Isaac Deutscher 1956

Soviet Production: Steel Before Shoes

Source: The Reporter, 28 October 1952. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

As the Nineteenth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union assembles in Moscow, one of the main points on its agenda is a ‘preview’ of the current Five-Year Plan, which runs through 1955. Actually, the Plan’s second year is now drawing to a close, and the congress will undoubtedly accept it with little discussion or criticism and hail it as the greatest achievement of Stalin’s era.

What does this Plan promise to the Russian people? What is its significance to the world?

These are the over-all targets.

The Soviet Union is to increase its net national income by 60 per cent. Its gross industrial output is to grow by 70 per cent: 82 per cent in producer goods, 64 in consumer goods. Employment outside collective farming is to grow by 15 per cent – about six million.

These figures may be somewhat enigmatic, but the following table gives a clear idea of recent and planned development of the fuel, iron and steel industries:

Year Pig Iron Steel Coal Oil Electricity *
1940 15 18 166 31 48
1945 9 12 150 19 45
1950 19 28 264 38 88
1955 33 45 >372 70 158
Million metric tons, except * billion kwh

There is no reason to assume that the 1955 targets will not be achieved. We must even reckon with the probability that some will be surpassed, as were those for 1950. The output of steel is likely to approach 50 million tons; similarly, under the previous Plan the target was 25 million, but actual output was about 28 million. Ten years after the war Russia should nearly quadruple its production of iron, steel and electricity, treble its extraction of oil, and more than double its output of coal.

The Plan for 1951-55 marks a new phase in the industrial race against the West which Russia entered nearly a quarter of a century ago, engaging every ounce of its strength and all its national ambition.

Historically, this is not the first competition between Russia and the West. Over the centuries the Czarist empire was subjected to the constant pressure of superior Western European power and civilisation. To build up their military strength, some Czars made frenzied efforts to introduce Western techniques and organisation. Peter the Great made the most important and dramatic of those attempts. More quietly, less ambitiously, Czardom re-entered the contest at the end of the nineteenth century, shortly before its own downfall.

Czarist Russia lost each of these contests; and each left the nation exhausted and still further behind the West. It was not that Russia failed to make any progress, but the Czars had to strain all their despotic power to force their people into the rivalry and to keep them in it. Each time Russia’s initial lag proved far too great to be made good; and since Western Europe was advancing so rapidly, it became more and more difficult for Russia to catch up.

An Exhausting Race: Twenty-five years ago Bolshevik Russia reopened the contest. The decision was taken after the long and bitter controversy between Stalin and Trotsky. Much earlier than Stalin, Trotsky had advocated industrialisation; but he did not believe that Russia, even under Communist rule, could catch up with the West, let alone overtake it. He pointed to the tremendous historic lag which made him believe that the prospects of Communist Russia in a single-handed economic rivalry with the capitalist West would be hopeless. He concluded that only revolution in Europe could alter the balance in favour of Communism.

Stalin, seeing no chance for such a revolution, made the economic contest with the West the theme of his programme: ‘Catch up with the capitalist countries and surpass them!’

The contest is now in its third decade; and at least some of the delegates attending the Nineteenth Congress of the party, as they listen to the report of MZ Saburov, who sponsors the new Plan, must be silently pondering the question: has Stalin’s Russia really found the techniques which may enable it to win this time? Or is this merely a repetition, on a gigantic scale, of that peculiarly Russian tragedy, the desperate and exhausting race towards an ever more distant goal?

When the Stalinist call to ‘catch up with the capitalist West’ first resounded in Russia, the ‘enemy’ was France, the chief inspirer of the anti-Soviet intervention of 1919-20. Weimar Germany was still a disarmed, semi-friendly power. The isolationist United States was beyond all power combinations, hostile or friendly, which occupied the minds of Soviet policymakers. True, in the factories built under the First Five-Year Plan (1928-32) banners proclaimed the party’s intention to turn Russia into a ‘socialist America’. But this was a bold dream about a very remote future.

A few years later it was against Nazi Germany, a much stronger power than France, that Stalin’s Russia had to measure its strength. At the beginning of the 1930s Russia’s industrial potential was a fraction of Germany’s. The goal suddenly receded into the distance. This was the decade of the most stupendous strains and stresses in modern Russian history. But towards its end Russia’s industrial power had caught up with, or nearly caught up with, that of Germany.

During the Second World War Russia made a prodigious effort to industrialise the Urals and the lands beyond. But the war brought a severe setback to its economic development. Afterwards, straining all its strength and drawing upon the resources of the vanquished nations and of the countries within its orbit, Russia began its recovery.

