Isaac Deutscher 1953
Source: Soviet Studies, April 1953, republished in Isaac Deutscher, Heretics and Renegades and Other Essays (Hamish and Hamilton, London, 1955). Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Shortly before his death, Stalin himself, in his Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR,  offered a virtual survey of the social achievement of the USSR in the Stalin era. In his own way he pointed not only to the grandeur but also to the contradictory nature of that achievement. His essay may now be read as his political testament. The following article, written and set before Stalin’s death, analyses some of his ideas. One need not be a devotee of the Stalin cult to recognise Stalin’s last published work as a significant political document, despite its characteristically dogmatic and scholastic style.
The Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR contains three different lines of argument: a statement of dogma; a survey of crucial economic and social problems; and suggestions for practical policy. All these aspects are closely interconnected, and so the survey of current problems and the suggestions for future policy cannot be properly understood without some attention being paid to the dogmatic points.
Stalin wrote his article (and the accompanying letters to various Soviet economists) in connection with a discussion which took place, in November 1951, over the conspectus of a new textbook of political economy. His remarks are devoted mainly to the treatment accorded in the textbook to the ‘transition from socialism to communism’. For some time past this ‘transition’ has stood in the centre of theoretical argument and of day-to-day propaganda. The slogan refers back to the familiar distinction, drawn by Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, between the ‘two phases’ of communism, the ‘lower’ or the socialist and the ‘higher’ or the communist proper.  For many years it has been a virtual canon of Stalinism that the Soviet Union has already completed the building of socialism. Thus the problem of the transition to communism has been posed almost automatically. Recently the discussion of the ways and means and of the tempo of the transition has tended to become specific; and differences of opinion have begun to appear. In what phase of the transition does the Soviet Union find itself at present? What are the immediate prospects? In what way can the transition be speeded up and facilitated? These have been the problems under debate.
Inevitably an air of unreality has enveloped much of the discussion, if only because its chief premise – the achievement of socialism – is itself utterly unreal. Stalin’s Marxist critics have often asked how the Soviet economic system can be described as socialist when the standards of living of the Soviet peoples are notoriously low, much lower than those attained in Western capitalist countries. Is socialism compatible with growing economic inequality? Or with massive coercion by the state? Stalin has in the past done his best to evade some of these questions and to answer others in terms of the Marxist doctrine. He has argued that economic inequality is justified and unavoidable under socialism, as Marx clearly indicated when he drew the distinction between the two phases of communism. Stalin has further pointed out that the withering away of the state (that is of coercion by government), which the founders of Marxism expected, could occur only in an international socialist commonwealth, not in a single, isolated, socialist state. But Stalin and his followers have carefully avoided any realistic comparison between Soviet and foreign standards of living, because it has been politically impossible for them to admit that standards of living were and still are lower in the Soviet Union than in the capitalist West.
The claim that the Soviet Union has achieved socialism is based on the view that nationalisation of the means of production and the prevalence of planned economy by themselves constitute socialism, regardless of how developed or underdeveloped are the economic resources of the country concerned, how high or low its standards of living and under what degree of state compulsion the country lives. Even in the light of this simplified definition, however, the socialist character of the Soviet economy must still appear doubtful. While Soviet industry may be said to conform to the definition, Soviet farming has, even after collectivisation, represented a mixed type of economy. The land has, in strict law, been national property ever since 1917, although this legal fact has even now hardly become part and parcel of the peasantry’s thinking and attitude towards the land. The Constitution and the Statutes of the kolkhoz guarantee eternal use of the land to the collective farms and of small private plots to individual members. The Machine Tractor Stations are owned and operated by the state. Livestock, implements, buildings are corporate or private property. The kolkhoz owns its crops; and after having met its obligations towards the state, it is free to sell the crops. The individual kolkhoznik is free to take to the market the produce of his private plot and that part of the collective crop which is allocated to him. Collective farming thus represents at best a semi-private and semi-socialist sector of the economy. Officially, however, collective farming has been labelled socialist, in order to justify the claim that socialism had been established in the entire Soviet economy.
