Crisis and degeneration

David E Lowes (editor), Arthur Ransome Three accounts of revolutionary Russia Red Revenant, 2017, £6.90, pp212

Arthur Ransome: sympathetic eye

Arthur Ransome was once [The Guardian] correspondent in Moscow. You perhaps recall rumours of an unconventional life. Chances are, though, you are not fully aware that the man who wrote Swallows and amazons [for children] was married for many years to Trotsky’s personal secretary; shared a flat with Karl Radek, the Bolshevik chief of propaganda; thought the world of Lenin, with whom he was on excellent terms….

He collaborated with the Cheka - the Bolshevik secret police and forerunner of the KGB - and Lenin saw him as his first source of intelligence on British policy. At the same time, despite serious doubts about his loyalty, he was in the pay of British intelligence as an acknowledged intimate of many of the revolution’s leaders: he was … [probably] a double agent.1

The crisis in Russia’ (1921), the third of Ransome’s essays in this volume, is poles apart from the sunny optimism of his earlier ‘Six weeks in Russia’ (1919) - or Bessie Beatty’s Red heart of Russia (1917-18) - which were written between the heady days of the October revolution and the end of the first year of the civil war: ie, when the Bolshevik leaders still believed that the international revolution was possible, if only they could hold on to power.

The crisis in Russia covers the period from late 1919 to early1921, when at least 14 countries, led by the main imperialist powers - not forgetting their Trojan horse (the White armies) - attacked and invaded the revolutionary government from all sides, leading to the shrinking of the Soviet state to about a third of its size. In their attempt to strangle the revolution, they aimed to restore the old order by any means necessary.

This period also ends with the final defeat of the German revolution. As result, the Bolsheviks found themselves alone and the Red Army had to fight terror with terror in a desperate bid to save the revolution. Nevertheless, bourgeois historians like to reverse cause and effect. For them the ‘red terror’ is the primary cause, not the effect of the imperialist counterrevolution. On the other hand, Trotsky spoke the truth, when he said that civil war (class war) itself is a “disgusting barbarism”.2 Ransome, the children’s writer, understands this. As he says at the start of his first account, Open letter to America,

There is nothing here of the Red Terror … But for its poverty in atrocities, my book will be blamed by fanatics, since they alone desire proofs of past terrors as justification for new ones.3

This account, although it covers the end of the civil war itself, stops short of those even more depressing events, which soon followed: namely the Kronstadt rebellion in March 1921 and the retreat into the New Economic Policy (see below).

But the necessities of life continued to shrink, whilst inequality and bureaucracy continued to grow. Faced with this stark reality, Ransome is less anecdotal than previously. He is more empirical in his approach: ie, reliant on undeniable hard facts and statistics, combined with his own analysis (or that of others). By so doing, his style becomes more brutally realistic. Like the Bolshevik leaders themselves, he is grappling with the growing contradiction between “the power and the dream”. Ransome acknowledges the fact that, instead of the dictatorship of the proletariat, a Bolshevik dictatorship had emerged, because the proletariat, which constituted its social base, had collapsed under the exigencies of civil war. Thus the goal of proletarian democracy - itself contingent upon the success of the international revolution - had to be postponed for the time being.

As with my review of Bessie Beatty on revolutionary Russia4 - published originally as Red heart of Russia (1918) - I shall focus on some of the highlights of ‘The crisis in Russia’. By so doing, I hope that Weekly Worker readers will want to get both books and read them from cover to cover.

Contrary to the standard bourgeois, one-sided approach to the Bolshevik regime in power (which persists to this day) - ie, as a power-hungry regime which started the terror - Ransome relies on objective reality instead:

When the test of crisis is applied, the actual governmental machine in every country looks very much like that of every other ... ‘constitutional safeguards’ go by the board ‘for the public good’, in Moscow as elsewhere. Under that stress it becomes clear that, in spite of its novel constitution [being more democratic than even the American], the real directive power lying in the hands of a comparatively small body … with its conscious will [being forced to drive] a population largely indifferent and inert ... No-one tries to shirk from the fact that the executive committee has fallen into [disuse], from which, when the stress slackens enough, … it may some day be revived. [Meanwhile, the] bulk of its members have been at the front or here and there about the country, wrestling with the economic problem.

