Colin Humphries


The Private Sector in Soviet Agriculture

(October 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.72, October 1974, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Private Sector in Soviet Agriculture
Karl-Eugen Wadekin
University of California Press, £5.65.

FOR NEARLY fifty years the ideas of most of the left about Russia have been based more on myth than on reality. One of the pervasive myths has been that when Stalin ‘collectivised’ argiculture he somehow introduced a mode of production into the Russian countryside higher than that of capitalism.

Collectivisation left behind an apparently minute ‘private sector’, made up of millions of small plots, each about half an acre in size, which those who worked in the ‘collectives’, the state farms and, often in industry, are allowed to cultivate in their spare time. The amount of the land used by these private plots was less than one twentieth of the total. Yet when Stalin died in 1953, they accounted for no less than 45 per cent of the USSR’s total agricultural output. Today with about a thirteenth of the land, they can still produce about 30 per cent of agricultural output. Whatever its other effects, Stalin’s collectivisation campaign did not release the productive forces in the countryside. Indeed, it helped ensure that even today Russian agriculture remains more backward than that in the west.

Why then, did collectivisation take place? One simple explanation, often used in the west, refers to ‘ideology’. However, that hardly tells us why Stalin resorted to the measure, when he was prepared to ditch so many of Bolshevism’s revolutionary ideas in other fields.

There is a much more convincing explanation. Stalin’s main concern was to find the resources that would enable Russian industry to ‘catch up and overtake’ the west. The key to this lay in somehow forcing Russain peasants to hand over huge chunks of their produce to the state for nothing. ‘Collectivisation’ was the means for achieving this. The peasants lost control of most of their land to the state bureaucracy, which then forced them to work it – in return they retained the right to work their private plots in their spare time.

Effectively, they were allowed to produce enough food to keep themselves alive from their private plots if they worked for the state for next to nothing. In 1968 the Kolkhozniks produced almost all the potatoes, vegetables, fruit, meat and milk they consumed on their own plots. The only food they bought from the state was bread and sugar (and even this was paid for, in large part, by the proceeds from selling their private produce).

In short, the massive importance of the private plots to Russian agriculture is the other side of the coin to the massive rates of exploitation, on the state and collective farms – a rate of exploitation which is essential if the Russian bureaucracy is to keep in armed competition with its Western (and Chinese) rivals.

The results for Russian agriculture have been disastrous. The kolkhozniks devote most of their energies to that labour which can improve their living standards – that is to the private plots-and are negligent in their work on the state and collectively owned land. But the millions of dwarf plots are too small and their owners too poor to use modern techniques in production, while investment in the ‘public sector’ is all too often wasted because of the lack of interest of the cultivator. The situation could be rectified if the state were prepared to pour enough resources into agriculture – but it cannot, again because of its competition with the west. Indeed, any increase in international tension leads to cutbacks in agricultural spending. Overall, the problems of agriculture become more intractable, until the ability of the bureaucracy to guarantee food supplies to the rest of the population depends upon the vagaries of the Russian weather.

Far from collectivisation freeing the productive forces of the Russian countryside (and the food supplies of the Russian population), it has left them trapped within an international competitive system that prevents them even escaping from the ravages of nature. Wadekin’s book provides an admirable summation of all the facts you need to illustrate this conclusion. But for the theoretical explanation you need Tony Cliff’s Russia (fortunately just issued by Pluto Press).

Last updated on 16 November 2009