorously attacking domestic abuse.  Steinberg even mentions Soviet "belt burying ceremonies" in which peasants publicly committed to end domestic abuse by turning the burial of peasant belts into a public ritual.  The Soviets didn't stop there.  In the 1920s the Party faithful and communist sympathizers launched a whole series of social projects, including campaigns to reduce swearing, drinking and fighting.  Steinberg even mentions one campaign to get Soviet citizens to eat with proper kitchen utensils.

Steinberg's overall take on the 1920s was that it was a time of experimentation, when the Party's overall direction had not been completely determined.  Could the Party contain any seeds of democracy?  How much discipline was required of Party members?  Could factions exist in the Party? How coercive should the socialist state be?  What was the right balance between the urban and rural economy?  In other areas of social life, debates about the communist future were even more speculative.  What did a liberated man look like?  What were the hallmarks of a newly free Russian society? The 1920s were an even more experimental time for the arts. The future seemed unlimited.  In this era, an avant garde still hoped to use aesthetic innovation to reflect social change and, more importantly, encourage it. Plans for a "Monument to the World's Suffering" would have made this edifice the tallest building in the world.  Musicians organized "an orchestra without a conductor" to express egalitarian principles in music.  One group attacked the convention of wearing clothing.  Others experimented with urban planning, factory production, and a hundred other things. In summary, Russian communism between War Communism and Stalinism remained surprisingly fluid, creative, and open-ended.

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