Soviet art and the Gulag

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

As I read the Economist's 'The Big Squeeze', I thought back to a recent visit to the Tate and its magnificent exhibition of Soviet poster (and other) art.  The Tate's blurb noted:

"After Stalin became leader in 1927, the propaganda machine promoted the collectivisation of land and the drive for industrialisation, oblivious to the terrible hardships caused by these policies.  Stalin’s benevolent image was everywhere, but it barely masked the terror of the show trials and executions that blighted the 1930s.  The revolutionary fervour conveyed through the early posters now enforced a repressive dictatorship."

The debate amongst my fellow visitors was about whether the ideals (egality / fraternity / etc) that inspired the revolution and, hence, the Soviet Union had inevitably to lead to the Gulag, or whether, it was all blown off course, by the mad machinations of fallible humans aided by the climate of fear that they had established.  I used to believe the 'mad machinations' thesis because I wanted to think that the egality / fraternity side of the equation (ie, socialism) was possible, but no more: reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in the 1970s put paid to that, even though it was written to have the opposite effect.  The egality / fraternity calculus depends on the perfectibility of humanity and its surrender of individual want to the collective need, and so is dead in the water.  Read some Kant if you don't agree.  I fear we may have to learn all this again sometime soon.

The Economist's article is about the economic ideas that underpinned the Soviet economy, and it dwells on the forced collectivisation of agriculture:

"The Soviets believed that industrialisation would succeed en masse or not at all.  Those steel plants, tractor factories and machinery-makers needed to operate on a big enough scale to justify the heavy upfront cost of building them.  And the success of any one industrial venture depended on complementary investments in others.  Upstream suppliers need downstream buyers and vice versa.  Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, a Bolshevik economist, argued that a broad advance was needed across the whole industrial front, not an “unco-ordinated advance by the method of capitalist guerrilla warfare”.  

We'll likely be hearing more of that idea if there is a change of government.  The Economist went on:

The workers for this industrial advance could be found in abundance on the farms, the Soviets believed.  Agriculture was so overmanned it could lose millions of field-hands without much damage to the harvest.  That was just as well, because the remaining peasantry would have to feed the factory workers as well as themselves.  One way or another, resources would have to be transferred from the countryside to the cities.  By organising the peasantry into collective farms, the Soviets hoped to make them more productive—and easier to “tax”.  A collective farm was, they believed, easier to collect from."

Alas, it was not to be:

"Stalin expropriated, expelled or exterminated many of the most prosperous and sophisticated farmers (the “kulaks”), requisitioned grain at low prices and tried to nationalise draught-animals.  In response, aggrieved farmers simply slaughtered their horses and oxen or stopped feeding them.  These efforts to extract resources from agriculture by force were a disastrous blunder as well as a crime.  At its worst, agricultural output declined by over a quarter compared with 1928, leaving the planners with less to redistribute to the urban workforce."

And so the Gulag came.  For the awful details of what happened you can do no better than read Stephen Kotkin's Stalin Volume 2: Waiting for Hitler, 1928-1941 (Allen Lane).  The Economist article ends with an examination of the potency of Soviet economic ideas for modern China and other parts of Asia.

As for the exhibition, even if you factor out the Gulag's inevitability, the art is disturbing but rather magnificent.

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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