Ransome becomes even more pessimistic:

The threat of a complete collapse of civilisation is more imminent in Russia than elsewhere. But it is clear enough in Poland, it cannot be disregarded in Germany, there is no doubt of its existence in Italy, France is conscious of it; it is only in England and America that the threat is not among the waking nightmares of everybody ... when countries … do their utmost to accelerate the economic ruin of each other, we are witnessing something like the suicide of civilisation itself. There are people in both camps who believe that armed and economic conflict between revolutionary and non-revolutionary Europe - or if you like between capitalism and communism - is inevitable (pp127-28).


This is the subject of chapter 2. Paradoxically, despite his pessimistic view that the collapse of civilisation in Russia might lead to its collapse elsewhere as well, we also see glimpses of Ransome’s literary flare, which he would later put to good use when writing his children’s books. He starts with the railways - obviously crucial to a country like Russia, which occupies one-sixth of the earth’s surface:

In 1914, Russia had … 20,057 locomotives … In 1918 ... the number of locomotives fell from 14,519 in January to 8,457 in April, after the artificially instigated revolt of the Czecho-Slovaks made possible the fostering of civil war on a large scale, and the number fell swiftly to 4,679 in December ... [Thus] Russia possesses one-fifth of the number of locomotives which in 1914 was just sufficient to maintain her railway system in a state of efficiency ... For six years she has been unable to import the necessary machinery for making engines. Further coal and oil have been, until recently, cut off by civil war. The mines are left, after the civil war, in such a condition that no considerable input may be expected from them in the near future (p132).

Ransome goes on to explain that the desperate shortages of railway engines and rolling stock exacerbated the contradiction between the countryside and the city - in particular, the workers’ dependence on the peasantry to provide them with sufficient food. Otherwise it would be impossible to increase the number of workers, along with the production of, for example, farm machinery - necessary for the expansion of agricultural production exponentially, upon which the revolution depended:

Let us now examine the combined effect of ruined transport and the six-years blockade on Russian life in town and country. First of all, was cut off the import of manufactured goods from abroad … In 1915 [Russia’s] own production of [agricultural machinery and implements] had fallen to 15.1% of her already inadequate peacetime output. In 1917 it had fallen to 2.1%.


The agricultural productive powers of Russia are consequently sinking. But things are no better if we turn from the rye and corn fields to the forests. Saws are worn out. Axes are worn out.

There is also an enormous shortage of horses:

Timber can be floated down the rivers. Yes, but it must be brought to the rivers. Surely horses can do that. Yes, but horses must be fed … [Apart from that the] men who cut the wood cannot do it on empty stomachs ... The towns suffer from lack of transport … Townsfolk and factory workers lack food, fuel, raw materials and much else that in a civilised state is considered necessary to life ... Townsfolk are starving, and in winter cold. People living in rooms in a flat, complete strangers to each other, by general agreement bring all their beds into the kitchen ... There is no means of heating ... [and a] lack of medicines ... Soap has become so rare … that for the present is to be treated as a means of safeguarding labour, to be given to workmen for washing after and during work ... And, as one country follows another to the brink, so will the remaining countries be faced by conditions of increasingly narrow self-dependence (pp133-35).

He concludes this section thus:

Russia, in these circumstances, may sink into something very like barbarism ... It would be possible, no doubt, for foreigners to trade with the Russians as with the natives of the cannibal islands, bartering looking-glasses and cheap tools. [But it will be a long time before] western Europe could count once more on getting a considerable portion of its food from Russian corn lands ... But opposed to these tendencies are the united efforts of the communists and of those who, leaving the question of communism aside, work with them for the sake of preventing the collapse of Russian civilisation (pp141-42).

