A Talk with Trotsky

By Edward Alsworth Ross

[The Independent, March 9, 1918]

This personal interview with the leader of the Bolsheviki is the first of a series of articles to be presented in The Independent by Professor Edward Alsworth Ross, the eminent American sociologist and economist. “I have traveled 15,000 miles,” writes Professor Ross, “since I set out from Petrograd. I bring back amazing stories. I consider my half year in Russia, in 1917, the richest experience possible to a sociologist since the summer of 1793 in France?”

It was on a short Petrograd December day but a little over a month after the capture of power by the Bolsheviks that I ran the gauntlet of soldiers that guard the long corridors of Smolni Institute and was ushered into the presence of Leon Trotzky, nee Bronstein, Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Bolsheviks and right hand man of Lenine, nee Oulianoff, the economist and strategist of Russian Socialism. I found a square-shouldered man of medium height whose advertisement of intellect in his broad wall-like forehead was balanced by a firm, square chin announcing will.

After telling him that I was interested in his economic program rather than his peace program, I asked: “Is it the intention of your party to dispossess the owners of industrial plants in Russia?”

“No, he replied. “We are not ready yet to take over all industry. That will come in time, but no one can say how soon. For the present we expect out of the earnings of a factory to pay the owner five or six per cent yearly on his actual investment. What we aim at now is control rather than ownership.”

What do you mean by ‘control’?”

“I mean that we will see to it that the factory is run not from the point of view of private profit but from the point of view of the social welfare democratically conceived. For example, we will not allow the capitalist to shut up his factory in order to starve his workmen into submissiveness or because it is not yielding him a profit. If it is turning our economically a needed product it must be kept running. If the capitalist abandons it, he will lose it altogether, for a board of directors chosen by the workmen will be put in charge.

"Again, 'control' implies that the books and correspondence of the concern will be open to the public, so that henceforth there will be ho industrial secrets. If this concern hits upon a better process or device it will be communicated to all other concerns in the same branch of industry, so that the public will promptly realize the utmost possible benefit from the find. At present it is hidden away from other concerns at the dictate of the profit-seeking motive and for years the article may be kept needlessly scarce and dear to the consuming public.

"'Control' also means that primary requisites limited in quantity such as coal, oil, iron, steel, etc., will be allotted to the different plants calling for them with an eye to their social utility. On a limited stock of materials of production, concerns that produce luxuries should have a slighter claim than those which produce necessaries.

"Don't misunderstand me," he added, "we are not ascetics. Luxuries shall be produced, too, when there is enough of fuel and materials for all the factories."

"On what basis will you apportion a limited supply of the means of production among the claimant industries?"

"Not as now according to the bidding of capitalists against one another, but on the basis of full and carefully gathered statistics."

"Will the workmen's committee or the elected managers of a factory be free to run it according to their own lights?"

"No, they will be subject to policies laid down by the local council of workmen's deputies."

"Will this council be at liberty to adopt such policies as it pleases?" "No, their range of discretion will be limited in turn by regulations made for each class of industry by the boards or bureaus of the central government."

"In a conversation last week with Prince Kropotkin," I said, "he urged that each center be autonomous with respect to the industries carried on within it. Let the city of Moscow, for example, be owner and mistress of all the mills in and around that city. What do you think of it?"

"Kropotkin's communalism," replied Trotzky, leaning forward a little in his earnestness, "would work in a simple society based on agriculture and household industries, but it isn't at all suited to the state of things in modern industrial society. The coal from the Dorietz basin goes all over Russia 'and is indispensable in all sorts of industries. Now, don't you see that if the organized people of that district could do just as they pleased with the coal mines, they could hold up all the rest of Russia if they chose? Entire independence of each locality respecting its industries would result in endless friction and difficulties in a society that has reached the stage of local specialization of industry. It might even bring on civil war. Kropotkin has in mind the Russia of sixty years ago, the Russia of his youth."

"Then you are centralist rather than federalist?"

"Not at all," he answered quickly, "on economic matters the degree of centralization should correspond with the actual stage of development of industrial organization. But unitary regulation of production is very different from the centralization that characterized the old regime. There is no call for the steam roller to crush the different nationalities among us into conformity of speech, religion, education, etc."

"What should be done to meet the wishes of the diverse nationalities in Russia, Finns, Letts, Lithuanians, Little Russians, Georgians, Armenians and Tartars?"

"The only solution is a Federal Union such as you have in the United States. Let each of the states of future Russia be free to do as it will in respect to language, schools, religion, courts, laws, penal systems, etc."

"Do you propose that the profits earned by a concern shall be divided among its workers?"

"No, profit-sharing is a bourgeois notion. The workers in a mill will be paid adequate wages. All the profits not paid to the owners will belong to society."

"To the local community or to the central government?"

"They will be shared between the two according to their comparative needs."

"What will be shared—everything above running expenses? Or will you set aside something for depreciation, so that when the plant is worn out there will be money enough to replace it?"

"Oh, of course, it is only pure profit that will be divided."

"By sticking to this principle you can keep up the existing industrial outfit. But in some branches—say the making of motorcycles or tractors—new factories are called for to supply the expanding needs of the public. Where will the money come from that will build these new factories?"

"We can impose on the capitalist to whom we allow a dividend of five or six per cent on his capital the obligation to reinvest in some industry—a part, say twenty-five per cent—of what he receives."

"If in Russia you hold the capitalists down, to five or six per cent while in other countries they can hope for twice or thrice as much return, won't Russia be stripped of capital?"

"They won't he allowed to remove their capital from Russia at will," said Trotzky significantly.

"Besides," he went on, "do you imagine that capitalist control is going to survive everywhere save in Russia? In all the European belligerent countries I expect to see social revolution after the war. So long as they remain in the trenches the soldiers think of little but their immediate problem-—to kill your opponent before he kills you. But when they go home and find their family scattered, perhaps their home desolate, their industry ruined and their taxes five times as high as before, they will begin to consider how this appalling calamity was brought upon them. They will be open to the demonstration that the scramble of capitalists and groups of capitalists for foreign markets and exploitable colonial areas, imperialism, secret diplomacy and armament rivalry promoted by munition makers, brought on the war. Once they perceive that the capitalist class is responsible for this terrible disaster to humanity they will arise and wrest the control from its hands. To be sure, a proletarian Russia cannot get very far in realizing its aims, if all the rest of the world remains under the capitalist regime. But that will not happen."

"Everywhere in Russia I go I find a slump of forty or fifty per cent' n the productivity of the workmen in the factories. Is there not danger of an insufficiency of manufactured goods if the workmen of each factory follow pretty much their own gait?"

"The current low productivity is a natural reaction from the labor-driving characteristic of the old regime. In time that will be overcome by standards of efficiency being adopted by each craft union and the denial of the advantages of membership to such workmen as will not or cannot come up to these standards. Besides, collectivist production will make great use of the Taylor system of scientific management. It has not been popular among the proletariat because as now applied it chiefly swells the profits of the capitalist with little benefit to the working man or the consuming public. When all the economy of effort it achieves accrues to society as a whole, it will be cheerfully and generally adopted, and premature labor, prolonged Tabor and overwork will be abandoned because needless."

Such are the ideas of the leader, I submitted them to various Russian economists and all agreed that the Russian workmen are too ignorant and short-sighted to submit themselves to the sound economic principles which may be held by their leaders. Conscious of being masters of the industrial properties, they will not submit themselves to indispensable discipline, they will 'not follow the counsel of technical men and they will "eat up the capital," so that before the factories have been long in their hands it will be impossible to keep them going.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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