THE AMERICAN FORD WORKER IN SOVIET RUSSIA – FRED BEAL

This summer the American communist and Ford tractor worker at Kharkov Fred Beal walks through a ghost village seeing on walls of huts and offices pictures of Stalin and Beria. In his “Introduction and Acknowledgments”, author Simon Serbag Montefiore credits Robert Conquest for inspiring him to write his book on Stalin “who has been the most patient, generous supporter and adviser throughout…”, and able to access the State Archive of Russian Federation (GARF) lucky to get into the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History (RGASPI) in 1999, and other Russian archival material. (Simon Serbag Montefiore, Stalin, The Court of the Red Tsar, NY: Knopf, 2004; Fred E. Beal, Word From Nowhere, London, R. Hale, 1937, 254-5 published in the US under the title of Proletarian Journey; on industrialization, see R. Conquest, Harvest of Sorrow, 168)

Fred Beal lived in Kharkov, Ukraine’s capital during the worst period of the famine-terror in the Ukraine of the winter of the Holodomor 1932-1933. He finally emerged from the USSR to tell his story in his book titled Proletarian Journey published in 1937. Beal was no casual observer. The “proletarian” worker had served in the ranks of US Army during the First World War disposing the guts of dead American soldiers, literally. That was his assignment, removing victims of the Spanish influenza, so-called battle casualties. Nearly half of the hundred and eight thousand American war deaths are results of the epidemic. The war ends before Beal could join up with the AEF in France. Back home during the 1920s Beal evolves into a radical labor leader fighting for better working conditions and made his mark as a skilled union activist in the tough immigrant textile towns of New Bedford and Lawrence in Massachusetts. His civil rights activism with progressives in the South earns him was a 20-year prison sentence in North Carolina but he slips out of the country to try his luck with Soviet socialist experiment.

Still a fugitive during the Depression in January 1931 Beal again eludes authorities reentering the US and for months he avoids police. Beal describes the contemporary mood in the US. Beal finds himself caught in the twilight zone between illusion and reality. “The Five-Year propaganda,” he writes, “was at its zenith. Magazines and newspapers, capitalist publications all, were overflowing with exuberant reports, fantastic statistics, prophetic interpretations of Soviet progress. Travelers returned from Russia with ecstatic accounts. I was bewildered. I could no longer get my bearings in this topsy-turvy scene. Why even Roger Baldwin privately knew one truth about Russia and publicly professed another.” ACLU founder and Havard man Baldwin’s response to the Soviet famine-terror, is summed up in one word when he tells him, “‘Politics, Fred, politics’.”

Beal explained his situation this way: “I, too, was persuaded to withhold my criticism of Soviet Russia. ‘Do not give comfort to the enemy by telling the truth about Russia… Just give them a chance! They are going to do marvelous things for the workers. One cannot make a revolution with silk gloves. One cannot build Socialism without sacrifices. What are the difficulties today as compared with the glorious future of Communism?’” Beal considers Baldwin as a New Englander of Puritan stock, a privileged Harvard graduate and excellent labor lawyer. In 1931 Baldwin and American communists and other friends advise Beal to return to the Soviet Union “and give the Soviets another chance”. Liberals and conservatives alike played the old tune that ‘Things have changed for the better in the Soviet Union.” Many of them know that American capitalists are investing big bucks into Stalin’s bold Russian reconstruction. They knew along with thousands of other American workers who sailed overseas to help build Soviet socialist plants and factories based on plans and technology of American capitalists, Beal faced head-on the blaring contradictions of the paradox of truth inscribed in the myth of the Soviet and American propaganda. Finding work conditions no better in the U.S he secretly ships out again back to the USSR in September 1931. (F. Beal, 274)

Settling in Kharkov Beal experiences life first-hand on the ground as a Soviet factory worker in the net the false socialist paradise trumpeted by Kremlin Commissars and the American Communist Party and their Soviet agents. Although I didn’t know it at the time, as a young man fresh out of Yale had an indirect distant connection with Beal. Throughout the Holodomor famine years Beal is counseled by his friend Roger Baldwin, the Harvard social libertarian lawyer (Class 1910), and founder of the American Civil Liberties Union during Wilson’s repression of civil dissent and opposition to the war in 1917.

