La Dieta de Lenin

Leafing through the ENCOVI survey results, my mind went back. 100 years back. To Russia. Because the terms are different, but the logic is the same.

The ENCOVI survey carried out by a consortium of major Venezuelan universities and NGOs, should give everyone in the country room for pause. The results are catastrophic. 74% of Venezuelans are losing weight. On average, they’ve lost almost 20 pounds over the last year. Among the poorest, weight-loss over 20 pounds is common. Overall, 93.3% of Venezuelans say they don’t have enough money to buy the food they need. 

The question of how a revolutionary government survives an engineered famine and props up its flagging popularity at the same one is very much alive in Venezuela. But it’s not new. If you know your Russian history, you know long before the Dieta de Maduro, we had the Dieta de Lenin. 

Lenin’s tragedy is the antecedent to Maduro’s farce. In fact there’s no need to re-write the book on this: Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr Nekrich already wrote it. It’s called Utopia in Power, and reading it will give Venezuelans the chills.

Beginning in May 1918, mere months after the Russian Revolution, Lenin implemented a policy of grain requisitioning in which “peasants were obliged to sell the state all their surplus, at fixed prices.” Note that what we’re seeing here is the first step toward the destruction of the market because, as Andrzej Walicki has pointed out (in Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom), in the Marxist “utopian vision the abolition of the market was more important than the socialization of property.”

That set of values certainly holds true for Maduro, steeped as he is in the Marxism of the Socialist League he once led, specifically, the “Verticalist” faction that, as Cristina González writes, “insisted on the Marxist-Leninist model of consolidation of the left party that would maintain a verticalist structure for the movement.”

Heller and Nekrich quote Lenin saying that the requisition of grain “must become our fundamental activity” and that it had to “be pursued to the end.” But why, how and to what end?

The end would be a “grain monopoly” that would be the “socialist” way of “fighting hunger.” The means would be for the “food detachments,” to confiscate the grains and give back some portion to the peasants as a “material incentive.”

Only the combined efforts of Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration and perhaps the earliest Russian NGO, the All-Russia Famine Relief Committee, kept it from all being much worse. Canal humanitario, que le dicen. 

These “food detachments” were made up of “convinced loyalists to the October Revolution,” as Lenin wrote in July 1918. Unlike CLAPs, however, these groups went out and actually harvested grain throughout the areas under Soviet control rather than sorting out $23-dollar-boxes of packaged, imported foods the Venezuelan government pays $1000 for.

By requisitioning grain, Lenin eventually managed to break the market. Instead of that bottom-up mechanism for distributing goods, a top-down instrument of rationing was imposed, making the population increasingly dependent on Lenin’s government.

The long-term result was a famine that saw millions of peasants starve to death, and a peasant war that eventually took the lives of ten percent of the nation. Only the combined efforts of Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration and perhaps the earliest Russian NGO, the All-Russia Famine Relief Committee, kept it from all being much worse. Canal humanitario, que le dicen. 

Agriculture only recovered under the “New Economic Policy” in which market incentives and other “capitalist” instruments were reintroduced which, along with the humanitarian efforts mentioned above, slowly pulled the country out of famine.

But the policies of 1918 had their effect. Since “certain categories of the population did not get any” of the rations (and one can easily guess which “categories”), this part of the population was forced to “resort to illegal measures, fostering crime on a huge scale and giving birth to an extremely powerful black market. The grain monopoly and the ban on private trade trained people to think that commerce, in and of itself, was a counterrevolutionary activity or at best an unworthy occupation.” (p. 61 Heller and Nekrich).

Naturally, Nicolás Maduro has not shown a propensity for violence on the scale of Vladimir Lenin’s. What he has shown, though, is a fundamentally similar world-view, leading him to propose the same kinds of mechanisms to face up to the same problems that the same policies created.  

Food detachments? CLAPs? What’s in a name?

Clifton Ross

Clifton Ross recently published his political memoir documenting his conversion from Chavismo to the opposition. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife and co-editor, Marcy Rein, and their two cats.