Chris Harman


Russia in Crisis?

(January 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.54, January 1973, pp.11-12.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

1. The Problem

This has been a worrying winter for the top men in the Kremlin. The Russian economy faces its most serious difficulties since the present ‘collective leadership’ under Brezhnev came to power. The five year plan targets for 1971-75 propose grain production should average 197 million tons per year. Last year the actual figure was only about 170 million; this year, a few million tons less. This is why Russia has bought on the world market some 30 million tons, at an estimated cost of 2,000 million dollars. The purchase has cut deeply into world grain stocks and forced up bread prices internationally. Yet still there are hungry people in Russia.

The Russian leaders, attempting to put the best face on the situation, claim that ‘there will be no less grain in the country than the annual average during the 8th Plan’ (1966-70). Even if the claim were true, it is no matter for rejoicing. Russia’s population is about 15 million higher now than five years ago. Only an increased grain harvest could feed these extra mouths without making others hungry.

The grain harvest is not the only agricultural problem. Shortage of grain for animal foodstuffs this year is likely to mean a drop in livestock herds and the output of meat in years to come.

2. Causes

The official explanation for the grain failure puts the onus on appalling weather conditions. A long period of frost without a covering of snow to protect the crop was followed by an almost unprecedented drought.

There is certainly an important element of truth in this explanation. But it ignores additional, long term, factors of a social and economic character that permitted the weather to have such devastating effect.

The other side of the coin to the massive development of industry in Russia during the period of Stalin’s rule was the stagnation and even decline of agriculture. The countryside was pillaged in order to provide the resources for the development of the towns. From 1929 onwards, peasants were driven from their land into so-called collectives. They were forced to surrender their produce to the State for little or no payment in order to feed the growing workforce in heavy industry. Meanwhile, the level of investment in agriculture (as in consumer goods production) remained very low.

Not even a minimal effort was put into reaching the target figures for grain production set in the ‘plans’ of the Stalin era. The grain-harvest target for the second five year plan was 130 million tons. And although it was claimed that the plan was ‘fulfilled’, the same target was set for the third five year plan. And for the fourth. For the fifth plan (1951-55) the target was raised to 175 million tons. In fact in none of these periods did the actual harvest average more than 100 million tons a year. Stalin’s successors have been aware that agriculture could be the Achilles heel of the whole State-capitalist system. The low level of food production has meant low living standards for Russian workers and great resentment against the regime. Low living standards of Russian workers are part of the explanation for their low productivity as compared to workers in the West. The recurrent nightmare of those who run Russia is that as in East Berlin in 1953, Poznan in 1956, Gdansk and Gdynia in 1970, demands by workers for higher living standards or even attempts to keep the same standard – will lead to strikes, and strikes to insurrections.

The obstacles to any solutions are immense. Years of neglect of agriculture mean that Russia’s farms are far behind those of the West in terms of the material aids to production – tractors, harvesters, dryers, fertilisers. Although a far greater proportion of .the population works on the land than in the West, it is a rapidly ageing population. Poor facilities in rural areas mean that young, mechanically trained people leave for the towns as soon as they get the chance. Even where the tractors and harvesters exist, there are often not enough personnel to man them.

To solve such problems really massive agricultural investment would be necessary. In the early sixties, increased investment in agriculture was only about a fifth as productive as increased investment in industry. The regime cannot afford massive investments in agriculture. The pressures that forced Stalin to neglect the land altogether continue to operate. The driving force behind the economy remains the drive to accumulate capital in competition with the rulers of other powers. In order to compete militarily with the West, to threaten China and to maintain its dominance over Eastern Europe, the Russian bureaucracy needs to spend enormous sums on arms production and even larger sums on building up heavy industry as the base for further arms production.

The urgency of the agricultural situation was apparent to everyone in the mid-sixties, after Krushchev’s fall. Yet in the period 1966-70 actual agricultural investment was about 20 per cent below the level set in the plan. Only 82 per cent of the target for tractor deliveries and 66 per cent for truck deliveries were fulfilled. The planners put the blame, in 1969, on ‘the international situation’. According to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, Russian arms expenditure grew by 38 per cent in 1965-69.

Inadequate investment in agriculture also means inefficient investment. While some projects are fulfilled, others, essential for their effective running, are curtailed. So there are numerous reports of tractors, harvesters and drivers being produced, but quickly grinding to a halt because there are no spare parts for them; of large areas of land being irrigated, but being inadequately cultivated because of shortage of equipment; of different fertilisers being produced in the wrong proportions for effective use together; of livestock herds being built up without adequate facilities for feeding them. An indication of the size of this problem is the fact that to get in last year’s harvest, 150,000 lorries had to be ‘borrowed’ from industrial plants. What has not been revealed is the extent to which this meant cutting back industry in order to help agriculture.

3. Prospects

For two or three years relatively good climatic conditions concealed the continuing under-investment in agriculture. It seemed possible to get both guns and bread (if not butter). Now nature has called Brezhnev’s bluff.

In the short term the bureaucracy has opted for a policy of pulling out all the stops to make sure the population gets fed. With memories of what happened in Poland only two years ago when food prices were raised, it dare not do otherwise.

Industry will be starved of essential imports to pay for grain imports. Already, in the middle of last year, Brezhnev was complaining that industry (in particular consumer oriented industry) was not meeting the targets set for it. The Economic Gazette reported ‘shortfalls’ in the production of textiles, shoes, knitted goods, television sets and washing machines. The diversion of resources to agriculture can only make the situation in industry more difficult.

Those sectionsof the bureaucracy whose power andprestige are closely linked to the fate of such industry are not going to accept passively any downgrading. And if any attempt is made to divert resources from heavy industry and arms to agriculture, the resistance from the ranks of the bureaucracy will be even greater.

A large and very influential section of the bureaucracy will point out that, despite the SALT agreement on arms limitation signed earlier this year, US arms spending is still increasing. Any relaxation in Russia’s pace of accumulation, it will be argued, would mean accepting permanent second place to the US.

Finally, any diversion in the long term of investment resources from agriculture to industry is likely to mean a slower rate of industrial growth. The massive growth rates of Stalin’s time are a thing of the past. With a slower growth rate, the aim of catching up and overtaking the West would have to be abandoned for good. And the bureaucracy might even begin to be haunted by the spectre of falling into third place internationally, behind Japan.

It is precisely such fears and pressures that have meant, in the past, that promises to pay more attention to agriculture, made after particularly bad harvests, have been rapidly forgotten. The stability of any ruling class in the modern world consists in being able to pump a surplus out of the rest of the population for accumulation, without provoking a revolt. In this, the Russian ruling class finds itself with less and less room for manoeuvre.

Any cutting back in the rate of accumulation would lead to a complete schism within the ruling group itself, to bitter and bloody wrangles that could, as in Czechoslovakia in 1968, destroy its ability to cow the rest of society into submission.

But a refusal to cut back on the rate of accumulation would mean that living standards would stagnate in ‘good years’ and threaten to fall whenever climatic conditions worsened. No one can predict when and how 60 million individual Russian workers and their families would react to this. The only real information about their moods and their aspirations is locked away in the files of the secret police.

But inevitably, at some point, the limits of endurance would be broken. The mass, spontaneous working-class insurgency that shook Poland to its foundations two years ago would erupt in industrial centres of Russia itself.

In either case the failure of the grain harvest is a portent for the future. The economic props are being knocked out from under the Russian regime. The days of the monolith could well be numbered.

Last updated on 16 November 2009