This misrepresentation of the social aspect of Soviet farming has produced a great deal of doctrinal equivocation and ‘double talk’. Stalin’s article deals in fact with some of the effects of that equivocation. This is not merely a matter of dogma, for dogma impinges on practical policy and administrative experience. Since the canon about the achievement of socialism had been proclaimed, new cadres of economists, administrators, planners and organisers have grown up. Some of them have received a thorough grounding in classical Marxist economic theory. In their minds the tenets of that theory often tend to clash with the Stalinist canon. These ‘young cadres’ have the advantage over the Bolsheviks of an earlier generation that they have been plunged directly from school into a vast, complicated and rapidly expanding planned economy, where they can test academically acquired notions of Marxist theory against facts of life. Sooner or later – perhaps later rather than sooner – they may be able to enrich the theory in the light of their unprecedented experience and thus to contribute towards overcoming the present stagnation and decadence of Marxist economic thought. For the time being, however, they themselves are the victims of the bureaucratic-ecclesiastical manipulation of economic theory. Stalin now tries to free them from some ill effects of that manipulation and in his turn exposes them to new manipulation.
The young economist or administrator who accepts the canon about the socialist character of the economy is inevitably puzzled and bewildered by many aspects of Soviet policy. He wonders, for instance, why ‘socialist’ farms should trade their produce and why market relationships should persist under socialism? If he has read carefully the famous passage from Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme (the passage so often referred to in which Marx drew the distinction between the two phases of communism), he must have noticed that Marx insists that even under the ‘lower phase of communism’ ‘the producers do not exchange their produce’ and that no class distinctions exist any longer ‘because everybody is only a worker’. If the present Soviet system represents socialism then it follows that the distinction between the peasant and the worker should have become irrelevant and the member of the kolkhoz should be a worker on a par with the industrial producer. Kolkhoz trade and kolkhoz markets should then be relegated as anachronisms to a museum of antiquities. It is with such reasonings that Stalin deals in his article. A way out of the confusion would be to admit that the Soviet economy is still only a halfway-house between capitalism and socialism, not devoid even of features of pre-capitalist relations. But Stalinist orthodoxy cannot afford such an admission.
On a more theoretical level the problem is formulated as follows: does the law of value, in the Marxist sense, operate under socialism? In Marxist theory the ‘law of value’ is bound up exclusively and inseparably with the market economy in its pre-capitalist and capitalist varieties. The notion itself of value (that is, exchange value as distinct from use value) does not exist outside production for the market, commodity exchange and trade. By definition there is no room for it in a socialist economy, for under socialism the community is expected merely to distribute and allocate its social product – the members of the community are expected to produce for the common pool and to consume from the common pool, without exchanging their produce among themselves. There is no room for selling and buying or seller and buyer. In the Soviet Union a great deal of selling and buying is, of course, going on in various forms, including forms normally associated with a black market. The young Soviet economist remembers the fantastic inflation of prices on kolkhoz markets during the recent war and in the first postwar years. He remembers the depreciation of the rouble which compelled the government to carry out the drastic postwar currency reform. Marxist theory has explained to him money as the reflex or embodiment of pure value, springing into and fading out of existence together with the exchange of commodities. How then is the existence of money, not to speak of its irrational value movements, to be fitted into the picture of a socialist economy?
Stalin is trying to fit these phenomena into the theoretical picture. Since he must insist on the socialist character of the economy and at the same time on the Marxist orthodoxy of his views, he is compelled to produce an essay in squaring the circle. He tries to prove in terms of classical Marxist theory something which in those terms is an absurdity, namely that the law of value continues to operate under socialism. It is, of course, possible to hold such a view; and some socialist schools of thought have held it. But it is as little possible to argue it coherently in terms of Marx’s theory as it would be to argue in terms of Copernican cosmology that the earth is flat.
Behind manufactured scholastic dogma loom serious practical problems. We have mentioned the new cadres of the economists and administrators whom Stalin addresses. This is how he himself sees those cadres:
It might be said that all that has been stated here is correct and generally known but contains nothing new and that consequently there is no need to waste time on repetition of truisms. Of course, there is nothing new in all that, but it would be incorrect to think that it is not worth while to spend time on repeating some of the truths familiar to us. We, the leading nucleus, are joined every year by thousands of new young cadres, who burn with the desire to help us and to prove themselves but who do not have sufficient Marxist education and do not know many of the things familiar to us... They are impressed and bewildered by the colossal achievements of Soviet power, they are made dizzy by the extraordinary successes of the Soviet regime, and they begin to imagine that Soviet power can ‘do anything'... Some comrades say that the party acted incorrectly when having seized power and nationalised the means of production in our country it preserved commodity production.
