Isaac Deutscher 1951

How Strong Is the USSR?

Source: The Reporter, 7 August 1951. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Despite consumer sacrifices and the wildness of Soviet statistics, the postwar build-up of industry and agriculture is very real.

In the USSR, now as before the war, the Five-Year Plan has provided the framework for every national activity – economic, political and cultural. The energies and resources of the country have been closely geared to the attainment of the planned targets of construction and production. At the end of the planning periods, the directors of the economy present their balance sheets, and many Soviet citizens scrutinise their reports, trying particularly to read between the lines.

In the first Five-Year Plans the objectives of economic policy were clearly stated, and the targets, whether attainable or not, were defined with precision. As time went on, the objectives grew more elusive and the balance sheets more enigmatic. Even so, any Five-Year Plan is still a landmark in Soviet life.

Rock Bottom: In April the State Planning Commission announced the results of the fourth plan, started in 1946 and completed in 1950. This was in every respect an extraordinary period. At its beginning there were the vast destruction and misery left by the war: the razed cities of western Russia and the Ukraine; the devastated countryside; the flooded coal mines of the Donets; the ruined factories and furnaces; the tens of millions of homeless people living in mud huts and trenches in the areas that the Germans had occupied; and the millions of wartime evacuees living not much better east of the Urals. Under the plan, the destruction was to be repaired; the economy was to ascend to its prewar level and to rise well above it.

All this, we are now told, has been achieved; moreover, the plan has been exceeded. The national income of the USSR is about sixty per cent higher than before the war, and the industrial output seventy-three per cent above the prewar level.

Like most Soviet claims of the sort, this is a strange mixture of truth and propagandistic boast. However, the report of the State Planning Commission allows us to construct in general outline a picture of the economy. This picture is so dramatic that not even the inexhaustible stupidity of Soviet propaganda and not even all the tricks of the official statisticians can make it dull.

Retrospectively, a strong light has now been thrown on Russia’s economic weakness immediately after the war – a light which shows with what reduced economic power behind him Stalin ventured upon the expansion of the Soviet sphere of influence.

In 1945, Soviet industry produced less than two-thirds of its prewar output. In 1947, the second full year of peace, it was still well below 1940 and was suffering from acute shortages of fuel, basic materials, transport facilities, food, housing, and so on. The annual output of steel was down to about twelve million tons. Factories were apparently turning out only about forty per cent of the amount of clothing and footwear they had produced before the war.

In 1946, farming was stricken by a drought which was worse than any Russia had experienced in the course of half a century. Even before the drought, in 1945, the Soviet sugar plantations yielded only twenty-three per cent of their normal crop. The supply of various fats to the consumer was down to fifteen to thirty per cent of normal, and that of meat and milk was hardly more abundant. The manufacture of cigarettes was reduced to twenty-five per cent of normal. At times it looked as if the apathy and weariness of a half-starved working class was going to thwart recovery. In the appeals for high production the Politburo was issuing in 1946 and 1947, the inducements it offered to the Russian workers, and the threats it showered upon them, there were unmistakable notes of genuine alarm.

Upgrade: The year 1948 brought a turn. Industrial production at last reached its prewar volume. In agriculture, the drought was followed by abundant crops. Since 1948 the curves of production have shown an uninterrupted and startling rise.

It would hardly serve any purpose to reproduce here the abracadabra of Soviet percentage indexes, which are meaningless to the general reader although they sometimes reveal quite a lot to specialised students. We shall confine ourselves to illustrating the ups and downs of Soviet production by the following table, which shows in absolute figures the output of metal and fuel:

Soviet Production Year Pig Iron Steel Coal Oil Electricity*
  1940 15 18 166 31 48
  1945 9 12 150 19 45
  1948 14 19 210 29 65
  1950 19 28 264 38 88
All million metric tons, except * billion kwh

The official claim that the Five-Year Plan has been considerably over-fulfilled is without doubt true in one sector of the Soviet economy, that comprising heavy industry and engineering. In these branches the original targets were in fact revised and stepped up in 1949 and at the beginning of 1950 – very probably in connection with an expanded armament programme. It is claimed that the volume of machine building in 1950 was more than double that of 1940, even though the output of basic materials had not risen in the same ratio. So disproportionate an expansion in engineering was possible only if the original allocation of basic materials for consumer industries, by no means generous, was further reduced.

Eastward Hegira: The spectacular recovery of Soviet heavy industry owes a great deal to the massive shift of Soviet industrial power from the strategically vulnerable western provinces to the Urals and Soviet Asia. The materials and the machines that were needed for the revival of the Soviet economy came from the industrial centres in the east, which had been created in the 1930s and during the war. The government continues to promote this eastward shift of industry with the utmost vigour. By now at least half of Russia’s heavy industry is situated in its eastern security zones. (Even oil, which until recently was extracted almost exclusively in the Caucasus area, has been affected by this shift – forty-four per cent of Soviet oil now comes from the region east of the Urals.)