The New Rival: But once again the goal to be attained had changed and the distance from it had lengthened. The new rival was the United States, which confronted Russia with an industrial capacity typified by an annual output of nearly a hundred million tons of steel.

In the opening phase of the Cold War, Russia’s annual steel output was only one-eighth or one-seventh of America’s. The relentless race has now reached a significant stage. If the target of the present Plan is reached, Russia will, in 1955, produce nearly half as much steel as the United States does now.

Steel output is the most important index of a country’s industrial power. But this index tells only part of the story. The level of those industries on which Russia’s military potential directly depends is well above the general level of the Russian economy. Under the new Plan, steel output is to grow by only 62 per cent, but the overall increase in producer goods will amount to 82 per cent, and in metal-cutting machine tools to 160 per cent. This can be achieved only by the enforcement of the strictest priority in steel allocations.

If we compare the targets for 1955 with what is known about the Russian economy in 1940, Russia’s last prewar year, we must conclude that within these 15 years Russia’s net national income should be nearly doubled; but its gross industrial output should be trebled, and the output of the engineering industries should be four times as large as it was in 1940. Russia’s military-industrial potential, although not necessarily its actual output of munitions, is expanding twice as rapidly as its general wealth. The gap between the Russian and the American engineering and armament industries is much narrower than that between the steel-producing capacities, and it will be narrower still by 1955.

Cars and Shoes: Hitherto the Russian consumer has financed Stalin’s programme of industrialisation and armament to an extent which Western peoples, thinking habitually in terms of their own standards of living, find difficult to grasp.

Russia has been running the race barefoot, half-naked and undernourished. This is no mere metaphor. Consider the output of shoes – as accurate a measure of the general standard of living as steel and machine tools are of heavy industry. Until quite recently the Russian production of footwear was never enough to provide shoes for more than a fraction of the population. Only in 1951 and 1952 have Soviet factories turned out enough shoes to provide, according to statistics, one pair for every Soviet citizen. This does not mean that every citizen actually gets his shoes: some can buy several pairs a year; others cannot buy any.

To take another homely example: the supply of meat now is just enough to ensure a statistical average of not more than a half a pound per week for every Soviet town dweller. Again, in practice, some people can afford three or four times this average, while others exist on a meatless diet.

And if we use the automobile as a standard of consumer prosperity, the Soviet Union fares even worse in comparison. During the 1946-50 Plan, Russia made an all-out effort to develop its own motorcar industry. The target was 500,000 motor vehicles a year: 430,000 trucks, 6000 to 7000 buses and only 65,000 passenger cars. This programme was designed to remedy one of the major weaknesses Russia revealed in the last war. Russian industry then produced guns and ammunition in great abundance, but it was unable to supply the means of transport on which the army’s mobility depended.

Under Lend-Lease, Russia received from the Western Allies enough trucks to motorise the élite of its army. Most Soviet infantrymen marched on foot from the Volga to Berlin and Vienna; and behind them moved long, primitive, horse-drawn supply trains. At present the Soviet motor industry produces in a year about as many trucks as Russia received under Lend-Lease in the course of nearly four years. The trucks are allocated to industry and farming, but they also form a ready mobilisation reserve for the armed forces. Meanwhile the annual quota of 65,000 passenger cars must suffice for a population of about 210 million, spread over 8,354,198 square miles, with only a sparse network of railways.

Carrot and Donkey: To eat one’s fill, to be decently clad and shod, to travel – these are still privileges enjoyed by a minority. This is the price the Russian people pay for the development of their country’s industrial and military power. They pay it because they are politically not in a position to resist, and because their standard of living is still slightly above what most of them have been accustomed to. Yet after four Five-Year Plans the contrast between the country’s growing wealth and the poverty of its producers assumes an unendurable intensity, becoming the most explosive issue in Soviet domestic affairs.

Therefore the new Five-Year Plan promises a 60 per cent rise in the supply of manufactured consumer goods. In some lines the increase is to be much higher; the output of furniture, for instance, is to be trebled. On the other hand, in footwear and clothing the increase is to be less than the average. Farming is also expected to make a decisive contribution to the higher standard of living. A grain crop of more than 180 million tons is anticipated, instead of the 120 million of the last few years, and the supply of meat and fats is supposed to rise by 80 to 90 per cent. This is the section of the Plan that the Russian consumer scrutinises most avidly. Even the least intelligent of housewives has by now learned to relate the abstruse indexes and percentages to the contents of her shopping basket. The Plan promises her an average of nearly a pound of meat per person per week, instead of the present half pound. It promises perhaps another two pairs of shoes per year for a family of five, and a few more pieces of crockery.