It may well be that Stalin crudely exaggerates the simple-mindedness of the ‘young cadres’ and thus sets up imaginary whipping-boys whom it is easy to belabour in controversy. It is difficult to believe that the ‘young cadres’ should be unaware of the experiment of war communism, which was nothing else but an abortive Bolshevik attempt to abolish the market economy. Whatever the truth, Stalin leaves no doubt that pressure for the abolition of market relationships has recently made itself felt in Soviet ruling groups. Since market relationships have had their main basis in the structure of farming, in its semi-private character, the pressure has actually been for a further radical transformation of farming and its absorption in the nationalised economy.
The present structure of the kolkhoz system is, as we have seen, characterised by an elaborate and unstable balance between private and collective interests. The private interest has tended to expand beyond prescribed limits; and the government has striven to impose and maintain the priority of the corporate interest. In this tug-of-war the balance has swayed now in one and now in the other direction. During the last war, when the so-called millionaire-kolkhoznik was the hero of the day, private interests obviously gained much scope. The postwar currency reform, confiscating the ‘fortunes’ made on kolkhoz markets, tilted the scales in favour of the collective interests. So did the recent merger of the kolkhozy into larger units. It is now clear that the merger had been decided upon after an acute controversy which had rent the last Politbureau since 1948-49. Apparently more extreme measures for the suppression of the private interest were advocated. Khrushchev, we know, proposed the formation of Agrotowns; and the abolition of the residual private farming carried on within the kolkhozy was also contemplated. It is now vaguely suggested that Voznessensky, the former head of Gosplan and member of the Politbureau, stood for even more extreme ('adventurist’) policies designed not merely to restrict the private interest within the collective farms but to carry farming as a whole from collectivisation to ‘socialisation’. It is impossible to say whether this was really so, because only one party to the controversy has been allowed to air its views; and as Stalin and his associates have sometimes in the past shown themselves quite capable of stealing clothes from their bathing adversaries, it may even be that the policies now adopted as those originally expounded by the excommunicated Voznessensky. Whatever the truth, after a moment of apparent hesitation over the more extreme measures, the ruling group has rejected them, holding that a bouleversement of farming would produce more economic and political disruption than the Soviet Union could at present afford.
Nevertheless, the problem of the market economy, or more specifically of kolkhoz trade, remains. The market economy, as Stalin points out, tends to come into conflict with the needs of central planning. It introduces a huge element of ‘spontaneity’ and unpredictability in a field which even without it would still remain relatively unpredictable. In the course of nearly a quarter of a century farming has eluded planning. Few of the targets set for the output of grain and for the breeding of livestock have been attained. That the contradiction between the elements of planning and those of a market economy constitute the greatest single cleavage within the Soviet economy no critically-minded student could ever have doubted. Until recently Stalinist writers denied or explained away this contradiction. It is on it, however, that Stalin has now turned the limelight. In his letter to LD Yaroshenko he writes:
It is therefore the task of the leading bodies to indicate in good time the growing contradictions and to take timely measures towards their overcoming... This applies above all to such economic phenomena as the group property in collective farming and the circulation of commodities. Of course, at present we successfully utilise these for the development of the socialist economy... They will undoubtedly be of benefit in the nearest future as well. But it would be unforgivable blindness not to see that at the same time these phenomena are already beginning to act as a brake on the powerful development of our productive forces, in so far as they hamper state planning in its striving to encompass the whole of the national economy, especially of the rural economy. There can be no doubt that the further we proceed the more will these phenomena act as a brake on the continued growth of our country’s productive forces. Consequently, it is our task to liquidate these contradictions by way of a gradual transformation of kolkhoz property into national property and by way of a gradual substitution of the exchange of products for commodity circulation.
It should be underlined that Stalin describes not merely the private interest of the kolkhoznik but even ‘group ownership’ of the kolkhoz as a brake on planning. He forecasts that the ‘brake’ is likely to act more powerfully in the future; and he sees the eventual solution in the complete assimilation of farming to socialised industry. If the present structure were to be left unchanged, he says, then the conflict between planning and market relationships would eventually assume critical forms. This diagnosis is undoubtedly realistic, and it would be a mistake to see in it a symptom of Soviet economic weakness. It is, on the contrary, only against the background of the stupendous growth of Soviet economic power in recent years that this diagnosis could be made and that the problem to which it points could arise.
