Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The darker the night the brighter the star

2. The forced march of industrialisation

IN 1927-9 AGRICULTURE was not alone in experiencing crisis; industry suffered too. Trotsky’s judgment that the slow development of industry would cause a rift between town and country proved correct. Now Stalin decided radically to accelerate industrial growth. The industrialisation was largely concentrated in heavy industry while consumer industries were neglected. This meant that industry could not induce the peasantry to supply food to the towns. Thus to implement its programme of industrialisation, the government had to ensure food supplies whether the peasants were willing to provide them or not. Forced collectivisation became a necessary concomitant for speedy industrialisation. The vicious circle of backward industry holding back agriculture, and vice versa, was broken by the brutal power of the state.

Collectivisation had another effect. It was connected with the raising of state power to great heights, through smashing the opposition of the peasantry. In a country where four-fifths of the population was in the countryside, the shaping of a totalitarian regime through confrontation with this section of the population could not fail to have an impact on the rest of society.

Against workers Stalin used a series of barbarous emergency measures similar to those he used against the peasantry. As Reiman puts it:

In a situation of very severe economic and social crisis, which had already brought unbelievable deprivation to broad layers of the population, his program inevitably showed a total disregard for the human factor and human needs; it did not hesitate to accept any moral, material, or human loss regardless of its extent. Stalin’s economic and social concepts ... sank to a level of thinking common to any exploitative system that is not forced to allow for the corrective effect of public resistance to government action. [1]

When the Five-Year Plan was drawn up, it was based not on any assessment of the real resources available in the Soviet economy, but on what was needed speedily to build up the country’s heavy industry and defence capacity.

The implications of such planning were clear. The fulfilment of the plan depended directly on a very brutal attack on the living and working conditions of industrial workers and the rural population ... This was a plan of organized poverty and famine. [2]

One should not imagine that Stalin was clear about where he was going in this area, as in others. Acting entirely pragmatically, he simply drifted towards a cataclysmic solution of the general crisis of the economy and society. It was not until the summer of 1929, as we have seen, that a moderately coherent policy for the rural front was to take shape. It was at the same time that Stalin came to a clear decision on the industrial front.

In 1926/27 Stalin was far from any thought of a ‘great leap forward’ in industry. It was in 1927 that industrial production was first restored to its pre-war level. This restoration meant that much of industry was old, and due for total replacement. Thus half of the steam boilers and one third of the other sources of mechanical power had exceeded their normal service life of 20-25 years. ‘New’ equipment, that is under ten years old, formed just 4 percent and 9 percent respectively, of the total at work. [3] Hence the Fifteenth Party Conference (26 October-3 November 1926) came to the conclusion that the prospect was that ‘the rate of growth in industry will be considerably less than in previous years’, although this backsliding would be only temporary, to be followed by a significant increase in tempo. It was in April 1926 that Stalin, at a Central Committee meeting, opposed Trotsky’s Dneprostroi project. Stalin said:

Dneprostroi would have to be financed with our own resources, and would cost a great deal – some hundreds of millions. We must beware of acting like the peasant who acquired some extra cash and, instead of repairing his plough or improving his farm bought himself a gramophone and was ruined. Are we justified in ignoring the resolutions of the Fourteenth Congress, which stated that our plants must be in keeping with our resources? Clearly, comrade Trotsky has not taken these decisions into account. [4]

A completely different tune was sung at the Sixteenth Party Conference (23-29 April 1929),which announced the First Five-Year Plan. Investment in industry would rise from 9.2 billion roubles in 1927/28 to 23.1 billion in 1932/33, a rise of 251 percent. Industrial output would rise in the same period from 18.3 billion roubles to 43.2 billion, a rise of 236 percent. [5] This was an historically unprecedented tempo. But even these fantastic targets were overshot by the decree of 1 December 1929. Then on 5-10 December 1929 a congress of ‘shock-brigades’ adopted a call to fulfil the Five-Year Plan in four years. This became official policy. Capital investment in industry, which was 1,800 billion roubles in 1928/29, would rise to 4,800 billion roubles in 1929/30. The basic capital in industry would rise over two years by 52 percent, and in heavy industry by 75 percent. [6] This target meant an investment in 1931 of 5,500 billion roubles. [7]

The astronomical targets of industrial output for the First Five-Year Plan were insufficient for Stalin. His ambition had no limit. At the Sixteenth Party Congress (26 June-13 July 1930) it was announced that in the first eight months of the economic year 1929-30, i.e., between October 1929 and May 1930, production of large-scale industry was 28.5 percent higher than in the same period the year before, itself a substantially greater increase than in the previous year. Now it was announced that a further campaign in the summer of 1930 would enable output to be raised by 32.1 percent above the year before. The 1931 Plan proposed a further animal increase of industrial production by 45 percent [8]

Targets of Production (million tons) [9]





16th Conf. Target (amended)









Iron ore




Pig iron




What crazy targets!

