There’s been a lot of confusion in the modern left over just what happened in the Soviet Union from 1928 to 1940. On one hand, there are those who peddle bourgeois propaganda and castigate all the victories of this period as the machinations of a “totalitarian” dictatorship endeavoring to order life so that it could control the lives of every citizen, or a bloody mess that resulted in millions of unnecessary deaths. On the other, the defeats of the period are often simplistically rendered as the product of nature or capitalist aggression, ignoring the internal contradictions debated over by the Soviets themselves.
This essay, then, will be a utilitarian introduction to the statistical realities of the period. This is nothing more than a review of what one can find Robert C. Allen’s Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, which is itself an excellent analysis of the period that I recommend to anyone desirous to learn more than what is summarized here.
A.) Properly Comparing the Soviet Union’s Economic Gains
It is the first trick of anti-communists to compare the gains of the Soviet Union to Western Europe and the United States – a comparison perhaps made easy by their rivalry in the Cold War. Economically speaking, the comparison is fraudulent. The Soviet Union in 1900 was comparable to China, the Latin-American periphery, Japan and South-East Asia – not the US and Western Europe.
As the graphs illustrate, the Soviet Union performed very well in comparison to countries that did not have significant American and Western European aid (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) and began 20th century development at a comparable starting point.
B.) Tsarist Potential in Comparison to Soviet Development
Many bourgeois historians have suggested that if the Kerensky Government (or even the Tsarist Autocracy) had continued, the countries that become the Soviet Union would have developed a higher rate than they historically did. Certainly, in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution, Russia saw gains in almost all economic sectors.
It’s worth noting all the sectors that grew the least where sectors that served the general population, such as housing, Medicine and Domestic Service. As Allen points out, Tsarist Russia would have had to grow at a rate of 2% every year until 1989 to achieve the success the USSR actually achieved. This doesn’t seem unreasonable, but when you consider Germany, a country with significantly more of an industrial base than Russia grew at 2% in this time span on average per year, the claim becomes nearly impossible. Even at its largest growth rate per year, Tsarist Russia achieved only about 1.7%. Therefore, factoring in both World Wars it is unreasonable to suspect Tsarist Russia would have even come close to achieving what was actually achieved by the Soviet economy (Allen 33). The Soviet Union grew at 5-6% per year from 1920-1970.
C.) Collectivization and the Big Push for Industrialization: The Debate
Collectivization deservedly receives much criticism from modern leftists – it was not entirely successful by any calculation. One must understand the process as one under constant debate in the Soviet Union and one that went forward dialectically from a flawed starting point, inherently suggesting its own flaws. For the sake of simplicity, we can personify two main thought-clouds in the industrializing Soviet society – The “Big Push” for heavy industry coming from Preobrazhensky and the support of “balanced” growth between agriculture and heavy industry coming from Bukharin.
As Allen highlights, the problem of development in the 1920s in the Soviet Union was a severe lack of consumption. Many bourgeois economists will make a distinction between consumer and planner goals, as if they must be antithetical, but in the case of the Soviet Union it can legitimately be asserted that both consumer and planner wanted the same thing – increased consumption and the increased quality of life that comes along with that. Where would the Soviet Union procure the money needed to do this? How would they go about it?
A problem dating back to far before the October Revolution was just how Russia would fit into a Marxist analysis. Would Russia, as Bukharin suggested, need some capitalist development before socialism could be legitimately built? The Bolsheviks originally rejected this theory, but later accepted it in Lenin’s “tactical retreat” that was the NEP. This debate would remain central as planning begun in the 1920s for economic development. Preobrazhensky argued that the construction of heavy industry must be funded by the “primitive accumulation of wealth” in peasant populations, similar to what had occured in capitalist countries in the late 18th and 19th centuries. This accumulated wealth would then be used to fund heavy industry, essentially hitting two birds with one stone, decreasing the influence and number of peasants while also increasing industrial potential.
Bukharin argued against this, suggesting that the two (industry and agriculture) should mutually fund each other (Allen Chapter 4) at a slower pace, much in line with his NEP politics. While balance always seems desirable, such an approach could have led to a restoration of capitalist discrepancies in wealth that we see in China when the CPC pursued a similar line after the failings of the Great Leap Forward. Thus, the debate itself over collectivization retrospectively foreshadows the failures of implemented collectivization, in the way both avenues for socialist development were impeded by obstacles in Russia’s backwards economy. On one hand, the expropriation of primitively accumulated wealth from the peasantry would make of the countryside a crucible, on the other, the risk of capitalist restoration that would occur in the 1960s and beyond. Ultimately, even though the ideology of Preobrazhensky was associated with Trotsky and other Lefts within the Bolshevik Party, is would drive collectivization under Stalin in the 1930s.
