Chris Harman


The Politics of Soviet Agriculture

(April 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.57, April 1973, p.24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Politics of Soviet Agriculture 1960-1970
Werner G. Hahn

For the last 40 years the ideas of most of the Left on Russia have been very largely based on myth. Most prevalent has been the belief that the economic organisation of Russia is more rational than that of the West. Even people who criticise the ‘bureaucratic deformations’ often go on to insist that the existence of ‘planning’ and ‘rational economic organisation’ represent a step forward from capitalism.

Yet the facts of the situation are in open contradiction to this view. The rate of economic growth in Russia is today no greater than that of most western countries. And the productivity of labour is considerably less.

The irrationalities built into the Russian economy are most graphically illustrated by the history of its agricultural sector. This book, though not always easy to follow, provides a fascinating account of them.

It shows how much a myth ‘planning’ has been when it comes to producing food for the mass of the population. Khrushchev, for instance, promised in 1957 that although Russian food production was only a third of that of the US, the gap would be closed quickly. He argued that ‘it would be a tragedy if we were not able to catch America in terms of meat production in 1960’. Yet in May 1971 an article in Voprosy Ekonomiki could point out that total beef production in the US was still twice that of the USSR, and per capita consumption was 2½ times as high. This, despite the fact that a far higher proportion of the population work in agriculture in the USSR than the US.

into its opposite. Under Khrushchev the setting of completely unrealistic targets led to measures which prevented even the limited advances that were possible. As it became clear that success was not going to be forthcoming.

Khrushchev in mid and late 1960 seized upon panaceas ... poorly tested programs developed by scientists and politicians who sought to win his favour and personal power for themselves by promising big progress in meat and grain production.’

The previously discredited Lysenko leapt into new prominence. He was made President of the All Union Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and one of his protégés, Olshansky, became Minister of Agriculture. It was not that Khrushchev had any particular ideological leaning towards Lysenko’s pseudo-science, its rejection of scientific genetics. Rather. Lysenko was able, on the basis of this pseudo-science, to promise quick results. By contrast his scientifically minded opponents pointed out that it would take 20 years to catch up with the US.

Lysenko was only one of a number to rise in this way. Another example of the same sort was the leader of the Ryazan area, who leapt suddenly into national prominence in 1959 because he claimed to have increased meat production by 3.8 times in a single year; 12 months later it transpired that the whole thing was a fraud, based on buying meat outside Ryazan and selling it back to the central authorities. Nor did this phenomenon end with Lysenko’s final fall in 1962, when his methods were discredited by their disastrous effects on the harvest. Other pseudo-scientists with other panaceas took his place.

After Khrushchev’s replacement by Brezhnev in 1964 such irrational schemes were blamed on Khrushchev’s scatter-brained psychology, just as Stalin’s terror was explained away by references to the ‘cult of the personality.’ But this was no explanation: it did not show why Khrushchev should turn to such methods and why other leaders should accept them.

Men turn to magic only when there is no other way of coping with a hostile and bewildering environment. Khrushchev saw that the system of bureaucratic rule in Russia could not be secure unless the masses were adequately fed. But the resources to develop agriculture were not available as the basis of the system was economic and military competition with the west. So he turned to Lysenko and other crackpots. As Hahn puts it:

‘Khrushchev’s agricultural programs were to a considerable extent substitutes for the huge investment needed by agriculture ... The forces of heavy industry and defence ... controlled the lion’s share of resources and ... managed to withhold most of the funds he needed.’

Under Brezhnev the pseudo-scientists lost much of their influence. But that has not meant a rational organisation of agriculture. Despite promises of increased expenditure on agriculture in 1965. resources were shifted away from agriculture towards industry following a good harvest in 1966. This trend continued further in 1968, when defence expenditure rose instead of falling because, as Brezhnev pointed out, of ‘the international situation.’

Enlarged investments in heavy industry were needed to back up the growth in arms production. These could only be obtained at the expense of agriculture. Once again, accumulation, not the plan, determined how industry in fact behaved. ‘Often planning organs, encountering difficulties in finding capital investments, seek to overcome them with funds meant for agriculture.’ complained Brezhnev in October 1968.

In other words, the need to keep the arms industry abreast of the US (and China) meant ignoring planning targets set two years before. The different units of the economy were not expanding according to a single rhythm so as to fulfill the needs of the population; rather, they were completely dominated by the anarchic play of the world balance of forces. Those who have suffered most from this state of affairs have been the mass of Russian workers. Their living standards have stagnated, while total production has continued to rise. And any spell of bad weather brings with it the spectre of bread queues.

Some people jump from one extreme to another, from seeing Russia as more advanced than western capitalism to seeing its centrally bureaucratised planning as more backward. Yet this too would be mistaken. The hairbrained schemes of Khrushchev are matched in the West by such lunacies as Concorde.

As national industries embark on ever more grandiose projects in an effort to outstrip their international competitors scientific planning is inevitably replaced by wishful thinking. That is part of the price of a world system run by rival ruling classes.>

Last updated on 16 November 2009