A few years after meeting separately with Baldwin, Henry Lodge, and Solzhenitsyn at Harvard that day commencement speech, I met with the octogenarian Baldwin alone in a New Jersey hospital ward. Upright in bed Roger was still sprite and full of life. Ironically, not long after I sat across a table in the modest kitchen of a small Manhattan apartment with the former American communist Corliss Lamont, bellicose son of Thomas Lamont who still hadn’t settled bitter scores over Baldwin’s liberal brand of social activism. So late in his life Roger had grown frail but still that spark of youth not to accept social injustices and weakness permanently set his face aglow. Baldwin wondered why at the time I should persist in writing a book on John Reed, who broke away from Eugene Debs and the mainstream pro-war American Socialist Party and crossed over to the Lenin-Trotsky Bolshevik band of soviet communists. Baldwin had also been a trusted friend of Reed and his wife Louise Bryant during their early years in Greenwich Village of downtown Manhattan and passed her letters from Reed in Russia.

In his book Beal describes Baldwin “a champion of civil liberties and an apologist of Stalin’s system of terror”. What a contradiction! Baldwin a Stalinist? Such was the confused and twisted political climate of the thirties in America for the down-and-out in those stark years of the Depression when union organizers fought, often violently, to improve labor conditions and the rights of workers under the heel of Consortium capitalists. This is the same era when Sinclair Lewis wrote his novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935) about a fascist takeover of the American presidency, awaking the public that a figure no less dangerous than a Benito Mussolini or an Adolf Hitler but with a more congenial persona some may think akin to a Harriman, a Rockefeller, – or even a Roosevelt –, might likewise use the radio and propaganda media to stage a coup. Or, a General Douglas MacArthur, the Army Chief of Staff who led FDR’s 1933 Inaugural parade and who FDR had denounced the previous summer as one of the two most dangerous men in America. Jonathan Alter writes of the meeting February 1, 1933 when Lippmann meets with Roosevelt at Warm Springs and advised the President-elect that it might be necessary to assume dictatorial powers to save the country from bankruptcy and anarchy. (Jonathan Alter, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2006, 187)

What were American capitalists up to investing in Soviet communism? For the most part Soviet communists and Wall Street ignored or denied it. It took years for Fred Beal, Eugene Lyons and others to publish their Soviet memoirs critical of Stalin’s totalitarian slave state fueling a national debate made more contentious once Roosevelt extended the olive branch to normalize relations between the two governments with the Nazi Reich the European powder keg squarely in the middle. By late 1933 by which time the Holodomor reaches its peak, FDR’s policy of extending formal relations to Stalinist Russia seemed more like a tame gesture of recognition of the status quo. The icing on the cake of Consortium business for these war planners who justified the famine, it was the only diplomatic thing to do. (re. J. Alter, re. Gen. MacArthur, 223)

Food conditions in Russia have profoundly worsened during Beal’s nine months stay in America. Around Kharkov and Kiev the forced food blockades instituted a food “reverse” ban making it a crime to bring food into the Ukraine from Soviet Russia and Soviet Belarus without written permission. Authorities restrict the volume of food entering the region. Beal uses his precious dollars to buy supplies at the Torgsin stores. “What an extraordinary institution was the Torgsin! It developed out of the shipment of food packages from abroad to relatives and foreigners in Russia. The appeals of the latter to individuals in America and elsewhere started a stream of food parcels to the Soviet Union.” The Soviets developed the stores “into a nation-wide chain where the recipients of orders from abroad as well as Russians owning gold or foreign currency obtained food supplies. The vast majority of the population could only pass the Torgsin stores and look hungrily into the windows. For the Soviet currency was not valid in these shops. Fortunate were those who had generous kin in America, the land which according to the reports in the Soviet press at the time was in the throes of hunger and on the verge of collapse.” Beal comes across a Torgsin store where a Afro-American actress worked, in Russia since she performed for the Czar. The US embassy eventually expedited her return in 1934. (F. Beal, 275-6)

Assigned a propaganda job at the Kharkov tractor plant in the colony of foreign workers “mostly Americans, Germans and Czechoslovaks” Beal meets his “chief”, a Ukrainian woman back from Los Angeles. Beal is in a good position to learn whats going on and often gets instructions from Clarence Hathaway, Moscow representative of the American Communist Party and a junior member of the American Politburo of the CPUSA led by Foster and Browder. Hathaway, too, is a member of the Soviet Comintern of world communists and later editor of the Daily Worker in New York. Here Beal learns the foreigners task of “showing the Russians how to produce tractors without giving way to their individualistic tendencies and loose political notions”. In other words, Beal and his comrades endure endless repetition of the doctrinaire Bolsheviki and communist slogans for collective solidarity to defeat the foreign imperialists preparing to destroy Soviet Russia.

