From An Economic History of the USSR 2
By Alec Nove
An Economic History of the USSR 1
An Economic History of the USSR




 Soviet writers indignantly deny Western allegations that Lenin had no idea what to do after seizing power, that he had to make it up as he went along. The evidence on the subject is somewhat mixed. ... It was not until 1917 on his return to Russia through Germany in the famous sealed train, that we find Lenin’s ideas on industry and planning taking some sort of shape. But the shape was decisively affected by the everyday exigencies of the struggle to gain power. Much of what he said and wrote reads like the purest demagogy.


  'Make the profits of the capitalists public, arrest fifty or a hundred of the biggest millionaires. Just keep them in custody for a few weeks for the simple purpose of making them reveal the hidden springs, the fraudulent practices, the filth and greed which even under the new government are costing our country thousands and millions every day. That is the chief cause of our anarchy and ruin.'


  Thus he spoke to the first congress of Soviets in June l917. In a similar spirit he returns again and again to ‘workers’ control’, but the Russian work kontrol’ means not a take over but inspection and checking (like the French contrôle des billets), and his  emphasis was on the prevention of sabotage and fraud by the capitalists. Yet now and again kontrol’ shades into control, developing into complete regulation of production and distri­bution by the workers, into the ‘nation-wide organization of the exchange of grain for manufactured goods, etc. But how this was to happen was left undefined, Lenin denied syndicalism: ‘Nothing like the ridiculous transfer of the railways to the railwaymen, or the tanneries to the tanners.” The cure-all was to be ‘all power to the Soviets’, though how (or whether) they are to operate railways and tanneries is not stated.


In the same month of June 1917 he was writing: ‘Everyone agrees that the immediate introduction of socialism in Russia is impossible.' Perhaps the most complex ‘programme’ of the months before the seizure of power may be found in Lenin’s The impending catastrophe and how to combat it’, published as a pamphlet at the end of October 1917 and written a month earlier. It begins dramatically with the words ‘Unavoidable catastrophe is threatening Russia’. The railways were breaking down, famine was threatening, the capitalists were sabotaging; the following measures should be taken, he declared:


(a) Centralization and nationalization of banking.       
(b) The nationalization of the “syndicates”, e.i. of the main capitalist
associations (for sugar, oil, iron, coal, etc.),
(c)  Abolition of commercial secrecy.
(d)  Compulsory ‘syndicalization’ of industry, i.e. that inde­pendent firms should form part of syndicates.
(e)  Compulsory membership of consumer cooperatives, this measure being related to the strict enforcement of wartime rationing regulations (rationing having been introduced in cities in 1916).


  He explained what he meant by nationalization of syndicates:
‘Transform reactionary bureaucratic regulation (i.e. by the Provisional government) into revolutionary democratic regulation by simple decrees
providing for the summoning of a congress of employees, engineers, directors and shareholders, the introduction of uniform accountancy, control [kontrol’] by the workers’ unions, etc.”  This sounds as if he had in mind effective control over the syndicates rather than expropriation of capitalists and nationalization of the actual firms.


This was a time when some of Lenin’s thoughts were some­what Utopian. Thus in ‘State and Revolution’ we can read:   “We the workers, shall organize industrial production on the basis of what capitalism already created…we shall reduce the role of state officials to that of simply carrying out instructions as responsible, revocable, modestly paid ‘foreman and accountants’ (of course with the aid of technicians of all sorts). ..The function of control and accountancy, becoming more and more simple, will be performed by each in turn, will become a habit and will finally die out as a special function of a special section of population… to organize the whole economy on the lines of the postal service so that technicians, foremen and accountants, as well as all officials, shall receive salaries no higher than workers’ wages, all under the leadership of the armed proletariat, that is our immediate aim.”


  Lenin was greatly impressed with the German war economy. He thought that   the concentration  of state-capitalist power gave rise to possibilities of direct socialist takeover of the levels of economic power. One finds this expressed with particular clarity in ‘Can the Bolsheviks retain state power?’, also written on the eve of the revolution. It is worth quoting from this at some length:


  'This brings us to another aspect of the question of the state apparatus. In addition to the chiefly ‘oppressive’ apparatus — the standing army, the police and the bureaucracy - the modern state possesses an apparatus which has extremely close connexions  with the   banks and syndicates, an apparatus which performs an enormous amount of accounting and registration work,  if it  may be expressed this way. This apparatus must not, and should not, be smashed, it must be wrested from the control of the capitalists; the capitalists and the wires they pull must be cut off, lopped off, chopped away from this apparatus; it must be subordinated to the proletarian Soviets; it must be expanded. made more comprehensive and nation-wide. And this can be done by utilizing the achievements already made by large-scale capitalism (in the same way as the proletarian revolution can, in general, reach its goal only by utilizing these achievements).


Capitalism has created an accounting apparatus in the shape of the banks, syndicates, postal service, consumers’ societies, and office employees’ unions. Without big banks socialism would be impossible.


The big banks are the state apparatus which we need to bring about socialism, and which we take ready-made from capitalism; our task here is merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive. Quantity will be transformed into quality, A single State Bank the biggest of the big, with branches in every rural district,  in every factory, will constitute as much as nine tenths of the socialist apparatus. This will be country-wide book-keeping, country-wide accounting of the production and distribution of’ goods, this will be, so to speak, something in the nature of the skeleton of socialist society.


We can lay hold of and set in motion this state apparatus (which is not fully a state apparatus under capitalism, but which will be so with us, under socialism) at one stroke, by a single decree, because the actual work of book-keeping, control, registering, accounting and counting is performed by employees, the majority of whom themselves lead a proletarian or semi-proletarian existence.


By a single decree of the proletarian government these employees can and must be transferred to the status of state employees, in the same way as the watchdogs of capitalism, like Briand and other bour­geois ministers, by a single decree transfer railwaymen on strike to the status of state employees. We shall need many more state employees of this kind, and more can be obtained, because capitalism has simplified. the work of accounting and control, has reduced it to a comparatively simple system of book keeping, which any literate person can do. [emphases are Lenin’s throughout.


  This is followed by the oddly ambiguous statement; ‘The important thing will not be even the confiscation of the capitalists’ property, but country-wide, al1 embracing workers’ control [kontrol’ again] over the capitalists and their possible supporters. Confiscation alone leads nowhere, as it does not contain the element of organization, of accounting for proper distribution. Instead of confiscation, we could easily impose a fair tax....’ He goes on to insist that the rich should work, that it would be right to put poor and homeless families into their houses.


  Bukharin in 1917—20 was one of those who suggested an extremely radical line of instant  socialism. Lenin was more cautious. True, ‘we are not at all afraid of stepping beyond the bounds of the bourgeois system; on the contrary we declare quite clearly, definitely and openly that we shall march towards socialism, that our road will be through a Soviet Republic, through nationalization of banks and syndicates, through workers’ control, through universal labour conscription, through nationalization of the land…’ . But later, ‘experience will tell us a lot more, ... Nationalize banks and syndicates . , and then we shall see” (his emphasis).


Lenin did, however, speak of ‘not being able to nationalize petty enterprises with one or two hired labourers. The implication would seem to be nationalization of larger ones. However, this was not spelled out. A month after the revolution, Lenin himself wrote that ‘there was not and could not be a definite plan for the organization of economic life’. ..



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