Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The darker the night the brighter the star

1. Stalin turns to forced collectivisation

THE FIRST two chapters of this book deal with the very complicated development of an economy, society and politics that had no historical precedent. The October Revolution, conceived as the first step on the road to the liberation of humanity, led instead to the most terrible tyranny, oppression and exploitation.

Massive industrialisation and forced collectivisation started in 1928. It was conceived by Stalin and the Communist Party as the ‘building of socialism’. It was impossible to visualise what the outcome of the forced industrialisation and collectivisation would be. To start with, the embryo of the new state capitalist society had no clear shape, and the monstrous beast it developed into was not yet discernible. The development was irrational and very messy. Stalin, who appeared as the demiurge, the shaper of history, in fact acted completely empirically. He was pushed on to the path of the massive transformation of the economy, as his own policies of the years 1923-27 had led the Soviet Union into a cul-de-sac and paralysis. Even Trotsky in 1928 was unable to visualise the horrors of the primitive capitalist accumulation carried out on an unprecedented scale and in a very short time He and his supporters believed that Stalin’s new policy was a turn to the Left – away from the NEPmen and the kulaks.

When describing Trotsky’s reaction to this unprecedented development, it is necessary to avoid attributing to him concepts which could be grasped only with hindsight. Trotsky was far too great a person to need to pretend that his ideas were suprahistorical, independent of actual past experience. One of the reasons why the Trotskyists in the USSR in 1928-30 were so hesitant and why the morale of so many collapsed was the lack of theoretical clarity. Courage and decisiveness depend on a clear understanding of the way ahead. As we shall see, even Trotsky, despite his genius, did not grasp clearly the real impact of Stalin’s policy of mass industrialisation and forced collectivisation. It is easy to have perfect vision with hindsight, but to understand the struggle of Trotsky and his supporters at the time, one must take into account the lack of clarity of all the participants regarding the situation.

One cannot divorce a political biography from the history of the time even though the complexity of the economic and social changes do not fit easily. One cannot do justice to Trotsky if one evades their analysis. An account of the ‘Great Industrial and Agrarian Revolution’ must therefore precede a description of Trotsky’s reaction to events and the path taken by his supporters at the time, the great majority of whom lost heart and capitulated to Stalin.

It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to make the confused, bewildering developments easily understood. But I attempt in the first two chapters to describe and analyse the interaction of the tortuous events as simply as possible. These chapters provide the background to the difficulties and crises that affected Trotsky and his followers.

Russia enters a deep economic and social crisis

TROTSKY HAD hardly arrived in Alma Ata when his long-held prognosis that the lag of industry threatened the link between town and country and undermined the worker-peasant alliance (smychka) was confirmed.

Already at the Twelfth Party Congress (April 1923) Trotsky predicted that a good harvest might bring the crisis to a head as it would favour the capitalist elements – the kulaks and NEPmen – rather than the socialist elements in country and town. This was vehemently rejected by Stalin and Bukharin.

In April 1927 Stalin poked fun at the idea that a good harvest could cause trouble. [1] Bukharin, at the seventh enlarged session of the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI) in December 1926, ridiculed Opposition predictions a year earlier of ‘a kulak grain strike’ ; the grain collections from the 1926 harvest were 35 percent ahead of those of the previous year. Indeed, ‘the whole foundation of the main economic theory of the Opposition has collapsed’. [2]

Towards the end of 1927 it became clear that the supply of grain was in great difficulties. In November Trotsky could quite rightly argue that his prediction had come true: a serious grain scarcity arose as a result of ‘the entirely inadequate supply of industrial goods to the rural districts’.

Three facts alone serve to explain the difficulties in the grain market: the goods famine (backwardness of industry); the accumulation of reserves by the kulaks (differentiation in the countryside) and an imprudent policy in the sphere of money circulation (excessive issue of currency). If this is not grasped, the country will be plunged into an economic crisis. [3]

The grain collection situation suddenly deteriorated at the end of 1927. In September the volume collected fell slightly, and this was followed by disastrously low figures for the succeeding three months. In October grain collection was only two-thirds of the previous year’s total, November yielded less than half, December likewise. [4]

In his brilliant book, The Birth of Stalinism, Michal Reiman writes:

The difficulties with grain deliveries had an immediate and powerful effect on the entire unhealthy mechanism that was the Soviet economy ...