Beal’s assignment in the Ukraine is not disregarded by the authorities and offers him a particularly unique vantage position from which to observe the Soviets besieged by the Holodomor. “I was thrown in contact,” he recalled, “with the highest Soviet officials, such as Petrovsky, the President of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic; with Skrypnyk, Vice-president of the Council of People’s Commissars and member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; with the all-powerful Postichev (Pavel Petrovich Postyshev sic), who had been sent down by Stalin from Moscow to weed out the rebels in the Ukrainian Communist Party; and the leading officials of the GPU.”

Postyshev’s mission is two-fold: to accelerate grain seizures in the Ukraine thereby intensifying famine and suppress lingering individual and cultural traces of Ukrainian national identity that had been previously tolerated. Beal’s mission is to organize the several hundred foreign workers among ten thousand Russians, a formidable task. After his first attempt to call a meeting without a communist Party official present, Beal is reprimanded by a GPU official for an unpardonable breach in party procedure. From then on he has no illusions of Soviet party discipline. He learns quickly, and he writes in his book, “In reality, the Soviet regime was a dictatorship over the proletariat!” For him and the other foreigners there is no turning back. It will take a miracle to ever leave the USSR alive. (The GPU, or Gosudarstvennoe politscheskoe upravlenie, was the dreaded political police and ubiquitous successor to the Cheka (1921-28; Grigory Ivanovich Petrovsky (1878-58), veteran Bolshevik revolutionary, President of the Ukraine, 1919-39, director of the Museum of the Revolution in Moscow, purged in 1939.)

Let us, reader, take a closer look at what it meant to be a member of the Soviet Communist Party and leader in Soviet Ukraine. Mykola Skrypnyk paid the price of living with this new young generation of brutes and idiots in the CP bowing down to the inscrutable and infallible Stalin. Kiev professor Stanislav Kulchytsky writes in his article “Was Ukraine Under Soviet Occupation” published in 2007 in the national newspaper The Day: “Unlike Rakovsky, Mykola Skrypnyk was sincerely outraged by the restriction and directives that ran counter to the Soviet government’s declarations. He went so far as to make statements about the party’s ‘double-entry bookkeeping’ in regard to the nationality question. In both Diaspora and post-Soviet historiography Skrypnyk is an extraordinarily positive figure. I do not want to engage in polemics about this assessment. He was a very decent individual with a tragic destiny. Nor can one overlook his Herculean efforts in de-Russifying the Ukrainian Soviet republic and the North Caucasus territories that were inhabited by ethnic Ukrainians. One should not underestimate his role in transforming Ukrainians from an ethnographic mass into a nation aware of its historic past. It was Skrypnyk who, together with a group of leading members of the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries, who initially became Borotbists and later communists, did his best to ensure that the Soviet power lost its occupational character in Ukraine. He became one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Party at an early stage and was a convinced supporter of dictatorial methods of administration. He was also one of the founders of the notorious Cheka.” (S. Kulchytsky, “Was Ukraine Under Soviet Occupation”, The Day, Kyiv, July 10 2007 and July 17, 2007)

Prof. Kulchystsky further tells us, “Ukraine could be conquered by a million-strong army, but it was never fully controlled. Ukrainians had to become convinced that the Soviet government was their government. Officials, propagandists, Chekists, and teachers had to communicate in Ukrainian in official institutions, educational establishments, and the mass media. Addressing the 7th All-Ukraine Party Conference in April 1923, Trotsky noted that the estrangement of the ruling party and the Soviet apparatus from the bulk of the population was dangerous. One hundred times more dangerous, he believed, were misunderstandings with the peasantry if the latter did not belong to the nationality that was the ruling one in tsarist Russia. Hence the conclusion: they needed not only economic linkage with the peasant market (already established by the New Economic Policy); they also had to ponder the national linkage: language, school, and culture. The same thing was said a few days later by Stalin, when he addressed the 12th Congress of the RCP(B), except that he emphasized good relations rather than misunderstandings and their disastrous consequences: “…so that the Soviet power becomes dear also to the peasantry of other nationalities, so that it is understandable to it, so that it functions in their native languages, so that schools and organs of power are staffed with local people, who know the language, customs, and manner of life of the non-Russian nationalities.” The campaign that was launched by the 12th Party Congress became known as indigenization (korenizatsiia) whereby Soviet power took root in the national regions. In Ukraine, indigenization acquired the form of Ukrainization.”