This is very little by Western standards, but it seems a lot to the famished Russian. The party agitator who talks volubly about the approaching era of plenty and the ‘transition from socialism to communism’ is now likely to meet a more genuine response. But the housewife, if she is not very young, will remain a little sceptical; similar promises, she remembers, were made in the past and were not honoured.

The programme for consumer industries is still modest enough to enable the government to fulfil it and still invest in heavy industry on a much larger scale than hitherto. The national ‘cake’ is growing so rapidly that even if a much bigger portion now goes to the consumer, the remainder will still be much larger than before. With the national income rising by 60 per cent, consumption may increase by 35 to 50 per cent, and the resources available for heavy industry and defence should still be 80 to 100 per cent higher in 1955 than they were in 1950.

What About Arms? The choice between guns and butter is no longer as inexorable as it was in the 1930s and 1940s. The country can now have a little more butter and many more guns. In this respect Russia is in a relatively better position than Western Europe, where rearmament is tending to depress the present level of consumption – which is, of course, far above Russia’s. This may well have important political repercussions. Discontent is more likely to prevail among people compelled to descend from a relatively high standard of living than among those who very slowly ascend from a low one.

The published Plan contains no information about the scale of armament. We do not know whether the percentage of national resources allocated to defence is to be increased or not. As the national income grows, however, the weapons represented by each per cent spent on armament increase accordingly. Thus, even if the proportion of the income that goes to defence were to remain stationary, arms production would still expand rapidly. On the other hand, as Russia’s income is not likely to exceed 50 per cent of America’s, Russia would have to spend at least twice the proportion on armament the United States is spending in order to produce approximately the same munitions.

An expenditure of this size would cripple the further development of heavy industry; and it seems that industrial expansion now has a definite priority over actual armament. The pressure of both armament and investment is, in any case, heavy enough to compel the government to put the brakes on some branches of the economy, even vital ones, while it quickens the tempo in others. The output of the motor industry, for instance, is to expand by only 20 per cent in five years, and in the transportation field emphasis is being shifted to railway construction.

The programme of naval construction still seems rather modest, as far as surface vessels are concerned, but an intensive effort is probably being made in civil and military aviation. The Plan also envisages an overall 100 per cent increase in stockpiling, on which six per cent of the country’s income is usually spent. The Russian system of stockpiling is extremely different from the American; and it is conducted on a vast scale. Soviet stockpiling includes strategic materials and also all those raw materials, such as fuels and food, that ensure the smooth working of the civilian economy, and which, in the States, accumulate in the private channels of industry and trade. Both strategic and non-strategic stocks are apparently to be built up to double their present size.

The race is on. But the goal – industrial parity with the United States – is far off. Further prospects depend on several very big imponderables. The Russian economy can continue to expand at the present pace only if:

* War does not interrupt it.

* The Russian rulers are able to go on keeping the people under control and exacting from them prolonged sacrifices.

* No internal political convulsion, especially after Stalin’s death, plunges the country into chaos.

* Control over the countries in the Russian orbit does not lead to dispersal of Russian economic and military strength.

* Primary production, manufacturing capacity, and the supply and training of labour progress at similar rates, so as to exclude any major economic disequilibrium.

The urge to ensure these conditions dictates Stalin’s policies, foreign and domestic. It accounts for his dwelling on the ‘peaceful coexistence’ of East and West – which does not rule out Russian attempts to paralyse, tie down or neutralise as much Western strength as possible. It governs Stalin’s attitude towards China and Eastern Europe. It also governs his attempts to stabilise the domestic political scene and settle in advance the succession to his leadership.

Should all these conditions be fulfilled, Russia may hope by 1970 to reach the level of economic development which the United States had attained by the middle of the century. However, unpredictable technical revolutions such as wide industrial utilisation of atomic energy, together with the effective integration of the Chinese and Russian economies and the harnessing of Eastern European resources, may enable Russia to reach the goal even earlier.

Question of the Century: Russia’s rulers, viewing these grandiose vistas, must still be asking themselves where the United States will stand by 1970. Russia is on the point of outstripping the combined industrial power of Western Europe, to which the last three decades have brought decay, destruction or stagnation. Will the United States stagnate in the next two decades?

Or will the United States make such gigantic strides forwards that Russia, having overstrained its strength in the race, will once again see the goal eluding it? This may well be the question of our century.