Despite its enormous human and material faux frais, the Soviet planned economy has achieved a high degree of consolidation. Its basis and its volume have been growing with the continuous industrial revolution, with the expansion in productive capacities and in reserves of skilled manpower. Experience accumulated in a quarter of a century shows itself in improved techniques of planning. The firmer the foundations on which the planned economy rests and the greater its dynamic expansiveness, the earlier, however, must it hit the limits which market relationships impose on it, and the stronger must be its tendency to eliminate anarchical ‘spontaneity’ from the whole system. This again is no matter of abstract economic principle only. The practical issue at stake is the adjustment of agriculture to industrial development. The supply of food to the rapidly growing industrial population and the geographic redistribution of food-producing centres to suit the changing industrial map of the country have proved chronically inadequate. These disproportions, if they were to persist, would slow down or even bring to a standstill industrial expansion. The stronger the Soviet economy is as a whole, especially its industrial sector, the more does the present condition of Soviet farming become a source of weakness.
This is the central issue behind Stalin’s survey of the Soviet economy. But here again dogmatic considerations superimpose themselves on realistic analysis. What Stalin has described is, in Marxist terms, a ‘contradiction between productive forces and productive relationships’, a contradiction inherent in all class society, including any society which may be in transition from capitalism to socialism. To the Marxist this contradiction is unthinkable under socialism. ‘Productive relationships’ mean nothing else than the property relations prevailing in any given society and the corresponding mutual connections between social classes and groups. The ‘contradiction between productive forces and productive relationships’ is, in other words, the conflict between the needs of economic development and established property relations. Under capitalism there is the constant, latent or open, conflict between private property in means of production and the social interdependence of the producers or, more generally, the social character of the productive process. Only social ownership of means of production can, in the Marxist view, resolve the conflict between productive forces and productive relationships. In so far as private (or ‘group’) ownership predominates over a vast sector of the Soviet economy (farming) the conflict persists, albeit in new form.
This conflict once again defies the accepted picture of Soviet ‘socialism’. Consequently, either that socialism is exposed as a myth; or else it must be declared that the contradiction between productive forces and relationships, far from being a characteristic of past society only, remains a feature of socialism as well. In deference to a canon of his own making, Stalin in fact argues that this contradiction will be inherent in human society for ever. One must assume that Stalin puts into these formulŠ some other meaning which has little in common with their accepted Marxist sense, for otherwise his conclusion would be that under socialism and communism the needs of economic development would continue to clash with the new forms of ownership, that is, with social ownership. In such a view the ‘contradiction between productive forces and productive relationships’ would be transformed into an eternal, metaphysical element of human history.
From Stalin’s correspondence with the economists it appears that this point of his argument has caused bewilderment even among people accustomed to accept every word from his mouth with prescribed reverence. Marxism explains social revolutions as the violent processes through which productive relationships are brought in line with the development of productive forces. If Stalin’s argument were to be taken at its face value, it might even imply the ‘inevitability’ of new revolutions in Soviet society. This was the last thing he had intended to suggest, as he hastens to explain in his letter to AI Notkin. In his characteristic desire to invest every one of his moves with the merits of an absolute socialist ‘truth’, Stalin has simply projected a conflict which afflicts present Soviet society on to the Marxist vision of fully-fledged socialism and communism. He has put his finger on a current and potentially explosive issue and has hastened to add that the issue is not explosive at all, for in one form or another it is bound to reappear at every stage of human development.
Throughout his argument Stalin repeatedly puts his finger on some potentially explosive issue, then asserts that no issue can be explosive under the Soviet system and then again, forgetting this assertion, insists on the highly explosive nature of the issue in question. It would take us too far to go into all the scholastic twists and turns of his reasoning – only one or two illustrations will suffice.
The dichotomy between the planned sector of the economy and the market, coincides broadly with the contradiction between town and country in the Soviet Union. Stalin begins with denying the mere fact of the contradiction. The country, he says, is no longer exploited by the town as it used to be under capitalism and therefore ‘not a trace’ has been left of their former antagonism. What has survived is a ‘difference’ between town and country, not a ‘contradiction’.