... Grain exports fell off dramatically, and at the same time the Soviet balance of trade became increasingly unfavourable ... the government hastily reduced imports. The supply of many goods urgently needed in production was thus cut off, greatly aggravating the shortage of raw materials, especially in light industry. In February 1928, a number of factories were threatened with closure. The metallurgical and metalworking industries experienced difficulties. Everywhere the exhaustion of industrial machinery and equipment began to have its effect. In November 1927, industrial production was 18 percent lower than had been projected; in December 21.4 percent lower ...

The supply of goods to the market was in a disastrous state. In the course of a month – from December 1927 to January 1928 – it decreased by 15.5 percent. Severe shortages arose, involving an entire range of basic necessities. In a number of provincial cities, supplies fell so low that the needs of the population could be met for only a few days. By the end of January 1928 it was evident that rationing would have to be introduced. [5]

The basic cause of the difficulties of grain collection was the scarcity of industrial goods to induce the peasants to sell grain.

... many industrial consumer goods were in short supply, so the peasants were reluctant to convert their grain, which could easily be stored, into cash which they could not use to buy the goods they wanted. Finally, the peasants were in a stronger position than in previous years to resist changes in the terms of trade which were to their disadvantage. Their stocks of cash were higher, and by 1927 they had acquired sufficient basic consumer goods to be prepared to wait for the variety or quality they preferred. [6]

Furthermore, the main suppliers of grain were a fairly narrow group, and if they resisted the state was vulnerable: ‘a mere 10-11 percent of all households in the European USSR supplied 56 percent of all net sales of grain in 1927/8. [7]

Reiman describes the party and state leaders’ reaction:

The deep economic crisis, which broke out with unusual speed, caught the party leadership completely off guard. Extraordinary measures were needed to save the day, but the leadership was not prepared to enact them ...

The situation was very threatening ... and time was running short ...

In the period from December 21, 1927 (two days after the end of the party congress) to January 6, 1928, Stalin sent out three directives in the name of the Central Committee to the lower party organizations, demanding that they make a quick breakthrough (perelom) in the grain collection campaign. The third directive was ‘altogether exceptional both in its tone and in its demands,’ directly threatening reprisals against local officials if they failed to bring in the necessary amounts of grain. Nevertheless, the situation improved only slowly, if at all.

Higher-level party officials, including members of the top leadership, were sent out to the provinces, armed with special powers. They were to oversee the ‘breakthrough’ in person. Stalin himself went to Siberia ... When Stalin arrived on the scene in Siberia, he immediately bore down on the local party officialdom for slipshod work, for underestimating the danger from kulaks, and for having connections with ‘kulak and capitalist elements.’ He recommended the use of Article 107 (of the criminal code of the RSFSR), which permitted the confiscation of grain surpluses from wealthy peasants, and urged the local authorities to purge the party and government apparatuses of ‘corrupt elements.’

Extraordinary measures were applied intensively throughout the country: party bodies and the GPU were given special powers in regard to grain collection, special ‘trojkas’ were formed, and thousands of activists were sent into the countryside. An obligatory ‘agricultural loan’ began to be imposed, villages were forced to increase self-taxation for social and cultural needs, the collection of arrears on unpaid taxes and of payments on loans and credits was intensified, and so on. All this was aimed at sharply reducing the amount of spendable money available to the peasants, thus inducing them to sell more grain. However, it also laid the basis for a rapid increase in acts of violence and arbitrariness. [8]

Special powers were given to the GPU.

On the basis of Politburo decisions made in February 1928, the groundwork was laid for new, massive pressure on the peasants. The GPU’s intervention in the grain procurement campaign intensified, and preparations were made for the deployment of military units in the villages. [9]

With this, the USSR took a big step toward fundamental change in its internal living conditions and power structure. The entire atmosphere in which economic, governmental, and party work went on was abruptly altered. The GPU had not only succeeded in securing the positions it had won but enlarged them, extending its tentacles ever deeper into the economic and social sphere. The extraordinary measures enacted in response to the economic crisis began to change the pattern of economic and social relations and brought heavy pressure to bear on the very foundations of the accepted economic strategy. [10]

The combination of an abrupt fall in grain deliveries, industrial stagnation, and a sharp worsening of relations with the West, especially Britain, led Stalin to resort to coercive measures to extort grain from the peasants. This expedient led inexorably to the forced collectivisation of agriculture and rapid, forced industrialisation. The result was a radical transformation of Russian society and politics.

