Category Archives: The Soviet Union

A Beginner’s Guide to Soviet Industrialization

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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

Conclusion:

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

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Filed under Class Conflict, Economics, Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, Modern, Politics, The Soviet Union

Fact Check: Cuba

In just under five days I will be boarding a flight to Miami, where my bags will be searched, my background thoroughly looked over and a dirty look given over my passport as I funnel through TSA checkpoints to a singular flight leaving Miami where it will take to the air for just under an hour and land in Havana, Cuba. For any Marxist the prospect of travelling to the Prometheus of Marxist history, daily attacked by embargo and lies by its mere proximity to what Che called “the beast” is an exciting one, yet I embark with a keen sense of trepidation.

Cuba is changing, and many socialist onlookers (http://redantliberationarmy.wordpress.com/2010/10/18/a-new-economic-policy-why-cuban-socialism-is-still-very-real/)   have remarked upon the similarity between Cuba’s attack on the “special period” (the depression following the collapse of soviet support) during the 90s and the New Economic Policy of Vladimir Lenin. Yet, whether we will see Collectivization or a Dengist return to capitalism on the other end of these reforms remains to be seen. It is with this sense of trepidation that I will expose some of the most common myths associated with Cuba, with a little help from my friends (sarcasm) at the ISO, for publishing this gem: http://www.isreview.org/issues/51/cuba_image&reality.shtml.

Myth: Fidel wasn’t a socialist and that is important

This is a classic misunderstanding of the Communist Party of Cuba pre and post revolution. Fidel was originally a member of Partido Orthodoxo, essentially tantamount to New-Deal liberals. As is commonly recounted Fidel renounced liberalism and lead an armed attack on a Cuban Army Barrack on July 26th. After the failure of the July 26th Movement, Fidel had plenty of time do to some reading in prison; and it is here where he first read Marx.  The CPC before the revolution can for ease be compared to the CPUSA of today, that is, legislative, counterrevolutionary, ideologically bankrupt and thereby ineffective as a party. Fidel rejected this party, as an organ of the Batista parasite government, and rightfully so. After Batista had been replaced, Fidel certainly had the support and political clout to turn to the communist party to change it significantly, which occurred in 1965 where the party was reformed with Fidel as its first general secretary. (Julia Sweig’s book “Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know” goes into this in depth).

Also, one has to ask themselves, does it really matter if Fidel was a die-hard Marxist? His personal opinions, which in subsequent years during the time of troubles, have become increasingly focused on Cuban Socialism as opposed to Soviet models, are rather irrelevant. One must look to who benefited from the revolution he headed, and to what end it marched, not what was in the heart, itself impossible to discern, of the figurehead.

Myth: The Cuban Communist Party was formed by a bunch of strongmen who did/do not represent the workers

The ISO and other anti-communists look to Fidel’s proclamation of his socialist beliefs a mere day before the Bay of Pigs as the last resort of a populist, and as evidence for this, drum up the lack of peasant involvement in the formation of the Cuban State. It is not surprising that trotskyists would envision revolution only achievable by dirt-under-the-fingernails workers and thereby ignore, as Erik Wolf points out at length in his book Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century, the element of college students in the Cuban Revolution. Wolf elucidates the unique nature of the Cuban Revolution, one where a massive left-center coalition was lead to radical ends – a historical singularity.  The role of the Cuban intelligentsia cannot be overlooked, as due to the lack of great repressions (highlighted below) they formed a large portion of the recreated communist party.

Also, the ISO and others often overlook the virtual continuation of the Civil War that went all the way through the Bay of Pigs invasion, itself something Fidel jokingly wished to thank JFK for. Fidel was fighting US Imperialism and armed rebellions at home, not unlike the intervention of allied powers in Russia and the drastic measures seen there to simply keep the worker’s state alive. In the lead up to the Bay of Pigs, dissidents were repressed, but this was not on a class basis, and indeed, the class nature of the Communist Party of Cuba can be seen in the survival of the party in the face of imperialism and rebellion. Even today, as recounted by  historian Felix-Masud Piloto, debates rage informally and formally in Cuban society, voices advocating for total privatization float about the air freely, and a current debate on Afro-Cuban involvement in Cuban society is raging as we speak.

Immediately after the revolution and residential nationalization, rents were reduced to a fraction of their cost under Batista, and education was nationalized and made free – with Afro-Cubans, sons and daughters of illiterate Afro-Cuban urban poor, graduating with undergraduate, masters and doctorate degrees in the 1960s, and that’s to say nothing of the oft-praised Cuban Healthcare revolution. These, in short, are not the actions of a government detached from worker’s control, given that such actions cost the threatened, developing State much. Even liberal writer Sweig admits, “The Cuban Revolution retained a strong base of domestic legitimacy, based not only on nationalist pride for resisting Cuba’s defiance to the United States….but also on a marked improvements in the material lives of the majority of Cuba’s people.” And this improvement is not, as the ISO would claim, congruent to the improvement of life in Nazi Germany for the below reason.