The critic might be tempted to ask when a ‘difference’ becomes a ‘contradiction’. The kolkhoznik sells food, the town-dweller buys it directly or through the medium of a state or cooperative trading organisation. The seller aims at selling dearly, the buyer at buying cheaply. This remains so even if the state, which acts as the middleman, pays the peasant low prices and charges the town-dweller high prices for food. The ‘difference’ between the rural seller and the urban buyer is obviously a ‘contradiction’. The ‘difference’ between national ownership and state planning (prevalent in town) and ‘group’ and private ownership and market relations (prevalent in the country) is surely also a ‘contradiction’ – otherwise group ownership and market relationships would not impede planning. The distinction between ‘differences’ and ‘contradictions’ is merely a formula of bureaucratic scholasticism designed to conceal the gulf between the various sections of Soviet society.
Eventually, however, Stalin is driven back to realities and then he reveals that gulf once again. When some of his correspondents suggest to him that it might be advisable to transfer the Machine Tractor Stations from state ownership to collective farm ownership he argues against this proposal strongly and in part very convincingly. He puts forward two arguments. He points out, first, that the technical equipment of farming (tractors and heavy machines) must be constantly renewed if agriculture is to keep pace with the industrial revolution. The collective farms, he goes on, would not be in a position to finance their own re-equipment:
What does it mean to withdraw hundreds of thousands of wheeled tractors and to replace them by caterpillar tractors, to replace tens of thousands of obsolescent combines and to produce new machines, say, for technical cultures? This involves expenses running into milliards which could return only over six to eight years. Only the state can take upon itself such expenditure, because it and it alone is in a position to bear the losses resulting from the withdrawal and replacement of obsolescent machinery, because it and it alone is in a position to bear such losses over six to eight years in expectation of eventual returns.
We are thus told that the collective farms are not in a position to undertake medium-term investment necessary for the periodical modernisation of their equipment. This is a somewhat specious argument, because the financial capacity of the kolkhozy depends largely on the government’s price and credit policies. Stalin perhaps intended to say that the kolkhozy could not be relied upon to make the investments rather than to claim that they were economically absolutely in no position to make them. More relevant than this is, however, Stalin’s second argument:
Let us suppose for a moment that we have adopted comrades Sanina’s and Venzher’s proposals and have begun to sell... Machine Tractor Stations to the kolkhozy. What would be the consequence?
In the first instance the kolkhozy would become owners of essential means of production. They would thus find themselves in an exceptional position such as no business concern in our country enjoys, for, as is well known, even our nationalised business concerns are not the owners of their means of production. How could this exceptional situation of the kolkhozy be justified, by what consideration of progress and advance? Could it be said that this situation would be conducive to raising kolkhoz property to the level of national property, that it would speed up the transition of our society from socialism to communism? Would it not be more correct to say that this would only lengthen the distance between kolkhoz property and national property and that it would not bring our economy closer to communism, but, on the contrary, take it further away from communism?
The result would, secondly, be that the sphere of commodity circulation would be widened, because a colossal number of the means of agricultural production would find itself within the orbit of commodity circulation.
In other words, if the allegedly socialist kolkhozy were to own the Machine Tractor Stations, the result would be an enormous strengthening of the anti-socialist elements in the Soviet economy. In this Stalin is undoubtedly right. En passant he reveals, however, that after more than two decades of collectivisation Soviet policy vis-Ó-vis the peasantry is still saddled with the old dilemma: an impoverished peasantry does not produce enough food and raw materials for the town; but a peasantry enjoying material incentives which ensure high production, accumulates more property than is safe for the regime and imparts to the market economy more momentum than is safe for the planned sector of the economy. Between the lines of Stalin’s argument there lurks the fear of the kulak-kolkhoz. The idea of the transfer of Machine Tractor Stations to collective farms is probably more than the brainwave of a few economists. It is only natural that the wealthier kolkhozy should cast covetous glances on the Machine Tractor Stations. The acquisition of those stations by them might indeed mark the beginning of a powerful development of modern capitalism in Russian farming. Alas, Stalin has not told his correspondents whether he is afraid here of a contradiction or of a mere difference between town and country; but he has left them in no doubt that the party will continue to stand, with all its might, between the collective farms and the Machine Tractor Stations.