Following the extraordinary measures for collecting grain of February, on 15 May the Central Committee issued an appeal to local party organisations to intensify the work of ‘socialist construction’ in the countryside. This was noteworthy as the first document which openly proclaimed the liquidation of the kulaks as a goal. [11]

The rural population suffered most heavily from the consequences of this policy. Orgies of violent excess occurred in the countryside ... Incited from above, the power apparatus – a major role being played by the GPU – went after not only the well-to-do peasants but also the middle peasants and often the rural poor as well. The amount of grain to be delivered was set for every household. The agents of the central government went from farm to farm searching silos and confiscating ‘surpluses.’ Often they took anything they came across and left the peasants without enough to meet their own basic needs. They used threats, arrests, and prison sentences to reach their goals. In some villages which had already fulfilled their quotas, requisitioning was carried out a second time. In many parts of the USSR, local markets were closed. On country roads, checkpoints and roadblocks reappeared, as during the civil war, to prevent peasants from taking grain away from the villages. [12]

In March and April 1928 the situation became really critical.

The situation worsened in regard to the availability of food for the population. Things were especially hard for the rural poor, who had to buy grain in the spring. Peasant women standing in line in front of city stores became a common sight at the time. Significant numbers of peasants, sometimes entire rural districts, were essentially placed on starvation rations.

... In several regions, the peasants sharply reduced the amount of land under cultivation, thereby endangering the year’s harvest. Massive slaughtering of cattle began. Peasant disturbances broke out and were suppressed in some places by force of arms. By the summer of 1928, almost 150 peasant revolts had occurred. Cases in which officials were murdered or beaten increased in frequency. [13]

Things were no better in the cities.

The urban masses suffered as a result of the severe breakdown in food supply. As early as the end of 1927, major shortages of flour, groats, milk, eggs, butter, and oil occurred in the state and cooperative trade network; soon afterwards bread, meat, tea, coffee, textiles, and a number of other goods also became scarce. Contemporaries tell of long lines of hundreds of people that would start to form in the early hours of the morning and became breeding grounds for open discontent. [14]

A number of industrial conflicts broke out.

Strikes broke out at Mytishchi and Liubertsy near Moscow, the Putilov works, the Yenakievo metallurgical plant in the Donetsk Basin, Moscow’s ‘Hammer and Sickle’ metalworking plant, and other factories in various parts of the country. [15]

Reiman provides evidence for his conclusion that ‘the influence of the opposition was a noticeable factor in political life and remained fairly strong until fall 1928 or spring 1929.’ [16] This will be further elaborated below.

When Stalin was unexpectedly confronted by the grain crisis, he was not at all clear what he was going to do. He acted empirically and pragmatically. He did not know that he was taking the first steps towards the ‘great leap forward’ of forced collectivisation and industrialisation, that he was going to expropriate 25 million peasants at a stroke and forcibly drive them into collective farms. Stalin, a man with no vision, could not foresee the horrors of the primitive capital accumulation carried out on an unprecedented scale and in a very short time. He could not visualise the radical changes in the whole system of economy, society and politics following the ‘great leap forward’.

The events of the first half of 1928 shook the foundations of the existing social and economic order, and raised the bureaucracy even higher above the rest of society. However, neither Stalin nor anyone else in the leadership, was clear what alternative strategies existed, nor what would be the outcome of the course pursued. Stalin was still a prisoner of the views he expressed in polemics against Trotsky in the years 1923-28. He still believed that the emergency measures the government took were only temporary. Thus on 13 February 1928 he wrote in his article First Results of the Procurement Campaign and the Further Tasks of the Party:

The talk to the effect that we are abolishing NEP, that we are introducing the surplus-appropriation system, dekulakisation, etc., is counter-revolutionary chatter that must be most vigorously combated. NEP is the basis of our economic policy and will remain so for a long historical period. NEP means trade and tolerating capitalism, on condition that the state retains the right and the possibility of regulating trade in the interest of the dictatorship of the proletariat. [17]

Again on 13 April at a Plenum of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission, Stalin stated:

I only want to say something about certain emergency measures which were taken because of the emergency circumstances, and which, of course, will lapse when these emergency circumstances cease to exist.