In a neat turn of phrase, Ransome begins by saying

How is that will expressed? What is the organisation welded by adversity, which, in this crisis, supersedes even the Soviet constitution, and stands between [its] people and chaos? … At the second congress of the Third International, Trotsky remarked [echoing Their morals and ours 15 years later]: “A party, as such, in the course of the development of a revolution, becomes identical with that revolution” [ie, for a time, civilised behaviour and democratic organisation are thrown out the window!].

Lenin, on the same occasion, replying to a critic [of the dictatorship of the proletariat] said: “He says that we understand by [these] words … what is actually the dictatorship of its determined and conscious minority. And that is the fact.” Later he asked: “ What is this minority? It may be called a party. If this minority is actually conscious, if it is able to draw the masses after it, if its shows itself capable of replying to every question on the agenda of a political day, it actually constitutes a party.”

And Trotsky again, on the same occasion, illustrated the relative positions of the Soviet constitution and the Communist Party, when he said: “And today, now that we have received an offer from the Polish government, who decides the question? Whither are the workers to turn? We have our Council of People’s Commissars, of course, but that, too, must be under a certain control. Whose control? The control of the working class as a formless chaotic mass [as it then was]? No. The central committee of the party is called together to discuss the question ... It gives directives to the local committees ... The same applies to every other important matter …” (p143).

Cheka and party

Here I am more at odds with Ransome’s somewhat simplistic approach to the Cheka (Extraordinary Commission for Struggle against the Counterrevolution) and its relationship to the party, which I would attribute to the benefit of hindsight on my part. The more isolated the revolution became, the deeper the breach between party and the people; the black market flourishes. The greater the opportunity for sabotage and betrayal of the revolution, the greater the need for the state to wield its repressive apparatus, instead of withering away. But, to return to Ransome: “I am perfectly aware that without this police force with its spies, its prisons and its troops, the difficulties of the dictatorship would be increased.” However, he adds a note of caution: “I believe, too, that the overgrown power of the [Cheka] … may, as in the French Revolution, bring about the collapse of the system.”

For Ransome, the repressive power of the Cheka rises and falls, dependent on the latest defeat for the Red Army in the civil war (eg, against Poland) or victory. But then he goes on to say that the “overgrown power” of the Cheka is a subordinate question to the communist dictatorship - ie, the Bolshevik Party itself - despite his acknowledgement of the growing centralisation of the latter and the growth of bureaucracy.

On the other hand, he is right to assert that we are obliged to distinguish this “communist dictatorship from any other dictatorships, by which it might be supplanted”, such as the restoration of the old regime under the tutelage of the imperialist powers. These were high stakes indeed. A party with “611,978 members on April 2 1920” is ruled by just 19 members of the central committee, of which within the Politburo there are five key leaders, who are directing policy from day to day.

On this basis the party (ie, during 1919) was “in the process of persuading 600,000 [party members] of the desirability of … such measures as [that] of industrial conscription, which, at first sight, was certainly repugnant to most of them …” (p146). Later Ransome devotes a whole chapter to industrial conscription: because workers were prone to slack periods, the policy of payment by results was introduced:

… payment of conscripted workers was to be by production, with prizes for specially good work. Specially bad work was also foreseen in the detailed scheme of possible punishments. Offenders were to be brought before the ‘people’s court’ (equivalent to an ordinary civil court), or, in the case of repeated or very bad offences, were to be brought before the far more dreaded revolutionary tribunals.

Six categories of possible offences were placed upon the new code: (1) … absenteeism, or desertion. (2) The preparation of false documents … (3) … giving false information to facilitate these crimes. (4) Purposeful damage of instruments or material. (5) … careless work. (6) Probably the most serious of all, instigation to any of these actions (p176).

Splits were beginning to develop within the leadership over serious questions: eg, war communism versus the peasantry’s desire to own land and sell their produce for private gain; the danger of great Russian chauvinism versus the rights of nationalities; the militarisation of labour versus proletarian democracy; how the Polish war of 1919 could be won; demands for a programme of full communism versus the reality (ie, that this could only be possible in “an economy of plenty” - Soviet Russia was anything but!) So how could any of these questions be resolved, when the party itself had become a centralised machine, which depended more and more on economic and technical experts? Ransome was witnessing the rapid bureaucratisation of both party and state.