The reparations levied by Russia on Germany, Austria, Finland, Romania, Hungary and other defeated nations, either in dismantled plants or in goods, undoubtedly helped to revive and accelerate the rhythm of Soviet industrial activity, although Soviet sources say nothing about this. It may be held, as this writer holds, that the political and moral disadvantages of the reparations policy have outweighed its material benefits; but it cannot be denied that the reparations were a significant transfusion of economic power from Central and Eastern Europe to Russia. The only analogy in modern economic history is the transfusion of economic power from France to Germany that followed France’s defeat in the war of 1870-71: the contribution Bismarck then levied on France helped to speed up German industrialisation in the 1870s.

Guns... and Butter: It cannot, however, be denied that the Soviet domestic effort has been the decisive factor in the recovery. Nor can it be doubted that the techniques of planning, developed and improved over nearly a quarter of a century, have now stood an important test. Those who are interested principally in the power-political implications of the Five-Year Plan cannot overlook the fact that the Soviet apparatus of industrial production, not to speak of Soviet agriculture, is now much larger and stronger than that of any country except the United States. It is larger than the industrial resources of Greater Germany were at their peak. In combination with the vast Soviet manpower, with the strategic advantages of geography and climate, and with the influence the USSR exercises outside its frontiers – advantages infinitely superior to those ever enjoyed by Germany – the economic-military potential on which Stalin can rely in 1951 and in the years to come far surpasses the power that Hitler ever wielded.

The picture assumes a different aspect, though, when we approach it from another angle and try to calculate not the military potential but the standard of living reflected in the figures of the Five-Year Plan. At once the statistics of progress are transformed into statistics of backwardness.

The economic-military power of a nation may be measured primarily by the aggregate output of its strategic industries. Its standard of living is judged in the first instance by its output per head of population. Years ago the Soviet leaders openly admitted that in this the Soviet Union was lagging behind all modern industrial nations. At the Eighteenth Party Congress in 1939, even Molotov dwelt on this point at considerable length. But in recent years no Soviet statesman or economist has allowed himself to approach the Soviet economy from this angle – the subject is taboo.

Let us do at least part of the job for the silent Soviet economists. In 1950 the furnaces of the Soviet Union produced 308 pounds of steel per person, while those of the United States produced 1289 pounds and those of Great Britain 717 pounds. The output of coal per capita was 1.3 tons in the USSR, 3.3 in the United States, and 4.4 in Great Britain. The generation of electrical current was 440 kilowatt-hours per person in the USSR, 2200 in the United States, and 1100 in Britain. American oil wells supply about 1.7 tons of oil per American citizen; the Soviet ones yield only 0.2 ton per Soviet citizen. The actual gulf between the standards of living is even wider than these figures suggest. Only a tiny fraction of the 308 pounds of steel or the 440 kilowatt-hours of electricity that the USSR produces per capita goes to satisfy the needs of the Soviet consumer.

The Price of the Plan: These figures tell the drama of the Soviet economy. For Russia even this low per capita output does represent a very real progress, bought at the price of unparalleled sacrifices borne in silence by an entire generation. Even per capita the Soviet output of basic material and fuel is now twice or three times as large as it was, say, in 1935. It equals or closely approaches the per capita output of a country like France. This is all the more remarkable considering that in the late 1920s Russia was still much nearer in this respect to India and China than to France. Were it not for the burden of armament and massive investment in heavy industry, the present apparatus of Soviet industrial production might give the 200 million Soviet citizens something like the French standard of living.

This Is Inadequate’: Twenty years ago not only the Bolsheviks but their bitterest opponents would have considered such a development of the country’s resources as little short of miraculous. Yet what might have been regarded as a stupendous achievement yesterday is quite inadequate today. It is not against France but against the United States that the Soviet Union is now measuring its strength. And indeed, in the report on the Five-Year Plan the words ‘this is not enough’ and ‘this is inadequate’ are repeated like a refrain and a warning after every passage announcing the over-fulfilment of the plan in any particular field.

So far we have surveyed basic materials and heavy industry. Let us turn to consumer industries. The Soviet press has recently been full of percentage figures and indexes illustrating the rise of consumption since the war. The more abundant supply of goods, it is claimed, has enabled the government to decree four successive cuts in the prices of consumer goods at a time when the capitalist world is in the throes of inflation. Another set of figures purports to show that consumption has risen even above the level of 1940, Russia’s last theoretically ‘normal’ prewar year.