It would be stupid on these grounds to say that NEP is being ‘abolished’, that there is a ‘reversion’ to the surplus-appropriation system, and so on. Only enemies of the Soviet regime can now think of abolishing NEP. [18]

In a talk to a group of students on 28 May 1928, Stalin reiterated the strategy of reliance on peasant farming.

... the way out lies in systematically increasing the yield of the individual small- and middle-peasant farms. We cannot and should not lend any support to the individual large kulak farms. [19]

In an article written on 12 June 1928 entitled ‘Lenin and the Question of the Alliance with the Middle Peasant’ Stalin attacked dekulakisation as a deviation. In some cases, he wrote,

... attempts are made to transform the fight against the kulaks into dekulakisation, and the work of grain procurement into appropriation of surpluses, forgetting that under present conditions dekulakisation is folly and the surplus-appropriation system means not an alliance with, but a fight against, the middle peasant. [20]

At this time he saw the collective and state farms as only a supplement to the private farms:

... the task of improving individual small- and middle-peasant farms must be supplemented in practice by the task of expanding the construction of collective and state farms. [21]

On 15 June Stalin reiterated the need for the same mix of private farming and collective and state farming.

At the present stage, the principal stress must still be laid on raising the level of individual small- and middle-peasant farming. But ... this task alone is no longer enough ... the time has come when this task must be practically supplemented by two new tasks – the development of collective farms and the development of state farms. [22]

The July 1928 plenum of the Central Committee

THE GENERAL discontent of peasants and workers following the extraordinary measures to procure grain supplies, together with a split at the top of the party and state leadership – between those who supported Stalin and those who supported Bukharin – forced a pause, even a retreat. This took place at the July 1928 plenum of the Central Committee.

Bukharin and the Right reflected clearly the pressure of the resentful masses. Thus, the following exchange took place at the plenum:

BUKHARIN: The situation is that when the poor peasants held demonstrations [on 1 May] in the towns, it was not as supporters of Soviet power ... [and] We had speeches by old partisans – revolutionaries, who came to the Soviet power, to the military committee and said: how are we going to get bread? ...

KAGANOVICH: There were such speeches, but do you need to quote them?

BUKHARIN: ... Vladimir Il’ich would never have tolerated keeping quiet about facts. Facts must be foreseen, and such things must be taken care of.

VOROSHILOV: Who is denying them, who are you trying to convince?

BUKHARIN: I don’t know who denies them, but I only knew about all this yesterday ... after two days spent at the GPU.

And Bukharin concluded his speech with these words:

... our economy makes my hair stand on end, when there are horses eating only grain but in some places people eat chaff, when peasants have to buy bread in neighbouring towns, when an agrarian country imports grain but exports the products of industry. This alarming economic state will lead to crisis and arguments. It has to be sorted out. [23]

N.A. Uglanov, Secretary of the Moscow Party and supporter of Bukharin, said:

We cannot address the peasant question separately from the working class. After all, the consumers’ point of view speaks inside me, and we are such consumers as represent the proletariat of the city of Moscow, millions strong. We know that a great number of cities have cards or surrogate cards or some restrictive, regulatory measures. Herein lies the whole point. Let us honestly answer the question. Does such a situation in the eleventh year of the revolution not cause doubt and alarm in the working class? I’ll frankly tell you, comrades: this squarely puts the masses of workers on the alert. It is necessary to see this in every factory. It goes without saying that if this situation – any kind of interruption in [food] supply, a shortage of foodstuffs, surrogate measures of our [price] regulations, etc. – persists, it cannot be supported by the working class. This is clear. Such a situation cannot go on for very long ... We all know quite well the very nature of the Russian proletariat: a large percentage of it is tied to the countryside, and the degree of vacillation there is transferred to the working class. [24]

Stalin gave way to the pressure. The plenum decided to lift the extraordinary measures for the procurement of grain, to cancel the restrictions on markets and trade within the villages, to raise the price of cereal grains and forage crops as well as fodder, and to take measures to increase the provision of industrial goods to the countryside.