Nevertheless, he is right to conclude this section with the following sardonic observation:

If its only task were to fight those organisations of loosely knit and only momentarily united interests which were opposed to it, those jerry-built alliances of reactionaries with liberals, united-indivisible-Russians with Ukrainians, agrarians with sugar-refiners, monarchists with republicans, that task would long ago have been finished. But it has to fight something infinitely stronger than these in fighting the economic ruin of Russia (p148).

But he should have added that the economic ruin of Russia was a direct consequence of the imperialist counterrevolution: in particular the blockade against Soviet trade with the outside world, which enables all of these “jerry-built alliances” to flourish, because both aspects are working in tandem.

Now for some light relief! Ransome was also fascinated by the fact that art was being forced into the role of agitprop in the defence of the revolution. In this regard, he has something to say about the growing conflict between futurist, experimental art and the more conventional demands of Proletcult - which insisted that art should be subordinated to the interests of the revolution:

When I crossed the Russian front in October 1919, the first thing I noticed in peasants’ cottages, in villages, … in every railway station along the line, was elaborate pictorial propaganda concerned with the war. There were posters showing Denikin standing straddle over Russia’s coal …

He also mentions the five propaganda trains, organised by a certain comrade Burov, which travelled to every corner of Soviet-controlled territory. The prosaic “Burov, it seems, has only recently escaped from what he considered a bitter affliction due to the Department of Proletarian Culture, who, in the beginning, for the decoration of his trains, had delivered him bound hand and foot to a number of futurists.” He objected to the fact that the ‘Lenin’ train had been decorated with this revolutionary art, on the grounds that it was inaccessible to the masses; but one year later, it “had been brought under proper control”. Futurist pictures are “‘art for art’s sake’, and cannot have done more than astonish, and perhaps terrify, the peasants and workmen of the country towns who had the luck to see them.” But the ‘Red Cossack’ is quite different:

As Burov put it with deep satisfaction, “At first we were in the artist’s hands, and now the artists are in our hands” - a sentence suggesting the horrible possibilities of official art under socialism …

So we know where Ransome’s sympathies lie - because he is, after all, a creative writer himself!

A final word must go to the cinematograph wagon, with benches to seat about 150 persons … at night, a giant screen is fixed up in the open. There is a special hole cut in the side of the wagon, and through this the cinematograph throws its picture on the giant screen outside, so that several thousands could see it at once (pp164-66).

Plans for the future

The highlight of this section is Ransome’s account of Trotsky’s aim to introduce a programme for the reconstruction of Russia, based on centralised planning, which had the full approval of Lenin.

Even in late 1920-21, Trotsky is anticipating the ideas which he would publish later as The new course. This book would also become the basis for the struggle of the Left Opposition against the Stalin faction. The latter, of course, was preoccupied with establishing its own power, based on the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution, as opposed to the need to return to revolutionary principles. As Deutscher writes in his biography of Trotsky, The prophet unarmed,

Nobody had gone farther than Trotsky in demanding that every interest and aspiration should be wholly subordinated to the ‘iron dictatorship’. Yet he was the first of the Bolshevik chiefs to turn against the machine of that dictatorship when it began to devour the dream.5

Thus he advocated the establishment of a centralised planning, which is essential for socialist construction, along with a return to proletarian democracy; otherwise planning would fall into the hands of the bureaucracy and lead to an entirely different outcome: ie, the meagre surplus would continue to be creamed off for the benefit of the few.

Apropos Trotsky’s proposal (circa 1920-21), Ransome explains that its immediate task is to improve

‘the condition of transport’ in Russia, so that the growing gap between the city and the countryside: concretely the needs of industry and farming, could be addressed. In Trotsky’s own words:

“The fundamental task at this moment is improvement in the condition of our transport, prevention of its further deterioration and preparation of the most elementary stores of food, raw material and fuel. The whole of the first period of our reconstruction will be completely preoccupied in the concentration of labour on the solution of these problems, which is a condition of further progress. The second period, [although it will be difficult to predict when this will begin], depending on many factors, beginning with the international situation and ending with the unanimity or the lack of it in our party, will be occupied in building machines in the interest of transport, and getting the raw materials and provisions. The third period will be occupied with building machinery, with a view to the production of articles in general demand, and, finally, the fourth period will be that in which we are able to produce these articles” (pp184-85).

