A Novel of Primitive Accumulation in the Soviet Union

The law locks up the hapless felon

Who steals the goose from off the common

But lets the greater felon loose

Who steals the common from the goose.

This traditional rhyme, with a couple additional like it, are the only documentation we have of the initial rise of capitalism from the point of view of its victims. I have written here and there about this subject before in relation to England, previously considered by Marxists as the site of the “ideal” transition to capitalism from feudalism. What I said before I will only spend a few words repeating. The rise of capitalism was predicated on the complete destruction of hitherto existing forms of production, indeed, the annihilation of the entire way of life of the vast majority.

What this involved was, basically, systematic death and destruction on a scale never heard of before. While the common lands mentioned in the poem above were “enclosed,” ensuring mass starvation that would leave wage labor as the only possible way the people could make their living, brigandage and vagrancy were stamped out by harsh laws leading to the execution of thousands. Millions of others were condemned to poor houses, where they worked for less than pennies. At the same time, a brutal campaign of terror in the form of “witch trials” took place which exterminated female folk doctors and herbalists, and with them the ancient knowledge of contraception and abortion which stood in the way of pushing the population up to create the class of immiserated wage laborers the new system required.

This was not a process that went without resistance on a mass scale to the unfolding of the capitalist system at every turn. Brian Manning in his magisterial study The English People and the English Revolution documents brilliantly the struggles of the peasantry against feudal exploitation which served as a complement to urban Puritan resistance in the English Civil War, and the Levellers and Diggers who sealed their death sentences by advocating a community that would benefit all as the most radical wing of that struggle. E.P. Thompson in his classic The Making of the English Working Class writes of how foreign the ways of the new capitalism were to its victims, and the brilliant religion-charged critiques that working class Methodists, and followers of more millenarian sects like that of Joanna Southcott formulated, along with the opening of the age of insurrection against capitalism in the heroic Luddite movement. David McNally in the Deutscher Prize-winning Monsters of the Market tells us how the formative English proletariat waged open war against the corpse economy, which was felt to be the most degrading aspect of the new system both spiritually and metaphysically.

Unfortunately, before the 19th century or so, when the system was already firmly established, we get very little documentation of what all this meant from the point of view of the working class- the people who, to use Mary Shelley’s metaphor, were dissected and put back together to fit the purposes of the new system, the most brutal forms of exploitation ever seen in the world. There are of course various reasons for this, most of all that these people were by and large illiterate, but along with it, that their masters tried their very hardest to stamp out any tradition of resistance- which, of course, they were only partially successful at.

Some of these same barriers would be at work in documenting the transition to capitalism in the case of one country which accomplished this hundreds of years later. We can recall only with the deepest sadness that the leader of this country stated openly that what Western European nations had accomplished over the course of hundreds of years, his country must make good in only five to ten years. The country was the Soviet Union, and its leader Josef Stalin.

I don’t want to spend much time rehashing the case for state capitalism – there is an excellent volume published by Haymarket Books, Russia: From Workers’ State to State Capitalism, which provides the main arguments, alongside various works by Tony Cliff and Chris Harman. The rise of a state-planned capitalism capable of competing economically and militarily with the West entailed suffering on an even greater scale than it did in the West, since it had to be compressed so much.

Since the 1980s, the anticommunism of Robert Conquest and others who were the first to analyze these developments has fortunately been displaced by a revisionist school led by Shelia Fitzpatrick, J. Arch Getty and others who are more tempered in their pronouncements and more nuanced in documenting the transition from Leninism to Stalinism. This has made us better aware of what was entailed: not only a war against the Soviet peasantry by its own state in which hundreds of thousands died by malice (the “dekulakization” campaigns) or by neglect (the man-made famines in Ukraine and elsewhere), but the massacre of a whole generation of Bolsheviks who had led the revolution and were capable of leading another, along with thousands of Party members and minor state officials who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time (what is known as the Great Purges.)

Unlike in England, however, this brutal transition did not go entirely undocumented in the literature of those who were its victims. The Revolution of 1917, along with being the greatest event in human history, launched a massive outpouring of achievement in the arts, that took the Stalinist regime a long time to curtail. Millions of workers and peasants learned to read and write, and the deluge of memoir, fiction and poetry they produced in the years after 1917 had been supported and published with the direct assistance of the Soviet state. When the rule of the Soviets was undermined by its own bureaucracy, this did not go unnoticed by these writers. The publication of We by the Bolshevik engineer and writer Yevgeny Zamiatin, the suicide of the Soviet poet laureate Vladimir Mayakovsky, the anti-Stalin poems of Osip Mandelstam, and searing novels by Victor Serge are all parts of this tradition. All these writers, crucially, had been supporters of the revolution from the beginning, and some of them would lay down their lives in its service.