But still failure ...

THE TWIST of July 1928 did not stop the peasants’ further resistance to the government, which took the form of cutting the sowing area. In 1928 the area under wheat went down by 11.2 percent and under rye by 9.1 percent. [25] The grain collection in 1928-9 was only 8,302,000 tons, as against 10,382,000 tons collected in 1927-8, that is, a decline of 20 percent; the collection of wheat and rye was 5,300,000 tons in 1928-9 as against 8,207,000 in 1927-8 – a decline of 35.6 percent. [26]

The economic results of the year 1928/29 were much worse than had been expected ... The better-off peasants had cut down their sowing and the authorities struggled to make good the loss by increasing the areas sown by the rest of the peasants. The results thus obtained were not encouraging. Worse still, the numbers of livestock began to decline for the peasants were short of fodder and food. The towns too were short of food. Ration cards were introduced in February 1929 ... The rise in the price of bread grains and other agricultural products caused a rise in prices throughout the economy. Speculation was rife; bread tended to disappear from the towns into regions which had none, especially those which did not produce bread grains, or into provincial towns which the government was not supplying. Living standards dropped, and all the time administrative pressure and state tyranny were growing. Grain procurements, as we know, had been very inadequate, whereas private middlemen had succeeded in buying more that year from the peasants than in previous years. [27]

Reiman writes:

Destitute villages were left to their fate. In some areas, the peasants had nowhere to turn. They ate whatever they found. Cattle were slaughtered, since no feed remained for them. Reports of incipient famine came from a growing number of villages. Again, the rural poor were hardest hit. In the spring, rumours reached the foreign press of peasants starving to death in north east Russia and the southern Ukraine. Similar rumours came even from the well-to-do farm communities of German settlers in the Volga region. How things stood in other famine-struck regions is not known; no foreigners chanced to visit them. The fact remains that because of Stalin’s policies, the Russian muzhik, the Ukrainian peasant, and the German colonist were all starving long before the tragic famine of 1932-1933. [28]

In the middle of 1929, at the end of the agricultural year 1928-9, it was clear that the situation could not go on. Stalin came to the conclusion that since it was impossible to control the supplies from 25 million individual farms, the only way to guarantee the grain supplies was to bring the peasants into large farms (kolkhozes – collective farms) that would be under tight centralised authority. ‘Fulfilling the plan for grain procurement [is] the first commandment’ of the kolkhozes, declared Stalin [29] It was in desperation that the fateful decision was taken in the last months of 1929. Suddenly and with little preparation it was resolved to both forcibly collectivise the peasantry and liquidate the kulaks as a class.

As late as April 1929 the Sixteenth Party Conference, in its draft of the Five-Year Plan, still visualised agriculture as being dominated by private farming at the end of the five years. It stated as a target that in 1932/33 the collective and state farms should be responsible for 13 percent of sown area and 15 percent of all agricultural output (as against 2 percent in 1927/28). [30] The resolution on the Five-Year Plan also recognised ‘a possible further growth of private capitalist elements in town and country.’ [31]

However, on 5 January 1930, the Central Committee issued a resolution ‘on the tempo of collectivisation and on state assistance for kolkhoz construction’:

It can be established without doubt that within the five-year period instead of the collectivisation of 20 percent of the sown area proposed in the five-year plan we will be able to resolve the task of collectivising the overwhelming majority of peasant households, and the collectivisation of such major grain areas as the Lower Volga, Central Volga and North Caucasus can in the main be completed in the autumn of 1930 or in any case in the spring of 1931; the collectivisation of other grain areas can in the main be completed in the autumn of 1931 or in any case in the spring of 1932. [32]

So between the end of 1927 and beginning of 1930 Stalin groped towards turning the emergency expedient of forced grain requisitions into a general policy of forcing the peasants into the collective farms.