The emphasis in the Plan, and even more in its execution, was on heavy industry: during the Plan period six sevenths of total investment in industry went into heavy industry. [10]

The subordination of consumption to accumulation expressed itself in the relative decline in consumer goods industrial production vis-a-vis the output of means of production:

In 1932 the output of a number of producer goods was in the region of 50 percent to 100 percent larger than in 1913. For instance, the output of steel was 40 percent larger, of coal 121 percent larger. Items whose growth had been emphasized had, of course, expanded much more: thus the output of metal-cutting machine tools was 13 times larger, and of electric power 7 times. The output of textiles was about on the 1913 level, but of other consumer goods produced by large-scale industry was slightly higher. [11]

The subordination of consumption to accumulation during the Five-Year Plan stood in contrast to the period 1921-28, when despite the bureaucratic deformation, there was more or less balanced growth of production, accumulation and consumption. [12]

Military-economic competition with the Western capitalist world was the spur for the industrialisation drive in the USSR. By November 1929 Stalin had already issued his watchword: ‘Catch up and overtake’ (dognat i peregnat), calling upon the party and people to mobilise their forces for the urgent task of speedy industrialisation. [13]

In a speech to the First All-Union Conference of Leading Personnel of Soviet Industry of 4 February 1931, Stalin said:

To slacken the tempo would mean falling behind. And those who fall behind get beaten. No, we refuse to be beaten! One feature of the history of old Russia was the continual beatings she suffered because of her backwardness. She was beaten by the Mongol Khans. She was beaten by the Turkish beys. She was beaten by the Swedish feudal lords. She was beaten by the Polish and Lithuanian gentry. She was beaten by the British and French capitalists. She was beaten by the Japanese barons. All heat her – because of her backwardness, because of her military backwardness, cultural backwardness, political backwardness, industrial backwardness, agricultural backwardness ...

We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or we shall go under. [14]

The drive towards speedy industrialisation was associated 40 Trotsky with the concentration of power in the factories in the hands of managers. Until 1928 party cells participated in the running of industry together with the workers’ plant committees. Together with these, and under their control, worked the technical manager: the combination of these three formed the Troika. In February 1928, the Supreme Economic Council issued a document entitled Fundamental Regulations Regarding the Rights and Duties of the Administrative, Technical and Maintenance Staffs of Industrial Enterprises, which aimed at putting an end to the Troika and at establishing complete and unfettered control by the manager. In September 1929, the party Central Committee resolved that the workers’ committees ‘may not intervene directly in the running of the plant or endeavour in any way to replace plant administration; they shall by all means help to secure one-man management, increase production, plant development, and, thereby, improvement of the material conditions of the working class.’ The manager was placed in full and sole charge of the plant. All his economic orders were now to be ‘unconditionally binding on his subordinate administrative stuff and on all workers.’ L.M. Kaganovich, the well-known trouble-shooter in the economic field, stated: ‘The foreman is the authoritative leader of the shop, the factory director is the authoritative leader of the factory, and each has all the rights, duties, and responsibilities that accompany these positions.’ His brother, M.M. Kaganovich, a senior official of the Commissariat of Heavy Industry, stated: ‘It is necessary to proceed from the basic assumption that the director is the supreme chief in the factory. All the employees in the factory must be completely subordinated to him,’ ‘The earth should tremble when the Director enters the factory.’

One textbook on Soviet economic law, published in 1935, even went as far as to state: ‘One-man management [is] the most important principle of the organisation of socialist economy.’ [15]

The industrial drive was accompanied by a sharp decline in workers’ living standards. Donald Filtzer writes in Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialisation:

Western estimates of the fall in the standard of living vary slightly, but all show a catastrophic decline between 1928 and 1932. Solomon Schwarz and Naum Jasny calculate real wages in 1932 at about 50 percent of their 1928 level. Eugene Zaleski puts the figure lower, at 43 percent. [16]

In reaction to the drop in living standards, accompanied by an increase in production norms and deterioration of the supply system, workers moved from one workplace to another.