Another of them who has only recently come to the attention of the English-speaking world is Andrey Platonov. Before the revolution, Platonov had been a student whose intellectual pedigree varied from Greek philosophy to Orthodox mysticism, combined with a deep devotion to the eccentric Russian philosopher Nikolai Feodorov, who believed the development of science would lead to the physical resurrection of the dead and the colonization of planets beyond Earth.

After 1917, however, Platonov like many of his class were inspired to devote their lives to the benefit of the Soviet system, deeply believing it would lead to a society run by all and for all which could then accomplish advances in science, technology and art that could never have been imagined before. He retrained as an engineer, serving during the 1920s supervising the draining of swamps and digging of wells that would provide the basis for a society in which all could be prosperous and live happily. At the same time, he emerged as a leading figure in the Proletkult movement of writers who argued for privileging the experience of the working class in Soviet literature (somewhat to the chagrin of Leon Trotsky, who found the movement rather formalist and intellectually vapid.)

In 1928, after the struggles that chased Trotsky, Bukharin and their followers out of the Communist Party, the first Five Year Plan was launched by the Stalinist class which had taken control. It was what I described earlier: the beginning of initial accumulation which led to the Soviet Union establishing itself on an equal basis economically vis-a-vis the West. Understandably, many Bolsheviks who opposed Stalin were caught somewhat off guard by this. If the collectivization of agriculture and establishment of industry was the basis of socialism, as they had long argued, then wasn’t Stalin objectively building socialism? And wasn’t it their duty to stand with him if so?

Platonov had joined the Party in 1921, and there is no indication I know of that he was involved with the oppositions led by Trotsky, Bukharin, or any others. I suspect he followed the inclination of many Communists and Russian workers that the Plan was the road to socialism. Nevertheless, serving once again as an engineer tasked with implementing it, he would run up against its brutal realities. The product of this encounter was a novel called The Foundation Pit.

The Foundation Pit only runs 150 pages in its English edition. But don’t let it fool you – the text is so rife with sorrow and symbolism that I suspect most readers, which include me, will want to take their time with it. In fact this is my second time reading it, and it took me even longer than the first.

The novel centers on an unnamed town in the Russian countryside, whose workers and Party activists have been tasked with the construction of a giant building to house all its people in the future – a “House of Labor.” Starting out with a plan to dig a foundation for the building, they are caught in the tide of increasingly demanding pronouncements and instructions from the Party center requiring a bigger building each time. When finally Stalin gives his speech that activists have become “dizzy with success,” which condemned the overeager fulfillment of the Plan such as the ever-deepening pit, it has become a tomb containing the bones of not only the former bourgeois and kulaks, but sincere workers, party members, and most tragically, of the children who are expected to inherit the socialist future.

On its face, the construction of a House of Labor carries resonances with earlier Russian literature – but of a decidedly counterrevolutionary variety. The reference, which Platonov was certainly aware of, is to Dostoevsky. In Notes from Underground, the unnamed narrator whose monologues fill the slim volume fulminates against such projects. Tying together the Tower of Babel, the Crystal Palace constructed for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, and the building of the same name in Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s parable/utopian novel What is to Be Done?, our “sick, despicable” narrator regards these “palaces” as a hateful symbol of the belief that human society can be perfected. In Dostoevsky’s view, human nature was cowardly, mean and despicable, and men would reject being perfect as Chernyshevsky wanted them to be just because they had the choice of rejecting it.

In modern times, the statements of Dostoevsky’s narrator have been taken as an early expression of anticommunism, despite the fact that he died decades before 1917, and that he intended the novel as a polemic against revolutionary populism of the Narodnya Volna group and liberal capitalist modernizers alike. The translators of my version of The Foundation Pit, Robert Chandler and Olga Meerson, take this view uncritically: “As Dostoevsky criticized the idealized Crystal Palace that appears in a dream to the heroine of Chernyshevsky’s novel, so Platonov criticizes the grandiose projects of his own time; like Dostoevsky, he compares them to the Tower of Babel” (Afterword, 160).

It never ceases to amaze me that academics will consistently ignore what is in plain sight. They do not seem to recall, just as a start, that Platonov was a Party member and dedicated Communist. Statements like these also leave by the wayside his background as the very man whose job it was to assist in the creation of “crystal palaces” – from where this novel emerges. Reading the novel makes it clear that Platonov disagrees not with the construction of socialism, which he dedicated years of his life to, but rather how he perceives it is being constructed. It seems inconceivable somehow to these scholars of literature that the symbols and language of Dostoevsky, along with those of Orthodoxy, Slavic folklore and even Stalinism, might be used to construct a critique of an entirely new and unanticipated society. In this sense, The Foundation Pit is a simultaneously hilarious and terrifying parable of Soviet primitive accumulation, mistaken by Platonov and others as a brutal, but successful, construction of socialism.

