Russia - Co-Operation, Trade And Business
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IN a striking appeal to the Russian people for loyalty and effort on behalf of the nation, Lenin said ; "All Soviet Russia will become a United All. Russian Co-operative Society of Workers." This is the keynote and explanation of the Soviet Government's attitude towards the old Russian Co-operative Movement. Socialism, Communism, Bolshevism, mean co-operation, and co-operation means all three. It has taken months of weary arguing and much effort to overcome the open and avowed hostility of co-operators towards the proposal to absorb them as part of the organisation of the State. I am not sure it is yet overcome.
No one should be surprised at this. The Czar operative Movement everywhere has prided it-self on the voluntary character of its work. In England, Co-operators and Socialists are only just commencing to understand how much their theories of life are akin to each other.
The Bolsheviks from the start found themselves short-handed, understaffed for the work of organising the nation. It is always easy for a despot like a Czar to carry on his Govern-ment : he has only to give the order and people must obey. But in a society which is endeavouring to put into practice the forms of democracy the business is more difficult. The worst thing about an autocracy, even when it is overthrown, rests in the fact that the evil it has done lives after it. Lenin and his colleagues found themselves with a nation of over one hundred million people and a country of thousands of square miles to administer, with nearly all the old rulers and leaders of the people hostile. in spite of this, the country slowly being organised and made safe from the evils arising out of the blockade and foreign wars.
Critics and investigators who go to Russia to see the revolution at work must bear in mind the fact that Russia has seen nearly six years of war, and for the last two and a half years she has been faced also with civil war. Consequently the Government and its administrators have had no chance. We shall an make a great mistake unless from the outset we recognise these facts when discussing organisation of labour and distribution of food tinder the Soviets. Life is becoming more tolerable, the people who have assisted in this work and brought some amount of order out of disorder are those co-operators, who abandoning their opposition to Government organisation and have wholeheartedly thrown in their lot with the Government.
It was my good fortune to meet and talk with co-operators whose political views were neither Bolshevik nor anti-Bolshevik-and found them all eager for peace. They have accepted the Soviet Government as the only possible Government for Russia at the present time, and, like good Russians, all feel that their desire for a kind of voluntary communism must give way for the present to what they consider is the best interest of the country. Russian co-operators outside Russia can have no idea how much these men and their friends have done towards making life tolerable. One of the worst results of the blockade has been this ignorance of what was happening in Russia.
In company with some friends, I went out to a Convalescent Home for the purpose of interviewing Andre Leshava, President of the Central Union of Russian Co -operators. Re is a man of middle age. We found him tired out and weary owing to the tremendous amount of work he has had entrusted to his care. He has been a co-operator for many years and also a business man connected with large insurance corporations. He is now acting as chief of the organisation for collecting and distributing foodstuffs and other necessaries of life. It is difficult for an outsider to understand where the business of the Food Ministry begins and ends, for as I understand it, the co-operators do all the practical work. I think the Food Control department decides the rations, the duty of the co-operative organisations being to see that people get what they are entitled to.
In the early days of the revolution, the peasants would not part with their stocks because the Government was only able to give paper money in exchange for foodstuffs, and this money was almost valueless owing to the fact there was no possibility of exchanging money for clothes, boots, tools, seeds, etc.
In these circumstances even soldiers found it difficult to get the stores so badly needed by the people in the towns. This is now changed. The peasants willingly trade on credit with the co-operators, accepting the Rouble paper money as Government scrip to be redeemable later on. From this it will be seen that the co-operative movement in Russia has become what many English co-operators desire it to become here ; that is, an integral part of food control and the sole organisation for the distribution of the necessaries of life to the Leshava. I was told by some others besides that the Russian character lends itself very readily to the work of co-operation and that the only reason for the antagonism which arose at the time of the revolution was due to ignorance of the aims and objects of the Bolsheviks. People did not realise that fundamentally all those who wished to organise industry as a social service were the natural allies of those who wished to establish voluntary co-operation.