Next Ransome gives us a glimpse of the real contradiction between the workers and the peasants via a report of one of his numerous talks with Lenin, presumably in late 1920 (certainly before the end of war communism and the introduction of the NEP). Despite everything, Lenin, like all good Marxists, tries to be optimistic:

Lenin talking to me about the general attitude of the peasants [whom he sees as] people who are “part of the nation which does not know what it wants ... it applies equally well to your Arthur Hendersons and Sidney Webbs in England, and all people like yourself who want incompatible things. The peasantry are individualists, but they support us. We have, in some degree, to thank Kolchak and Denikin [White warlords] for that. They are in favour of the Soviet government, but hanker after free trade, notwithstanding that the two things are self-contradictory. Of course, if they were a united force they could swamp us, but they are disunited both in their interests and geographically. The interests of the poorer and middle class peasants are in contradiction with those of the rich farmer who employs labourers.” [They know that we are on their side.]

I said: “If state agriculture in Russia comes to be on a larger scale, will there not be a sort of proletarianisation of the peasants, so that, in the long run, their interests would become more or less identical with those of the workers [in the factories]?”

He replied: “Something in that direction is being done, but it will have to be done very carefully and must take a very long time ...”

“Did he think they would pull through far enough economically to be able to satisfy the needs of the peasantry before that same peasantry had organised a real political opposition that should overwhelm them?”

Lenin laughed: “If I could answer that question,” he said, “I could answer everything, for on the answer to that question everything depends. I think we can. Yes, I think we can” (pp192-93).

Of course, the introduction of Trotsky’s central plan - as well as the solution to the problem of the peasantry - was frustrated; first of all, by the dire situation that the country was in - in particular, the shortage of food - which prompted Lenin to introduce his New Economic Policy in March 1921(viz, the partial restoration of the market, which allowed the peasants to produce for profit), in the hopes that this would lead to an immediate increase in food supplies for the workers in the factories. Secondly, centralised planning was frustrated by the developing power struggle between left and right in the party, which ended with the triumph of the Stalin faction and the bureaucracy.

Thus the gap between town and countryside (aka ‘the scissors effect’) continued to grow, along with the aggrandisement of the rich peasants or Kulaks. This meant that the collectivisation of agriculture was delayed even further; hence the imposition of the latter had to be undertaken by the most brutal means.

On this note - that is, the deepening problems of Soviet Russia at the beginning of 1921 - I shall leave the last word to the ever astute Ransome: At the end of the final paragraph of The crisis in Russia, he refers to the contradiction between the ultimate aim of the revolution and its immediate needs. By so doing, he anticipates the introduction of the NEP (if not the Kronstadt rebellion, which was just around the corner):

… there is a strange irony in the fact that the communists desire that upheaval [a continuation of the international revolution] and, at the same time, desire a rebirth of the Russian market, which would tend to make that upheaval unlikely, while those who fear upheaval are precisely those who urge us, by making recovery in Russia impossible, to improve the chances of collapse at home. The peasants in Russia are not alone in wanting incompatible things (p200).

Although Ransome did not know it (how could he, as an eye witness of history in the making?), the tide had turned against the October revolution.


1. J Henley, ‘I spy Arthur Ransome’ The Guardian August 12 2009.

2. L Trotsky Their morals and ours New York 1975, p38.

3. A Ransome Open letter to America; part of Three accounts of revolutionary Russia Liverpool 2017, p29. My emphasis.

4. ‘Witnesses of the revolution’ Weekly Worker June 22.

5. I Deutscher The prophet unarmed: Trotsky 1921-1929 chapter one, London 2003.