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Recent reading: The socialist sixth of the world

3 June 2010

The Socialist Sixth of the World The Socialist Sixth of the World by Hewlett Johnson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a strange book – a Church of England clergyman extolling Stalinist Russia

It has been on our shelves all my life, but I had never read it until last month when Chris Hall mentioned it, and wondered about it.

It belonged to my father, who was an atheist. He left when I was 12, and I never saw him again, and he left some of his books behind, including this one. I’m not sure whether he left them because he didn’t value them, or even whether he had ever read them. Another was Darwin’s Origin of species. He was a chemist, and worked for National Chemical Products, one of the biggest chemical companies in South Africa, and became a director, so he was certainly part of a capitalist enterprise. I think perhaps he bought the book because it laid such stress on science. So reading it was, in some ways, encountering, and trying to interpret, the mind of my father, and wondering why he had bought the book, and what he thought of it when he read it, if he did.

The author, Hewlett Johnson, was born in the same year as my grandfather, 1874. He grew up in the industrial area around Manchester, trained as an engineer, but eventually was ordained in the Church of England and became Dean of Manchester, and then Dean of Canterbury, with the epithet of the Red Dean of Canterbury.

And so he describes the USSR on the eve of the Second World War. The copy I have is billed on the front as “Cheap War Edition” and was reprinted numerous times as the USSR first entered a pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, and was in turn invaded by the Germans in 1941. This perhaps does something to explain its popularity, as the British tried to learn more about the friend of their enemy that suddenly became their ally.

And for Johnson, the Soviet Union under Stalin is an earthly paradise. Though he occasionally acknowledges that there were problems, he does not dwell on them, but rather dismisses them as temporary glitches, and since other writers had emphasiesed the problems, he was going to stress the positive side of Soviet society.

Stalin’s constitution of 1936, he says, is the most democratic constitution in the world.

Stalin is no oriental despot. His new constitution shows it. His readiness to relinquish power shows it. His refusal to add to the power he already possesses shows it. His willingness to lead his people down new and unfamiliar paths of democracy shows it. The easier course would have been to add to his own power and develop autocratic rule. His genius is revealed in the short, simple sentences which enshrine the Basic Law of the U.S.S.R., where in clear, clean language stands the charter of the new rights of man in the socialist society. Here is a document which ranks among the greatest of all human documents in its love of humanity and its reverence for human dignity…

When these fateful and restless years are past, and when historians have settled down quietly to weigh the facts, there is small doubt that Stalin will stand out as a giant among pigmies, the man who, unlike those smaller men who clutch at power for themselves, trained and guided that great family of peoples that we call the Soviet Union towards the right exercise of power, gladly surrendering to them a power which is really their own as their understanding and ability to use it increases.

Johnson sings the praises of the planned command economy, citing dramatically increased production statistics as proof of his contention. In a short period of 20 years, the Soviet Union had abolished unemployment, poverty, hunger and homelessness. The population was well-fed, well housed, enjoying the right to work, and motivated to work well because the means of production belonged to them. Their children had free access to higher education, and they had the security of knowing that health care was provided free of charge, and they would have adequate pensions for a comfortable old age.

He says we should not compare the Soviet Union with the West, but to be fair we should contrast the production figures with the best of the Tsarist period, in 1912-1913. But he also can’t refrain from pointing out that the West was suffering from the Great Depression, and so poverty and unemployment were at exceptionally high levels.

In 1929 (the capitalist peak year) Soviet industrial production was 3.8 per cent of the rest of the world. By 1932 (the capitalist slump) it was 11 per cent. In 1936 it rose to 15.2 per cent, which shows the steady Soviet advance to be even faster than the boom phase of the capitalist cycle. The Third Five-Year Plan is expected to provide for an industrial output reaching by 1942 nearly a third of the total capitalist world’s output.

The trouble is, it sounds too good to be true, and it is. Only by glossing over the nastier aspects of Stalinism does Johnson make his case. His praise is over the top, and therefore sounds hollow. It’s advertising hype. His book reads like a Soviet propaganda poster.

Of course for Johnson the Soviet Union is a model of religious freedom. “Some 50,000 priests live today in the Soviet Union. They are as free to vote at the polls as any other citizen.” I am not sure where Johnson got that figure from, but other, more reliable sources put the number in that period as fewer than 8000. And if that figure is so inaccurate, it puts the other statistics he cites in doubt too.

In 1941, after the German invasion, Stalin relaxed his policy towards the church somewhat, so that the church could encourage the population to participate in the Great Patriotic War. The story, probably apocryphal, is told that Stalin called in the Patriarch to explain this change of policy, and assured him that if the church needed anything, he would do his best to provide it. The Patriarch said that there were not enough priests, and there were no seminaries, and so no seminarians training to be priests.

“Why?” said Stalin, “what has happened to all your seminarians?”

“Well, one of them became the Marshall of the Soviet Union”, replied the Patriarch (referring to Stalin’s own attendance at a seminary in Georgia,. before he dropped out).

But even with the wartime relaxations, in 1946 only 3,5% of priests & deacons in the USSR had a university or theological academy degree; 39% had graduated from a high-school level seminary and 57% had not advanced beyond a basic primary school education (Nathaniel Davis, A long walk to church), p. 116.

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