Labour Turnover, all large-scale industry
(per 100 employees)





Entered employment





Left employment





Labour Turnover, coal industry
(per 100 employees)






Entered employment





Left employment





These figures mean that the average worker in the coal industry, to take the worst example, left his employment almost three times during 1930. [17]

New measures were taken by the government to restrict this movement of labour. Until the First Five-Year Plan workers were free to change their places of work at their own discretion. Their right to work where they pleased was, in fact, guaranteed by Article 37 of the Labour Code of 1922: ‘The transfer of a hired person from one enterprise to another or his shipment from one locality to another, even when the enterprise or institution moves, can take place only with the consent of the worker or employee concerned.’ Workers could also migrate, unhindered, from one part of the country to another. Even as late as 1930, it was stated in the Small Soviet Encyclopaedia that ‘the custom of internal passports, instituted by the autocracy as an instrument of police oppression of the toiling masses, was suppressed by the October Revolution.’

Nevertheless, by 1931 no worker was allowed to leave Leningrad without special permission. From 27 December 1932, this system was applied to all parts of Russia, and an internal passport system, much more oppressive than the Tsar’s, was introduced to prevent anyone changing his or her place of residence without permission.

As early as 15 December 1930, all industrial enterprises were forbidden to employ people who had left their former place of work without permission, and Article 37 of the 1922 Labour Code was abolished on 1 July 1932. Labour Books were introduced for industrial and transport workers on 11 February 1931. [18]

To break down working class resistance, to undermine its cohesion, to destroy its ability to act collectively, the regime used a gamut of weapons: repression, flooding the working class with new rural recruits lacking any traditions of industrial militancy and solidarity, using ‘socialist competition’ which meant individualisation of work incentives, and finally, encouraging a section of the workers – of course a minority – to climb up the social ladder by becoming foremen and factory managers. As Donald Filtzer writes:

... between 1930 and 1933 some 600,000 ‘worker communists’ rose into the administrative and educational apparatus. This amounted to between 10 and 15 percent of the industrial workers in 1930. Thus for a large number of workers the way out of the material hardships of industrialization was not to protest but to try and get out of the working class and move up into the bureaucracy, and for many into the ruling elite itself. The ‘promotees’ in this way became a major base of support for the Stalinist elite, if not actually joining it. [19]

Neither the forced collectivisation nor the mad rush of industrialisation would have worked without mass terror. As Michal Reiman puts it:

While political terror played an important role, the real core of Stalinism ... was social terror, the most brutal and violent treatment of very wide sections of the population, the subjection of millions to exploitation and oppression of an absolutely exceptional magnitude and intensity.

The social function of terror and repression explains the apparent irrationality, senselessness, and obscure motivation of Stalin’s penal system. As a social instrument, terror could not be aimed narrowly, at particular persons. It was an instrument of violent change, affecting the living and working conditions of millions, imposing the very worst forms of social oppression, up to and including the slave labor of millions of prisoners. [20]

Trotsky thought that the fate of Soviet society would, in the final analysis, be decided by the struggle between the working class on the one side and the kulaks and NEPmen on the other, while the bureaucracy would play only a secondary, mediating role. The mutual paralysis of the contending social forces enabled the Stalinist bureaucracy to muddle through the crisis. By using brute force, to impose a series of ad hoc measures, it found a state capitalist way out of the crisis. The bureaucracy was able to raise itself even further above the rest of society and to establish the most vicious mechanism of exploitation, at the cost of both the working class and the peasantry.

Stalin, the man who balanced between the classes before 1928/29 was very different to the man who now represented the new ruling class, the bureaucracy. As Reiman put it:

the Stalin of 1926 was not the Stalin of 1929, neither in the general nature of his politics – above all, his conception of social and economic relations – nor in the type of practical solutions he proposed. [21]

Trotsky criticised Stalin for years for being under the influence of the kulaks and NEPmen. He could no more grasp the radical change in the functions of Stalin and the bureaucracy with the introduction of the Five-Year Plan than Stalin himself. Stalin responded pragmatically to the crisis, and it was the logic of the situation far more than his own logic that led him when he leapt into the unknown.


1. Reiman, p.86.

2. Ibid., p.89.

3. A. Ehrlich, The Soviet Industrialisation Debate, 1924-1928, Cambridge, Mass. 1960, p.106.

4. Ibid., p.94.

5. KPSS v rez., Vol.2, p.449.

6. Ibid., p.581.

7. Ibid., p.620.

8. Sobranie zakonov, 1931, Art.60.

9. Nove, p.189.

10. R. Hutchings, Soviet Economic Development, London 1982, p.57.

11. Ibid., p.60.

12. See Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, pp.34-44.

13. KPSS y rez, vol. 2, p.510.

14. Stalin, Works, XIII, 40-1.

15. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, p.25.

16. Filtzer, p.91.

17. Nove, p.198.

18. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, pp.34-35.

19. Filtzer, p.48.

20. Reiman, p.49.

21. Ibid., p.119.

Last updated on 5 August 2009