After this the advance of collectivisation was very swift:

Percentage of Peasant Households

1 Jun. 1928


1 Jun. 1929


1 Oct. 1929


1 Jan. 1930


1 Feb. 1930


1 Mar. 1930


The number of households recorded as collectivised rose from about 5 million on 1 January 1930 to 8.1 million on 1 February, 14.3 or 14.6 million on 1 March and a peak of 15.0 million on 10 March. [34]

The excesses were such that a massive hue and cry rose everywhere.

... in the first half of February 1930 [there] was the considerable increase in discontent among the peasantry. Peasant unrest on a wide scale, frequently attributed to the kulaks, had been reported since the autumn of 1929, first in Connection with the grain collections ... and then from those areas, such as Khoper okrug, in which collectivisation was particularly far advanced ... Early in January it was reported from the Lower Volga region, then the most advanced in collectivisation, that ‘anti-kolkhoz agitation has never been on so broad a scale as now.’ [35]

Stalin was forced to distance himself from the excesses of collectivisation, to temporize. On 2 March Pravda published his article, Dizzy with Success. Concerning Questions of the Collective-Farm Movement. The article insists that the voluntary principle should be restored.

Collective farms must not be established by force. That would be foolish and reactionary. The collective-farm movement must rest on the active support of the main mass of the peasantry.

It followed from this that collectivisation in grain-deficit and backward national areas should take place at a slower rate. But in a number of northern districts collective farms on paper, which do not exist in reality’ had been set up and ‘in a number of districts of Turkestan attempts have already been made to overtake and surpass the advanced districts of the USSR by threats of armed force, and by threats to deprive those peasants who do not yet wish to join the collective farms of irrigation water and consumer goods.’

What can there be in common between this Sergeant Proshibeyev ‘policy’ and the Party’s policy of relying on the voluntary principle and of taking local peculiarities into account in collective-farm development? Clearly, there is not and cannot be anything in common between them.

Who benefits by these distortions, this bureaucratic decreeing of the collective-farm movement, these unworthy threats against the peasants? Nobody, except our enemies! What may these distortions lead to? To strengthening our enemies and to discrediting the idea of the collective-farm movement.

Is it not clear that the authors of these distortions, who imagine themselves to be ‘Letts’, are in reality bringing grist to the mill of Right opportunism?

Secondly, the article condemned the tendency to impose communes and to socialise all milk cows and poultry, adding for good measure a condemnation of ‘so-called revolutionaries’ who began organising a collective farm by removing the church bells. Thirdly, it was concerned to blame those whose heads were turned by success.

... successes have their seamy side, especially when they are attained with comparative ‘ease’ – ’unexpectedly,’ so to speak. Such successes sometimes induce a spirit of vanity and conceit: ‘We can achieve anything!’, ‘There’s nothing we can’t do!’ People not infrequently become intoxicated by such successes; they become dizzy with success, lose all sense of proportion and the capacity to understand realities; they show a tendency to overrate their own strength and to underrate the strength of the enemy; adventurist attempts are made to solve all questions of socialist construction ‘in a trice’. In such a case, there is no room for concern to consolidate the successes achieved and to utilise them systematically for further advancement. Why should we consolidate the successes achieved when, as it is, we can dash to the full victory of socialism ‘in a trice’: ‘We can achieve anything ‘There’s nothing we can’t do!’ [36]

Stalin’s article was followed by a decision of the Central Committee on 14 March, On Struggle Against Distortion of Party Line with Reference to the Collectivisation Movement, which said: ‘In some raions the percentage of dekulakised peasants [i.e., peasants deprived of their property] reached 15, the percentage of those deprived of their suffrage rights 15-20’. ‘Marauding, dividing of property, arrests of middle peasants and even poor peasants’ ... ‘There were absurd facts of compulsory collectivisation of dwelling houses, small livestock and milk cattle not producing for the market’. [37]

Now there was a swift move of the peasants away from the collective farms. The percentage of peasant households in the collective farms went down from 57.2 on 1 March 1930 to 38.6 on 1 April, 28.0 on 1 May, 24.8 on 1 June, 22.5 on 1 July and 21.5 on 1 September. [38]

But this retreat was only temporary. After a while the pressure on the peasantry to join the collective farms returned. In 1930 the percentage of peasants in the collective farms was 23.6, in 1931 52.7, and in 1932 61.5. [39]

The continuous struggle between the peasants who were forced into the collective farms and the government took a very much sharpened form in 1931-2. Mass pillages of ‘socialist’ property by hungry and angry peasants became widespread. In reply draconian legislation was introduced to protect this property.