Foreigner workers at the Kharkov tractor plant are all paid more than “the Russians”. Lavishly treated their enclave lives in separate model American-styled homes making them “a privileged class, divided by a chasm from the ten thousand Russian workers employed there.” Beal opposes the double-standard. His Soviet handlers warn him to shut up, and just see to it that the foreign workers are kept from revolting over poor living conditions. No complaints! Complaints will not be tolerated! But Beal follows good party discipline and registers their objections –, no heat, wood, coal, bread during winter. Famished and exhausted workers are “unable to go to work because of being hungry”. Beal’s group stages a hunger march. “The foreign correspondents in Moscow never got hold of this sort of news. If they did, they could not send it out to their papers. Moscow would expel them.” Beal knew that if ever “the capitalist press” picked it up, Stalin’s secret police would have arrested the leaders as “enemies of the people”. These are the Gulag days! Many of the German workers write home how rotten communist conditions really are. At least German industry feeds its workers! German trains run on time!

Beal witnessed the Fame Terror repression of the Ukraine. He observes, “The large colony of privileged foreign workers at the Kharkov Tractor Plant subsisted on a starvation diet.” A restaurant factor kitchen served noonday meal, bowl of cabbage soup “with a herring bone or two swimming in it, one slice of bread, and a few ounces of barley gruel. That was all.” Ordinary workers served no meat “except on special occasions, such as Soviet celebrations or the arrival of foreign tourists”. Workers ate in shifts, sometimes missing meals. Health conditions were unsanitary, workers went without soap. Shock troop workers (udarniks) might obtain shoes or a coat. Beal observed, “The common worker got nothing. Every man and woman in the plant was surrounded by stool pigeons, members of the GPU and other secret agents. They would turn the worker in for the slightest grumbling against his lot, not to speak of an attempt to organize any resistance to it. Sometimes members of the Communist Party and even the privileged udarnik would act as spies upon the common worker, inform upon him and turn in even supposedly good friends either by reason of fear or in the hope of advancement and getting favors from the authorities. The only weapon the common Soviet worker has in his agonizing efforts to throw off the shackles of his masters is the weapon of ‘silent sabotage’. The fear of getting shot or starvation in exile threatens any one who resorts to this means of protest. So inexorable is the terror that a strike among the Russian workers or a hunger march is almost inconceivable. Yet so extreme was the despair that all over Russia the workers were engaged in a great spontaneous campaign of silent sabotage’. The shock troopers at the Kharkov Tractor Plant were inspired or coerced by the Communist Party leaders to slave day and night, often in freezing weather, for the ‘workers government’… Most of the shock workers were simply stool-pigeons, however, who delivered their less fortunate and more exhausted fellow-workers to the terrorist authorities.”

As an American worker Beal learns how the Soviet authorities define socialist egalitarianism. Beal is free to travel to other cities and factories. Apart from Moscow and Leningrad, he writes, “I never saw any Russian workers whose average life was easier than that of the mass at the Kharkov Tractor Plant. I did see worse conditions. Beneath the privileged classes of the soldiers of the Red Army, of the officers of the GPU, of the specialists in charge of technical departments, of the higher Communist bureaucrats, and of the select udarniks, the vast class of the Russian workers was in a state of serfdom which defies exact definition.” (F. Beal, Proletarian Journey, Chapter 21, “Labor Under The Hammer And Sickle”, 287)

“The Kharkov Tractor Plant”, Beal writes, “was one of the most important Soviet undertakings and conditions there were supposed to be among the best in Russia”. Beal found working conditions “far and away worse than anything I had ever seen in America”. Hungry and emaciated workers were left without food, leave refused, and left to die in bunks, lacking privileged status to gain access to hospitals or medical relief. Workers had to work or they would be left without food, and die. “Workers tried heroically to keep up the fight. One mistake, one let-up and their places would be taken by others; they would be ‘removed’ or sent out into the open without a food ticket, without shelter or without a job. If by chance a worker lost his passport, he would absolutely be without a place in the economic structure of the country. Poor as his job might be, it was the only path to stave off complete starvation.” (F. Beal, 291)