Stalin’s recent writings offer a glimpse of the movement of ideas going on in the Soviet ruling circles behind the half-real and half-deceptive fašade of uniformity. It is this movement that distinguishes present-day Russia from the Russia of the late 1930s which was from head to foot stunned and petrified after the shock of the great purges. The movement of ideas reflects conflicting social aspirations and pressures which even a monolithic regime is not in a position to eliminate for good. Despite the rigid orthodox terms in which ideas are formulated, the present discussions are in some respects well ahead of earlier controversies within the Bolshevik Party, because they centre on issues which have arisen on a much higher level of economic development. New questions demand new answers, and Stalinism is vitally interested in finding these, even if orthodoxy compels it to look for the answers by roundabout ways and to formulate them in circumlocution and ‘double-talk’.
The ‘transition from socialism to communism’ is at present the chief ‘double-talk’ formula for the discussion of real problems. All views are framed in its terms. Since the formula refers to a future and hypothetical state of society, it sanctions up to a point exploration and experimental thinking, which were almost totally absent from an earlier phase of Stalinism. To the student of Soviet affairs who has followed over the years the violent campaigns against uravnilovka (egalitarianism) it is fascinating to watch how in the course of the arguments about the ‘transition’ some economists draw cautiously, timidly yet quite distinctly the vistas of a society which will no longer be afflicted by the economic inequality now prevailing in the Soviet Union. Ideas and notions which were banished as heresies not so long ago seem to creep back into visions of the future and there to experience a quasi-rehabilitation. The guesses about the future sometimes sound like reflections on the present – this is not the first time that Utopia is either an implied critique of existing society or an escape from it. Things being in Russia what they are, authority’s sudden and angry reactions against flights of experimental thought are inevitable. Yet this particular dream, the dream about the higher phase of communism, has been officially licensed and encouraged; and the Soviet citizen has even sometimes been led to believe that the ‘transition’ is not a matter for his ‘children and grandchildren’ but something which his own generation can and must achieve.
There is something profoundly paradoxical in all this. The present rulers of the Soviet Union require on the one hand the Soviet citizen to show a blind faith in, and a pious devotion to, Soviet institutions and policies such as they are. In this respect the Soviet rulers are more conservative than even the most conservative governments, for none require from their citizens quite as much faith in and enthusiasm for the established order. On the other hand, Stalinism also instils in the Soviet people the revolutionary conviction that most of these exalted institutions and policies deserve to be scrapped or radically changed in the transition from socialism to communism. Thus Stalinism works to impose a standstill upon the minds and the thoughts of the people and at the same time it desires to keep those thoughts and minds on the move, searching for new worlds.
Stalin has now sounded a note of caution. He has warned the ‘young cadres’, lured by the ‘higher phase’, that the transition from socialism to communism is a long uphill road. Years ago he used to scold those who spoke about ‘objective laws’ setting limits to governmental action. ‘There are no fortresses which the Bolsheviks cannot seize’ was his slogan then. Now he scolds those who ignore the ‘objective laws’ of a socialist economy or aspire to modify them. His insistence on the validity of economic laws under socialism has, for all its turgid scholasticism, symptomatic significance. When Stalin speaks so emphatically about the objective laws and warns against ‘economic adventurers’, he surely applies the brake to economic policy. His invocation of the economic laws is his substitute for the cry: Moderation! Moderation!
‘With us’, Stalin says, ‘commodity production and trade are as necessary at present as they were, say, thirty years ago.’ Thirty years ago NEP had just been introduced; farming was broken up into twenty-odd million farms; and some industries were just being transferred to capitalist ownership. Stalin’s obvious overstatement serves an ‘educational’ purpose. It amounts to a warning against over-hasty experiments with farming and the market economy. En passant Stalin has made the startling revelation that ‘some comrades’ – is it Voznessensky again? – have advocated the complete nationalisation of all farming. Stalin agrees that national or social ownership of the whole economy, including farming, is the precondition for communism which will know no market economy and no money. But he gives to understand that this will be a protracted process to be completed perhaps only in that remote future when capitalism will have vanished in most countries and even the state will have withered away. He explores two methods for the solution of the problems of farming and of the market economy. He rejects direct absorption of farming by the state on grounds of political and social impracticability; and he foreshadows the gradual extension of planning by a single authority to both sectors of the economy and also to the distribution of farm produce.