If there is any writer who compares favorably with Platonov in terms of subject matter and political critique, it is the Englishman George Orwell. I say this knowing that once I do, it may be hard for others to appreciate what makes Platonov distinct. But there is something about the tragic irony of The Foundation Pit as compared to Animal Farm. Though Orwell wrote it with the polemical intention of discrediting Russian “socialism,” one can detect the great sympathy he has for the Soviet working class in the character of Boxer, the workhorse whose constant admonition to himself is “I will work harder” for the construction of socialism, until he cripples himself and Napoleon, the stand-in for Stalin, cynically has him sold off for glue. In Orwell’s writing, you have the tragedy of the working class, in all its naivete and idealism, its laziness and heroism. We see a total incomprehension of “plans” and their “fulfillment,” which have no regard to the basic needs of human beings, in both writers – what Orwell represents in 1984 with the absurd yet historically accurate equation: “2 + 2 = 5.”

Similarly, Platonov never treads close to idealizing his subjects, as tragic as the narrative gets. The Soviet proletariat in The Foundation Pit does sincerely believe that what they do is to construct socialism – as so many other workers in market capitalist nations have been persuaded to sacrifice their interests to the glory of the nation. Despite this, they are not idiots or dupes of Stalin. They possess the memory of the revolution that they made a decade previous, however fleeting that may be, and on that basis they feel instinctively that they have been betrayed.

We see this in their rage against the technical specialists, party activists and district personnel. The Civil War veteran Zhachev insists on addressing the party activist as “you bourgeois,” and on using his pension to buy butter which he then uses to grease the wheels of his cart so to deny it to the upper echelons. Or in Safronov’s angry address to Prushevsky, the engineer (perhaps standing in for the author). We get a sense of the deep but impotent rage an atomized working class feels against its bosses in this novel.

Despite this, Platonov makes it clear that the days of the First Five Year Plan were not a joyride for the technical specialists like Prushevsky, or the Party activists (the one in the book remains anonymous) who were tasked with implementing the Stalinist line and enforcing discipline. Prushevsky constantly feels a deep despair to the point of suicide: “‘I’d better die,’ thought Prushevsky. ‘People make use of me, but no one is glad of me'” (21). Or of the party activist who is denounced for overfulfilling the plan as “gone rushing forward into the leftist quagmire of rightist opportunism… No one can disagree that such a comrade is a wrecker and saboteur of the Party, an objective enemy of the proletariat,” who does not resist his death at the hands of the vengeful workers he has pressed so hard to fulfill the plan in accordance with Party directives (136). With the words of several other characters, “I’m bored,” he merely takes his penance and stops breathing.

Platonov gets at the character of the most psychotic of the Stalinist campaigns, the anti-kulakization drive, in one of the later sections of the book. Having proclaimed the collective farm, at which point the peasants proceed to slaughter and feast on their own livestock, the hapless Communists seek high and low in the town for a citizen who can be called authentically proletarian who can identify and punish the kulaks. They succeed in finding the one hired laborer in the town – but it is a trained bear who works as an assistant to the blacksmith, who they then coax out to hunt kulaks with the dinner bell. “Just bang on the church bell so Misha knows it’s lunchtime. Otherwise he won’t budge – he’s a stickler for discipline!” (108). This tragicomic episode ends with the supposed kulaks being “liquidated” – the activist committee understands this to mean they should be put on a barge and sent down the river.

All of this is, of course, infused with cultural and religious symbolism. The bear, named Mikhail Ivanovich, is a common character in Slavic folktales, where he helps the peasants with their tasks and punishes those who mistreat him – such is a symbol Platonov uses to represent the innocence and fundamental humanity of the Russian proletariat, ironically in the being of an animal. And before the kulaks are “liquidated,” they perform the Orthodox rite of Lenten forgiveness with their neighbors. Platonov is perhaps the most perceptive observer of the traditions of the Russian people and their reactions to an alien system of state capitalism being imposed on them from above.

In the end, the superhuman efforts of all the characters, from Voshchev who desires a useful occupation, to the Party activist who wants to direct the masses of his district toward socialism, to Misha the huge and innocent bear, to the child Nastya who merely desires to live to see socialism, all find themselves poured metaphorically and literally into the giant hole that is the foundation pit. I cannot think of a better metaphor for alienation in modern life – hence the “absurdism” or “existentialism” that critics point to, without understanding the very historical basis of this type of literature. I find the book hard to recommend more highly.

Andrey Platonov, The Foundation Pit. New York: NYRB Classics, 2008. $14.95

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