D.) Collectivization: Outcomes and Lessons
Under Preobrazhenskite theory, planning proceeded with a major focus of capital investment in the iron and steel industries. Collectivization of farming was a tool Stalin used, as he said, for the “intensification the class struggle,” as collectivization was aimed to empower the low to middle peasant and disenfranchise the Kulak, or middle-class peasant. Prices for agricultural goods were kept low by Stalin and the Bolshevik leadership in the years leading up to the five-year plans, so that prices for manufacturers could remain high to encourage investment and growth. This lead to decreasing incentive for Kulak farmers to sell their grain to state vendors, leading to their accumulation of surplus that could not be reallocated to industrial means. Stalin compared this form of Kulak resistance as “primitive accumulation by the methods of Tamerlane” – suggesting that the Kulaks demanded tribute from Moscow to provide grain for the nation. In response, collectivization began. This, as elucidated above, had dire consequences. Many Kulaks resisted, and collectivization was unpopular. Resistance was common, from sewing less crops to slaughtering livestock for personal use. From this conflict born out of the double-edged necessity of heavy industry and increased consumption, came some of the worst facets of the Soviet Industrial Revolution. Output and GDP fell and stagnated between 1928 and 1932, and famine occurred due to a merciless natural drought.
Over time, though, Preobrazhenskite theory advanced in the way the price paid to farmers for their grain increased by 6.2x between 1928 and 1937. In the same period, the price of food to urban consumers increased 8x, illustrating the heavy tax levied on farmers that fueled, as Allen states, the investment boom that would produce the vast industrial sector in the Soviet economy, and not an increase in wealth disparity. Allen also concludes that there is little evidence to suggest that Tsarist Russian farming could have avoided the famines. Certainly the 60,000,000 Indians who died in famines under British rule suggest that capitalist modes of production are not immune to famine. Additionally, convict labor for which many liberals and anti-soviet theorists explain the economic growth, accounted for only 2% of labor in the entire country (Allen 108).
Reflective of Soviet Industrialization’s dialectical nature, the pseudo-civil war occurring in the country side forced many into the cities, a process that allowed for the Soviet Union to triple industrial output over the course of the 30s.
Urbanization is a facet of capitalist development, necessary for the industrial booms that occurred in all western nations. Historically, without collectivization, Soviet society could not have urbanized at the rate it did – giving reason to our earlier conclusion that Tsarist development could not have produced equal early GDP gain. Collectivization, as Allen states, can be summarized as a catalyst in the reaction from Farm to Factory, for good and ill.
What were the positive impacts of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, to name a few, given the knowledge highlighted above of its inherent weaknesses and impediments?
1.) A yearly growth rate of 5.3% from 1928 to 1940, impressive for even the Asian miracle markets.
2.) Labor time for growing grain fell from 20.8 days in 1920 to 10.6 days in 1937 due to mechanization, significantly increasing free time.
3.) The production of consumer goods rose 79% between 1928 and 1939
4.) Education and Health Service sectors grew by 12% per year in the five-year plans
5.) Literacy rose from 21% in 1897 to 51% in 1926 to 81% in 1939. In 1897, a man was 3x more likely to be literate than a woman, this disparity was almost completely eliminated by 1939. Similar gains were seen in class size at the secondary and high level, as well.
6.) Unemployment and homelessness were eliminated in the Soviet Union in this period. Not having a permanent home was made illegal, and almost no residences were left vacant. Compare this to the United States were there are 6x as many vacant homes (18 million) than there are homeless persons (3+ million) (http://blog.amnestyusa.org/us/housing-its-a-wonderful-right/)
7.) The urban decay associated with rapid urbanization and industrialization were essentially avoided by a post-industrialization focus on improving housing. The slums of its economic peers were absent from soviet urban environments.
8.) Industrial output was tripled in the decade of the 30s
9.) The USSR avoided the post-war depression even in an international market full of protectionist nations. Other grain exporters like India suffered significantly more economically than the Soviet Union did.
10.) Consumption rose significantly after the Second World War, resulting in increased quality of life, made possible by industrialization in heavy and light industry.
Collectivization and Industrialization in the Soviet Union must be thought of in a different way than it is commonly thought of in western society. The process was debated at length and impeded by inherent weaknesses in the Tsarist economy and thus Russian development. A revolution cannot transcend the material conditions in which it is born. The errors of industrialization are not the product of cartoonish villains who co-opted the revolution and willingly threw the Soviet Union into rural warfare. They were a product of the dialectical relationship any socialist society has with its capitalist predecessor and the internal contradictions that will arise in constructing a socialist economy amongst the vestiges of capitalism.
With that said, the gains of the Soviet Union in this period, as highlighted above, were monumental. Russia would surge from European backwater to international power, capable of throwing down the tyranny of Nazism and rebuilding the nation from the grievous injuries levied upon it by the invaders and capable of establishing educational and healthcare systems that would be the envy of the developing world.
As Michael Parenti would say in a lecture on the topic, “Communism transformed desperately poor countries into societies in which everyone had adequate food, shelter, medical care and education.” This, in essence, is the mechanism of the Soviet Industrial Revolution. Given our peripheral study of this revolution above, we must conclude with Parenti that, “To say that socialism doesn’t work is to overlook the fact that it did work for hundreds of millions of people.”
La Lucha Continua