Leshava, when asked what be claimed was the object of the system of State co-operation of which he is chief, replied that the whole conception was based on that of the Rochdale Pioneers. Co-operation as understood in Russia is the " spontaneous effort of the nation to supply its own needs and become a series of municipal and communal households." The peasants who at one time bitterly opposed what they considered State interference, acknowledge the new law which takes from them a certain proportion of foodstuffs and other products of their farms, and are slowly realising that co-operation is a much bigger thing than the mere collection or distribution of goods. All the old district and provincial societies with limited aims and objects have been absorbed or abolished : there cannot be any sectional jealousies because there are no sections. The productive and distributive are parts of one organisation.
Working peasants, who for the first time find themselves free of the domination of either landlord or rich peasants, are slowly learning the benefits to be derived from intercourse and co-operation with each other. It is always difficult to make people anywhere understand that their wellbeing depends on each other. Y think, however, it will be easier in Russia than anywhere else, as the peasants are very simple and have not; yet been spoiled by the commercialism of America and Europe. Alongside the small holdings of the ordinary peasant the Soviet Government, using the machinery of the co-operative movement, is endeavouring to teach the benefits of mass production. Some of the older, agriculturists pour scorn on the efforts and prophesy failure. As I listened to one friend who had nothing but scorn and contempt to heap on all such schemes, recomembered my own experience at Hollesley Bay where a scheme of co-operative agriculture in England was ruined by the same kind of criticism. The results will be different in Russia because the Government wants only one thing, and that is the very highest standard of life for all the people by the co-operative effort of the whole nation. Once the towns-people are able to give the peasants what they need in the way of clothes, seeds, tools and other necessaries of life, all friction will have passed away between artisan and peasant ~ once the advocates of mass production are able to demonstrate the superiority of their system in giving a fuller life to all, there will be no question as to which system will carry the day. Soviet Russia is determined that no such sordid, miserable, mean class of peasant as those which the peasant profiteering system of France and Belgium has created shall exist in Russia.
As everywhere else, man does not live by bread alone. There are great fisheries on the Volga at Astrachan and elsewhere. It was not pleasant being told how British airmen bombed fishermen in order to prevent the industry being carried on ; that the British Government had created a new republic at Azerbaijan for the sole purpose of making it impossible for the Russian people to get oil from the wells at Baku.
I cannot help saying here, how impossible it is for me to discriminate between one form of killing and another. I lived in East London all through the war, except for twelve months, and know from experience what air raids are, and was often furiously savage in my denunciation of such acts committed against unarmed, inoffensive people. Yet in Russia, fishermen are killed by airmen, and thousands of children, women and men are starved to death because of a blockade carried out by Christian soldiers under orders of a Christian Government,
> The fisheries of Russia are being organised cooperatively as is all industry, but this will be useless unless the oil from Baku is available for use on the Volga steamers and for locomotives. ~ have read in. The Times that it is lack of foresight and organising ability which has produced the food and fuel shortage in Russia. This is nonsense : a great part of the shortage is due to the shutting down of traffic on the Volga, caused solely by lack of the oil which the British authorities preferred should pour into the sea rather than be used for the service of the people of Russia.
There is one other thing to be said on the question of co-operation. As is well understood by all who have the most elementary knowledge of Russia, there is much, very much, ignorance amongst all classes. Millions, at the time of the fall of Czardom, could neither read nor write. Even now painted signs appear outside shops describing what is on sale within because people cannot read. This fact alone makes all work of reconstruction and reform doubly hard.
Andre Leshava, like all other leaders of thought and action in Russia, was keen ~ know what our wholesale co-operative societies intended to do with regard to international trade. He realises that Russia cannot stand alone as a co-operative State but must find some bond of union with other lands, and naturally looks to England as the home of co-operation.