These assertions seem to be true as far as they go. But they are based on a crude statistical trick, which consists in measuring current consumption with an arbitrarily chosen, unduly small yardstick. The year 1940 was bad for Soviet consumers. In expectation of war, the government was then drastically reducing consumption and building up emergency stocks. If 1940 was bad, 1945 was disastrous. Even if present consumption is above the levels of those two years, it is still very low. It is officially admitted, in part openly and in part by implication, that the plan has not been fulfilled in consumer industries, although no indication is given by how much actual performance has fallen short of the goal.

Clothing and Footwear: It becomes clear what the failure to carry out the plan in this field really means when one considers how very modest were the targets set for 1950. Here again, output per capita must be the decisive criterion. Comparisons between Soviet, American and British figures are more difficult here, because of the peculiarities of the various statistical methods and the obscurities of Soviet statistics. Approximate comparisons may nevertheless be drawn.

The State Planning Commission has openly declared that the clothing and footwear industries have failed to cope with their tasks. Yet the textile factories were to provide by 1950 an average of no more than twenty-five yards of cotton fabrics for the Soviet citizen (compared with approximately sixty yards per capita in the United States and thirty-five in Great Britain). The output of shoes should have been sufficient for the Soviet citizen to buy one pair of them a year, while the average American buys three and the average Briton at least two pairs. These figures give a highly inadequate idea of the real differences in the standards of clothing; the Soviet Union does not produce either rayon or nylon on a large scale. It is true, on the other hand, that the needs of the Soviet consumers have in recent years been partly met by imports. Stores in large towns have been stocked with Czech shoes and Czech, Polish and Hungarian textiles; Western residents in Moscow report that the clothing of the Soviet city dwellers has in consequence visibly improved. Nevertheless, the figures given above – representing as they do the targets for 1950, not the actual output – indicate by and large the gulf between Soviet and Western standards.

The Soviet people have known little or no starvation, but the nutritive value of their diet has remained extremely low. Its main items are bread, potatoes and cabbages, of which there is no shortage. But the city dweller gets hardly more than half a pound of meat per week on the average, one-sixth of the American per capita consumption. He gets hardly more than a pound of fats of all sorts per month. The Soviet family still feels in its diet the consequences of the losses suffered by livestock farming through collectivisation and the recent war.

Worst of all has been the desperate shortage of housing; and far too little has been done under the Five-Year Plan to mitigate it. In the course of the last prewar decade the urban population of the USSR grew by nearly thirty million – of whom nearly two-thirds came straight from the countryside. The cities and towns had not been prepared for this formidable influx of newcomers. The housing programmes were absurdly inadequate. The rulers were more interested in erecting grandiose public edifices and monuments than in building dwellings. In the war, scores of cities were almost totally destroyed.

Since the war the urban population has continued to swell. Seven to eight million people more than before the war are now employed in industry and governmental offices. The natural increase of the population must have added another five million or so to the number of city dwellers. Lack of accommodation for workers has at times threatened to disrupt all industrial plans. Whenever a plant or a factory has failed to meet its production target, its management has pointed to the lack of housing for the workers as the first reason for the failure. The few astonishing cases in which Soviet citizens have in recent years dared openly attack ministers have been connected with the housing scandal. Thanks to incessant pressure from the government, the industrial managements and the workers, the plan has been ‘over-fulfilled’: 100 (instead of 84) million square metres of housing space has been provided. But even now the average housing space for every homeless or virtually homeless city dweller amounts at the most to four square yards, less than any decent farmer would allow his beast of burden. In the countryside, the plan has not been carried out. Of the scheduled 3.4 million houses only 2.7 million have been either repaired or built.

It may be said (and off duty, when they do not deny these facts, some Stalinists actually say) that it is unfair to compare the standards of living of the USSR with those of the two wealthiest countries of the West. The contrasts are indeed sometimes drawn in the West with an irritating and immoral undertone of the rich man’s mockery of the poor. Yet what invites the comparisons is the ridiculous claim that the USSR, with its allegedly superior culture, has nothing to learn from the rest of the world.

The Propaganda of Ignorance: Even a brief survey of the facts shows how far the USSR has yet to go before it assimilates some of the material, not to speak of the spiritual, elements of the civilisation that even a ‘decaying’ capitalism can still boast.

At least nine-tenths of Soviet domestic propaganda is directed towards keeping the people unaware of all this. The statistics on Soviet progress are repeated ad nauseam, and the indications of backwardness are consistently suppressed. In the West, similarly, the claims of Soviet progress are belittled or dismissed as bluff. This is as unrealistic as Soviet boastfulness.

The bulk of the Soviet people compare the conditions of their own existence not with those of people in the West, of which they know little, but with those in which they themselves had lived, and with the general outlook of their country five, ten or twenty years ago. They look back upon the road they have travelled, if not with contentment then with bitter yet real pride in achievement.