Isaac Deutscher 1961

Trouble on the Kolkhozy

Source: The Reporter, 8 June 1961. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The conflicts over Laos and Cuba, the deadlock in negotiations over the nuclear test ban, and even the triumphs of Soviet cosmonautics have not been able to overshadow, in Soviet eyes, the critical condition of Soviet farming.

From Moscow and other cities the reappearance of queues outside food shops has been reported: meat and dairy products have been in short supply. Khrushchev somewhat incongruously concluded a series of ecstatic eulogies of Major Gagarin with a long and insistent appeal to farmers for more output. One could almost hear him sigh in public: ‘Oh, if we could only conquer our own countryside as easily as we are conquering outer space!’ His drive against theft and embezzlement in the collective farms and phony statistics is still on, and he has now strengthened the drive with Draconic measures – deportations, jail and even the death penalty.

This campaign, one suspects, serves the Soviet premier as a kind of escapism. It is not that there is any lack of theft, cheating and playing with phony statistics. But these are the symptoms rather than the causes of the plight of Soviet farming. Kolkhoz chairmen falsify output figures when output is poor, and they are inclined to cheat the administration when it makes unrealistic demands on them. It was to be expected that after two bad harvests, for which the bureaucracy is blaming the people on the spot, phony progress reports would be more abundant than usual.

Yet even the bad harvests do not account for all the official alarm. True enough, the income of the rural population from sales of foodstuffs to the government has fallen from 135 billion rubles (13.5 billion new rubles) in 1958 to about 100 billion (10 billion new rubles) in 1960. But 100 billion rubles is still about three times as much as the peasantry earned in the last years of the Stalin era. The increase has reflected a rise in output but mainly a rise in the official prices for agricultural products – the decision to raise prices was the most important concession to the peasantry made soon after Stalin’s death.

It is now clear that the post-Stalinist improvement in farming has been followed by new stagnation and even decline. The concessions to the peasantry have proved inadequate. The stimulus they gave to farming was enough to produce the upward swing of 1953-58 but it is now more or less exhausted. A reformulation of policy is overdue, but government and party are not ready for it. Meanwhile, economists and planners are debating publicly the ways and means by which further progress may be secured, and their discussion provides fresh information about the state of the rural economy and some dilemmas of Soviet domestic policy.

The obstacles to a rationalisation of Soviet agriculture are not new: the rigidity and stupidity of bureaucracy, and the conservatism and backwardness of the farmers.

Grave as are the faults of the bureaucracy, these have been made even worse in the last two years by the government’s indecision, which contrasts strikingly with its earlier initiative and verve in reforming agricultural policy. The officials who deal directly with the farmers are distracted by contradictory instructions. They are expected to be liberal and illiberal at the same time. They are told that they must not interfere with the autonomous working of the farms and they are warned that they must not give the farmers too much rope. They are urged to offer incentives for higher productivity and are denied the means to make the incentives real. The result is an extraordinary muddle. In some areas, for instance, the kolkhozniki consume nearly all their increased income and refuse to make the necessary investments; in others, officialdom compels them to reinvest so much that little is left for consumption. To take another example: in the Caucasus the size of privately-owned cattle herds has nearly doubled since Stalin’s days, whereas the collectively-owned herds have not increased at all. In the Ukraine, on the contrary, the managements of the collective farms have bought up from private hands – that is, from their own members – all the cattle they could get; but as they did not have enough accommodation and fodder for the increased herds, many of the cattle have perished. (Khrushchev himself has described the waste of millions of sheep while they were being transported to Central Asia.)

Still the Private Farmer: Soviet economists dwell on the backwardness of the rural population as well as on bureaucratic weak-mindedness and arbitrariness. The productivity of the farm labourer, they maintain, amounts at most to one-third of that of the urban industrial worker. Whereas the United States employs only six per cent or so of its manpower in agriculture, the Soviet Union employs nearly 20 per cent – and the Soviet public is constantly being reminded of this contrast. The agricultural labour force of the Soviet Union is still almost as large today as it was 20 years ago, though it should be noted that the urban population has nearly doubled in the meantime. (Agricultural output has gone up by 60 per cent, officially.)

Thirty years after forcible collectivisation, the son or the grandson of the peasant expropriated by Stalin still remains attached to the tiny plot of land, about one acre, that he is allowed to own privately; and this tiny plot competes with the vast collective fields for his labour time. Even in areas of the most ‘advanced’ farming, men spend 30 per cent of their effective working hours on the private plot, and women over 50 per cent. During the harvesting season, the kolkhoz manager has to make desperate efforts to drag them from the private to the collective fields. This situation is bound to prevail as long as the farmer makes more money on his tiny plot than in the kolkhoz; and he is still selling his private produce at higher prices than those the government pays to the kolkhoz.

Not less disquieting to the government than this conflict between private and collective interests within each kolkhoz is the antagonism between rich and poor kolkhozy. In the absence of any precise statistics, one suspects that the majority of the collective farms are poor, working on poor soil, with too little cattle or equipment. The less profitable a kolkhoz, the more do its members depend on incomes from private plots. In the ‘rich’ kolkhozy, the collectives have more inherent economic strength, and the private plot means less to the farmer. But the well-to-do kolkhozy are a minority; and it is precisely their strength that makes for tension between the rich and the poor in the countryside. Under the surface of collectivism, something in the nature of class struggle goes on. True, the government no longer sees in the aspirations of the more prosperous farmers the threat to itself and to urban collectivism that Stalin’s government saw. Nevertheless the backwardness, the chaotic conditions and the inner cleavages in farming are still a drag on the urban economy.

This was the background against which the Central Committee deliberated on the situation in farming last January. The official reports have disclosed little about the real proceedings of that session. All that has been announced is the decision to reduce the prerogatives of the Ministry of Agriculture, to transfer effective supervision over farming to the State Planning Commission, and to set up some new administrative bodies. These bureaucratic reshufflings have provided no answer to the problems. Like Khrushchev’s fulminations against corruption, they have merely served to cover up a conflict of policies within the Central Committee, a conflict which is, however, clearly revealed in the public debates among the economists.