A word on elections. Julia Sweig highlights the process of Cuban elections which require all candidates to publish their credentials and biographies in frequented spaces in towns and collectives and multiple public debates are held in front of live crowds in each district. Raul Castro has to do this very thing in his home district, every election, as did Fidel for the many years he was general secretary. It is a common practice for a non-communist  to win an election and gain entry into the assembly by simply navigating a loophole by becoming a party member. In short, workers have as much control in Cuba as they did under the Soviets (Councils) in the Soviet Union if not more.

Myth: Women did not benefit from the Cuban Revolution

This one is heard quite often in conjunction with the next myth I will tackle, but to stay on topic, this is plainly and empirically false. In 1960, Vilma Lucila Espin, spouse of Raul Castro, formed the Federation of Cuban Women which provided education, job training and counseling for women in Cuba. This organization took on “doble jornada” (“double day” in spanish -working during the day, and taking care of a husband and child at night) directly and established that women as domestic slaves was in the past. Their work lead to the passing of the 1975 “Family Code” which legally established equal rights for women in the home. According to studies, the distribution of work in the home empirically improved after the code was put into law. Women’s representation in cultural, political and especially professional life improved, with female membership in the Communist Party increasing significantly after 1976. In short, the opposite is true of this myth. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Cuban Revolution is the work that was done and the work that is being done, notably by Espin’s daughter Mariela, for women in Cuba.

Myth: Cuban Socialism is Homophobic and Sexually Repressive

This, sadly, was true for many years; but it is no longer. Vilma Espin’s daughter, Mariela Castro, now heads a government organization called CENESEX, which advocates for LGBT rights and endeavors to sexually educate the people of Cuba. In recent news, a transexual was elected to the Cuban general assembly, showing of the progress being made by CENESEX (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/18/cuban-transsexual-adela-hernandez-elected). Fidel Castro even publicly declared that his homophobic policies were wrong and misguided. On my return from Cuba I will have much more information on this as I will be visiting CENESEX headquarters and speaking with Mariela Castro.

Myth: The Cuban Revolution created Gulags and Executed Tens of Thousands

This is a classic case of trotskyists and anti-communists importing Soviet Myths to every other case of implemented 20th century socialism. Conservative scholars list the highest population of political prisoners at 20,000 immediately after the revolution and the number of executions at about 5,000 people. I am not interested in a body count, but suffice to say more soldiers have been uselessly thrown to their deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan than were killed by revolutionary tribunals in Cuba, and there have been more causalities in terrorism committed against Cuba by american-tolerated terrorists from Miami than the 5,000 (if we are to believe such an estimate) executed. A historical study of revolutions, including all of the Bourgeois Revolutions, will note the relative tepidness of the violence in the Cuban Revolution. It is perhaps for this reason that Trotskyists and anti-communists must import myths. Today, less than 1,000 people are in prison for political reasons according to conservative scholars, it could be even less.

It’s worth noting that Cuba has consistently offered to free American spies imprisoned in Cuba for the freedom of the Cuban Five, counter-intelligence agents fraudulently imprisoned for defending their country, and the US has refused.

To be Continued…

There are many more myths about the cuban people’s revolution. I will return to the topic once I have seen the country for myself. I will do several write ups on sexual education, LGBT rights and the comparison being drawn between the NEP and the new Cuban experiement.

La Lucha Continua

Further Reading:

Abrahams, Harlan, and Arturo Lopez-Levy. Raúl Castro and the New Cuba: A Close-up View of Change. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2011. Print.

Brouwer, Steve. Revolutionary Doctors: How Venezuela and Cuba Are Changing the World’s Conception of Health Care. New York: Monthly Review, 2011. Print.

Carnoy, Martin, Amber K. Gove, and Jeffery H. Marshall. Cuba’s Academic Advantage: Why Students in Cuba Do Better in School. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2007. Print.

Koppel, Martín, and Mary-Alice Waters. The Cuban Five: Who They Are, Why They Were Framed, Why They Should Be Free. New York: Pathfinder, 2012. Print.

MacDonald, Theodore H. The Education Revolution: Cuba’s Alternative to Neoliberalism. Croydon: Manifeston in Association with the National Union of Teachers, 2009. Print.

Sweig, Julia. Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Wolf, Eric R. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper & Row, 1969. Print.

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Filed under Class Conflict, Cuba, Cuban Revolution, July 26th Movement, Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, Revolution, The Soviet Union, University of Havana