Under a law of 7 August 1932, ‘On the Protection of the Property of State Enterprises, Collective Farms and Cooperatives and Institutions of Socialist Property’, the theft of property belonging to the state, kolkhozes and co-operatives and theft on the railways or waterways, became punishable by death by shooting, accompanied by the confiscation of all property. If there were extenuating circumstances, the penalty incurred was imprisonment for not less than ten years and confiscation of all property. Stalin christened this law ‘the foundation of revolutionary legality.’ [40]

Unceasing mass peasant resistance showed itself clearly in the widespread slaughter of livestock.

Number of livestock, 000s [41]








Sheep &











% Decline





If, in terms of output, collectivisation was far from a success, in terms of the procurement of grain it was a triumph.

Production and government procurements
of grain (m. tons)




Procurement as
% of Production





















Thus, between 1927-28 and 1931-32 grain output went down by 8 percent while the amount procured went up by 173 percent. So the proportion of grain output taken by the government rose from 15.3 percent to 34.5 percent.

Collectivisation made possible speedy industrialisation not only because the towns were fed, but also because a considerable amount of grain was available for export, to pay for imports of machinery. Between 1928 and 1933 the export of grain rose 56fold. [43]

The other side of the coin of squeezing grain ‘surpluses’ from the peasantry was the terrible famine of 1932-33. There are various estimates of the number of people who died of hunger. Frank Lorimer, the population expert, estimated that some four million people died of this famine. [44]

A historian who studied the famine in the Ukraine writes as follows:

We will probably never know the exact number of deaths attributable to the famine. But most specialists, including those among dissident circles in the Soviet Union, such as M. Maksudov, are of the opinion that between 4.5 and 6 million Ukrainians perished during the famine. [45]

Forced Labour

ONE BY-PRODUCT of the collectivisation was the appearance of slave labour – the gulag. Until the first Five-Year Plan, prison labour was on far too small a scale to have any real significance in the Russian economy. In 1928 there were only 30,000 prisoners in camps, and the authorities were opposed to compelling them to work. In 1927 the official in charge of prison administration wrote that: ‘The exploitation of prison labour, the system of squeezing “golden sweat” from them, the organisation of production in places of confinement, which, while profitable from a commercial point of view is fundamentally lacking in corrective significance – these are entirely inadmissible in Soviet places of confinement.’ [46] At that time the value of the total production of all prisoners equalled only a small percentage of the cost of their upkeep.

With the inauguration of the Five-Year Plan, however, the situation changed radically. ‘Kiseliov-Gromov, himself a former GPU official in the northern labour camps, states that in 1928 only 30,000 men were detained in the camps ... The total number of prisoners in the entire network of camps in 1930 he gives as 662,257.’ [47] On the evidence available, Dallin concludes that by 1931 there were nearly two million people in labour camps, and by 1933-35 about five million. [48]

There are other estimates of the population of the gulags. Naum Jasny estimates the total gulag labour force in 1941 at 2.9 million. [49] N. Khrushchev speaks about ‘millions’ – but does not tell us how many millions – in labour camps. [50] Another authority states: ‘According to our calculations there were 5.1 million prisoners in the gulag on average during the eleven years 1929-39 inclusive.’ [51]

In conclusion

IN 1942 Stalin admitted how horrific the collectivisation process had been in a conversation with Churchill. The latter reported the following exchange:

‘Tell me,’ I asked, ‘have the stresses of this war been as bad to you personally as carrying through the policy of the Collective Farms?’

This subject immediately roused the Marshal.

‘Oh, no,’ he said, the Collective Farm policy was a terrible struggle.’

‘I thought you would have found it bad,’ said I, ‘because you were not dealing with a few score thousands of aristocrats or big landowners, but with millions of small men.’