There ought to be no difficulty about inter-national trade and business generally, if those who desire trade with Russia are animated with the true co-operative spirit. There will be difficulty with those whose sole desire is, by means of trade relationships, to reestablish competitive commercialism with all its horrors. That the pure and simple communism aimed at by the Bolshevik revolution will, of necessity, be modified, is of course true. Russia, as part of a world made up of commercial nations, cannot live her life exactly as she pleases, and the strength of the Bolsheviks lies in the fact that one and all of their chief men understand this.
Krassin, who is Commissar for Trade, Transport and Commerce at home and abroad, is under no delusions as to the conditions under which the ordinary capitalists will consent to do business with his fellow countrymen ; but to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Consequently when concessions are granted or business done with great monopolist concerns, very severe watertight conditions will be laid down for the purpose of preventing the servants of capitalism corrupting the minds of the Russian workers. Krassin, in his interview with me, laid stress on all the vital needs of Russia, but was emphatic in his declaration that real business could not be reestablished unless peace was assured.
Since my return I noticed in the Press a desire to belittle the efforts of the Soviet Government for the establishment of trade relationships and attempts made to prove the insincerity of Tehiteeherin because he insists on the impossibility of a complete restoration of trade relationship without, peace. This is not merely a question of morals but of practical necessity. The fact that nearly seventy per cent. of the railway transport of Russia is out of action and that what is effective must be used to feed and equip armies in the field, is not only almost, entirely the cause of suffering and misery everywhere ; it also makes it impossible to move goods, especially flax and grain, for transport. There is a further reason : Tehiteherin and his colleagues believe the beneficial results of opening up Russia to international trade will be shared by all nations, and they are not prepared to assist in stabilising the exchanges of Europe until the Governments of Europe are prepared to grant the people of Russia peace on terms of equality and honour.
Discussing this question of trade with Comrade Nogin, who is head of the Central t Union of Textile Workers, was surprised to find how clear and definite are the proposals for a resumption of trade. Neither he nor Krassin see any difficulty as to arrangements for banking or credit. No private corporations or individuals are allowed, or in future will be allowed, to set up these institutions. The National Bank of Russia is the only bank through which business can be done with Russia. There is, I am told, a considerable amount of gold available for the purchase of goods, but Krassin is not anxious that business should be done merely by exchanging gold for goods. He prefers exchanging goods for goods. This is where the transport question comes in : if the accumulated stores are to be set free Russia must be able to secure at least two thousand locomotives. The infamous embargo put on the Baku oil wells by the British must also be removed.
There is another outstanding fact which proves that the Russian people themselves do not intend to go back to capitalism and the Czardom. In spite of dissensions and disagreements all co-operative societies are now united in deed as well as word. From Archangel right away to Omsk all the small and large societies are federated. The biggest societies in Siberia are joined with those of the Moscow province. To understand what this means we in England should try to realise the effect which will be produced when all the wholesale and retail productive and distributive co-operative societies from John Oats to Land's End are federated and working together as a single unit. This is what has happened in Russia, and although many of the original co-operators shake their heads and are not certain what the outcome will be, others are confident the co-operative ideal will prevail.
Walking through the streets of villages and towns in Russia, the fact that most shops and stores are shut, gives the appearance of deadness, as if all life had departed. People like myself who all at once 'find themselves in an environment where there is no noise of what is called trade and commerce, are apt to imagine that nothing is being done. Many people who have come out of Russia have brought stories of the absolute wreck and ruin of every sort of private and national enterprise. No one can deny that very terrible shortage and privation have been and still are being endured by masses of men and women ; when however we remember that huge armies have been armed, fed and transported to at least four different battle fronts, that over one hundred million people have been fed, clothed and housed, however imperfectly, it is not only difficult to believe that industry is at a stand. still, it is simply incredible. What has happended in Russia is just this: all the old useless forms of labour are, to a large extent, abolished. There is no advertising, no illicit adulteration, no opening of competitive shops and stores. Everything in the form of labour has been reduced to the one word "utility. " The production of food is carried on in the largest factories possible. Bread is baked in huge loaves, which are afterwards distributed at central stores. Food kitchens and public restaurants are for the most part very small and not overelean, but they all save labour by centralising distribution.