In his article, dated 1 February 1952, Stalin did not go beyond this general conclusion. He did not specify how he envisaged the gradual extension of planning to collective farming and to the distribution of farm produce. In the letter to Sanina and Venzher dated eight months later (28 September 1952), he offers a more specific plan. The collective farmer, he argues, cannot be brought to accept social ownership as long as he finds trade in farm produce profitable. The government cannot ‘abolish’ trade, but it must offer to the peasantry something more profitable than trade, namely the direct exchange of industrial goods for farm produce, the exchange of products (produkto-obmen) instead of the exchange of commodities. A modest beginning has been made with farms specialising in the cultivation of technical plants. The government buys up their entire crops and pays them partly in money and partly in industrial goods. This practice should be gradually extended to other farms and money should gradually be eliminated from the transactions. Stalin points to the limiting factor which does not allow for a large-scale extension of the practice in the near future: the government is not in a position to offer the collective farmers industrial goods in quantities and assortments which would induce them to give up trade. The key to the solution is to be found in the town, not in the countryside; but the town has not yet produced it:
Such a system [Stalin writes] requires an enormous increase in the output of goods which the town supplies to the country and therefore we shall have to introduce it without especial haste, only as urban output grows. But introduce it we must, unflaggingly, without wavering, step by step, thus reducing the sphere of commodity circulation...
As is usual with Stalin, the seriousness of what he has to say grows as he leaves theory and dogma for practical policy. What he foreshadows here may well prove the most significant economic reform contemplated in the Soviet Union since the collectivisation of farming. In a nutshell these passages may be said to contain a broad plan for the gradual elimination of the market economy. Unlike collectivisation, the reform is envisaged as an evolutionary process, the tempo of which will be dictated by the pace of further industrialisation and the extent to which the growth of the Soviet national income may allow the government simultaneously to participate in the armaments race, to go on with massive investment in heavy industry, and to increase rapidly the output of consumer goods especially for rural consumption. Its multiple economic and political commitments may yet force the government to postpone the reform to an indefinite future. But even in the most favourable circumstances, a reform of this kind would require a decade or two for its successful completion. A great abundance of industrial consumer goods is only the first condition of its success. There still remain the imponderables, the mental habits, the social customs, and the economic ‘prejudices’ of the peasantry which have all to be overcome before the kolkhoznik gives up the kolkhoz market for produkto-obmen. Although it has proved possible to drive the muzhik into the collective farm and to compel and induce him to stay in it, it has so far proved impossible to drive out of him his attachment to property, as Stalin now implicitly admits. The peasant’s individualism has been kept within bounds and subdued but not destroyed. In a poverty-stricken nation, amid the miseries of the first decades of collectivisation, it has still been property and trade that have offered or promised the peasant relative well-being and security. Not before planned economy can offer him much greater well-being and security can it begin to undo the rural market. Stalin’s cautious approach to this problem seems therefore well justified.
The note of caution rings even more broadly in Stalin’s ‘three conditions’ for the transition to communism. In Stalin’s own words – ‘in order to prepare the transition to communism in reality and not merely in declarations it is necessary to fulfil at least three essential preliminary conditions’ (my italics). This sounds quite differently from the glib assurances that Soviet society is already in the process of that transition. The ‘three conditions’ include: (i) the continued intensive development of the country’s industrial resources; (ii) the slow and gradual adjustment of collective farming to the nationalised sector of the economy and the gradual abolition of trade;  and (iii) the raising of the standards of living and of the cultural standards, the reduction of the working day ‘at least’ to six or rather to five hours, the doubling (again ‘at least’) of real wages, and the spread of education which would allow the contradiction between brain work and manual labour to be abolished. As this statement appeared on the eve of the Nineteenth Congress of the party, it led commentators to expect an imminent shortening of the working day, which at eight hours is still longer than it was in the 1930s. The congress, however, has not reduced working hours, which also indicates that Stalin’s ‘three conditions’ are regarded as a long-term programme.
Stalin had intended to give the ‘young cadres’ the measure of the great distance which separates Soviet society from communism and to indicate in what way that distance might be shortened. What he has actually indicated is, in Marxist terms, the distance which still separates the Soviet Union not from communism but from socialism.
1. JV Stalin, ‘Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR’, Works, Volume 16, available at < http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1951/economic-problems/index.htm > – MIA.
2. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, available at < http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ > – MIA.
3. ‘It is necessary, secondly, by way of gradual transitions, effected with benefit to the collective farms and consequently to the whole of society, to raise collective property to the level of national property and to replace commodity circulation by the system of produkto-obmen, also by way of gradual transitions, so that the central government or some other social-economic directing body should be able to encompass the whole output of social production in the interest of society.’