‘Ten million,’ he said, holding up his hands. ‘It was fearful. Four years it lasted.’ [52]

Collectivisation did facilitate the primitive accumulation of capital as Stalin wished. It not only expanded the labour force for industry but also transformed those who remained in agriculture into proletarians. Today the overwhelming majority of agriculturists are in reality, if not in theory, people who do not own means of production; indeed, there is less justification in calling the present Russian agriculturists owners of means of production, than nineteenth century serfs.

Collectivisation resulted in the freeing of agricultural products for the needs of industrial development, the ‘freeing’ of the peasantry from its means of production, the transformation of a section of them into reserves of labour power for industry, and the transformation of the rest into part-workers, part-peasants, part-serfs in the kolkhozes.

Similar general results, although different in some important particulars, were achieved by the English bourgeoisie in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through the eviction of the peasantry from the land. Marx wrote of this process: ‘The history of this ... is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.’ [53]

While the enclosures in England took three centuries, the expropriation of the peasants in Russia took three years.


1. Stalin, Sochineniia, Vol.8, p.290.

2. Quoted in E.H. Carr and R.W. Davies, Foundations of Planned Economy, Vol.1, London 1974, p.12.

3. L. Trotsky, Counter thesis of the Opposition to the Five-Year Plan, in L. Trotsky, Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27) (hereafter referred to as Challenge, 1926-27), New York 1980, p.458.

4. Carr and Davies, Foundations of Planned Economy, Vol.1, p.1000.

5. M. Reiman, The Birth of Stalinism, London 1987, pp.43-4.

6. Ibid., p.39.

7. R.W. Davies, The Socialist Offensive. Collectivisation of Soviet Agriculture, 1929-1930, London 1980, pp.27, 39.

8. Reiman, p.44-5.

9. Ibid., p.52.

10. Ibid., p.49-50.

11. Pravda, 16 May 1928.

12. Reiman, p.51.

13. Ibid., p.53.

14. Ibid., p.53-4.

15. Ibid., p.54.

16. Ibid., p.55.

17. J.V. Stalin, Works, XI, p.18.

18. Stalin, Works, XI, pp.49-50.

19. Ibid., p.95.

20. Ibid., p.111.

21. Ibid., p.113.

22. Ibid., p.129.

23. Trotsky’s Archive, T1901.

24. T1835.

25. Carr and Davies, p.75.

26. Ibid., p.1000.

27. M. Lewin, The Making of the Soviet System, London 1985, p.108.

28. Reiman, p.109.

29. Stalin, Works, Vol.XIII, p.224.

30. KPSS y rezoliutsiiakh i resheniiakh sezdov, Konferentsii i plenumov TsK (hereafter refered to as KPSS y rez.), Vol.2, p.451.

31. Ibid., p.454.

32. Ibid., p.545.

33. Davies, p.442.

34. Ibid., p.203.

35. Ibid., p.255-6.

36. Stalin, Works, Vol.XII, pp.197-205.

37. KPSS y rez., Vol.2, pp.548-51.

38. Davies, pp.442-3.

39. A. Nove, An Economic History of USSR, London 1984, p.174.

40. T. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, London 1988, p.72.

41. N. Jasny, The Socialized Agriculture of the USSR, Stanford 1949, p.634.

42. Ibid., p.794.

43. D. Filtzer, Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialisation, London 1986, p.91.

44. F. Lorimer, The Population of the Soviet Union. History and Prospects, Geneva 1946, pp.133-7.

45. B. Krawchenko, The Great Famine of 1932-3 in Soviet Ukraine: Causes and Consequences, Critique, No.17, p.145.

46. D.J. Dallin and B.I. Nicolaevsky, Forced Labour in Soviet Russia, London 1948, p.153.

47. Ibid., p.52.

48. Ibid., pp.54-62.

49. N. Jasny, Labour and Output in Soviet Concentration Camps, Journal of Political Economy, October 1951, p.415.

50. N. Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers, Boston, Mass. 1974, p.62.

51. S. Rosefielde, An Assessment of the Sources and Uses of Gulag Forced Labour 1929-56, Soviet Studies, January 1981, p.72.

52. W.S. Churchill, The Second World War. The Hinge of Fate, London 1951, p.447.

53. K. Marx, Capital, Vol.I, p.193.

Last updated on 4 August 2009