Clothing stores are in the same category. Most of these are very large and controlled by the local Soviets. Tickets enabling the holders to buy up to a stated value are distributed to all who earn them. By this means clothing is secured at cheaper prices.
The aim, however, of all organisation in Russia is to abolish the use of money. In some parts of Petrograd all houses are rent free, trams are free, food is free, and also necessaries such as boots and clothing. Consequently there is less and less scope for private enterprise, but the idea of money and money-making takes a good deal of killing. The trains going daily into Moscow and Petrograd carry thousands of peasants and speculators whose one idea is to make money. The Government endeavours by very drastic measures to put down this kind of thing, so far with only partial success. The oldest market in Russia is in Moscow. It is held in a very broad roadway over a mile long and in some places twice as wide as the biggest road in London. At this place every day in the week, every sort of article of wearing apparel, furniture and food is on sale. It is illegal either to buy or to sell certain food stuffs in this way, but in spite of very severe penalties it continues .mainly because so many people are hungry. Y asked Lenin why it was more determined efforts were not made to put an end to this sort of thing. Tie replied that the Government felt it was impossible really to get rid of the spirit; of capitalism until everybody was assured of a suffiency of everything needed for a decent, life. Once peace was signed and they were able to get, mass production in full swing there would be such an abundance for everybody that, no one would need to be mean or covetous.
I was struck by the fact that the central stores were perfect hives of activity. If it is true shops are closed, it is not true to say shop ping has been put an and to. Neither must, we imagine that in the ease of clothing everything has been reduced to a dead level of uniformity. In the case of women's hats and bonnets, there is one big room at the co-operative stores devoted entirely to these, and the proof that variety of headgear for women is obtainable is evident to all who care to use their eyes in the streets. The manufacture of a sort of cotton cloth from flax, of which Nogin and his friends are very proud, has enabled the clothing stores to place a variety of such goods on sale for women and men. Therefore in one more instance the Bolsheviks are demonstrating that Socialism, in spite of red ties and trilby hats in England, does not mean that everybody shall wear standard suits or anything else so stupid. I would like to stress the fact that though shops are closed, these big central stores are at all times very busy, that the chiefs as well as their subordinates are kept well occupied, and that being a servant of the Soviet Government means having plenty of work to do. The volume of necessary business in Russia is still very considerable, but is better organised. AU the use-less competitive labour associated with trade and commerce here and elsewhere is gradually being eliminated. Once peace is secured, all the problems which now perplex friend and foe will be cleared away.
There can be no doubt of the fact that even now, with all the coercion, misery and suffering, there is a better, more equal distribution of the necessaries of life than ever before. It is of small importance whether shops are open or shut except in so far as in either ease they affect the equitable distribution of the things needed by the people. The Nevsky Prospect, with its rows of fine shops, now nearly all closed, may look like a desolated area ; shops with similar purpose are also closed in the working class districts. It is not merely that the super-abundance of servers of the rich have been abolished, but also the superfluous shops and stores which used to fleece the poor are also gone, and this is a fact for rejoicing rather than sorrowing.
As I saw things in Russia, the social and industrial organisation is slowly but surely moving towards a complete thorough-going co-operative organisation of life. I do not think this will be reached in all its fulness for a generation, perhaps two. I am certain though there will be no going back, that gradually the coercive measures will give way before the willing enthusiastic agreement of all sections of the people to serve the common-weal. People ask, will ever the Russian business; people go back to Russia? T think many of them will do so. I also hope the co-operators out of Russia will also go back and settle down to the work of organising their great country. Nowhere in the whole wide world is there such an abundance of natural wealth as in Russia, and nowhere is there, in my opinion, a people more capable of being organised and led along the road leading to the Communist State than in that great country.