First Published: In Struggle! No. 232, January 5, 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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The 1917 revolution in Russia led to the first somewhat lasting experiment in building socialism. The goal was nothing less than building socialism in a very economically backward country which was isolated internationally. The difficulties to be faced were enormous as the main leaders of the time were very aware.
We now know by examining the results that this struggle ended with the provisional restoration of capitalism in a different form. Many explanations have been given of this failure: people have mentioned a counter-revolutionary coup d’etat when Khrushchev took power; others have mentioned one or another political error committed by the Communist Party; still others hold that the basic principles underlying this experiment were completely erroneous.
We cannot hope to exhaust this very complex question in such a restricted space. We will attempt, however, to present some of the economic and social conditions that will enable us to understand better the nature of the class struggle waged in the U.S.S.R. between the two world wars. Thus, we will progress in our understanding of this setback represented by the restoration of capitalism.
In 1920, Russia had lost most of the gains acquired before by the development of capitalism and found itself pushed back to the level it had reached around 1880 or 1890, Industry was so run-down it could barely produce 1/10 of what it produced in 1913. The state of agriculture was no better: it produced about half of what it produced in 1913. The old ruling classes had either emigrated or been eliminated – taking with them their capital and their know-how.
The war and the destruction of industry had almost wiped out the proletariat. The cities were deserted because of famine, the people had left for the country where there was some chance of finding food.
Thus, Russia was then an essentially petty-bourgeois country, where almost all economic activity was the private work of individual peasants. Liberated from serfdom since 1917, the class interests of peasants made them favour free trade, free organization of their production and freedom to dispose of it as they saw fit. Lenin, a leader in the country at that time, underlined how small-scale production gave rise to capitalism each hour and each day in a spontaneous fashion and on a big scale.
On the other hand, and paradoxically, political power was in the hands of the working class whose class interests were opposed to those of the peasants: worker power meant socialization of the means of production, industrialization and control by the State. In future years, this conflict would take on great importance in the political and economic life of the U.S.S.R. when the working class had to be careful lest the peasants rise en masse against Soviet power. Such a movement seemed to be developing in 1920-21.
The internal situation was very difficult. The development of productive forces, if only to assure the survival of the population, became an urgent necessity. At the same time, the international situation was just as bleak. Revolutions were smashed in Europe and there was no hope of help from that quarter.
Foreign investors were boycotting the U.S.S.R. despite offers received from the government. Therefore, Soviet power found itself alone, faced with the need to accumulate the initial capital to get industry started.
It is known that in capitalist countries this phase of accumulating capital was accomplished in the 19th century through robbery, violent expropriation of peasant’s land, looting of the colonies, exploitation of child labour, etc. What the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R. did was to adopt the New Economic Policy (NEP) at its tenth congress in 1921. They saw that it was impossible to accumulate and develop production solely on the basis of socialized big industry. What was needed was a vast transportation network, large inventories, sophisticated machinery, a distribution system, etc. These simply did not exist in the U.S.S.R. at that time, because they are a result of a certain level of social organization.
Although the State kept the monopoly on foreign trade, banks and big business, and thus had some influence on the economy, the NEP nevertheless recognized that the productive forces would develop within the framework of capitalist relations of production. The NEP also made a concession to the peasants’ class interests, permitting them to function in a market economy and also permitted private commerce and industry. Small and medium sized business did not need the same things as big business. They did not need as much raw material, their markets were local, their machines primitive, but they could also offer essential services to the peasants. On the other hand, their large number all over the country made socialization a bit of a mirage. Their private character was in accordance, if one can use such a term, with their low level of development.
1921 also marked the end of certain communist experiments instituted during the civil war. Free public utilities for city-dwellers were abolished. In a situation of extreme poverty, instead of equalizing misery, it seemed necessary to allocate scarce resources where their use would produce the maximum effect in terms of productive growth. It was considered more important to meet the needs of miners, for instance, than those of workers in less strategic sectors. Social inequality was then seen in its real framework, as an imperative social necessity and not as a simple question of good or bad intentions. People were less shocked by high salaries that began to be paid to bourgeois specialists and later to skilled workers.
The same phenomena had some effect on democracy in the country. There was no democratic tradition, the vast majority of people were illiterate and they retained superstituous beliefs inherited from the middle ages and feudalism. This made it very difficult for the population to manage State affairs directly.
The conscious elements of Russian society, another scarce resource, generally members of the Party, had to be centralized and concentrated where they were most needed and could be used most effectively. They would therefore quickly find themselves in leadership positions in the State, army, Soviets and in the economy. The majority of these leaders were of working-class origin.
This does not prevent us from seeing the danger this represents in the long run. As early as 1920, for instance, it was decided that worker control would be exercised by business managers responsible to the State, and not by workers themselves because of the situation at that time. Such decisions were never questioned later. This opened a real danger that these leaders would end up putting themselves above those they led.
The preceding examples show how Soviet power was forced to take certain decisions which are absolutely contrary, to what is generally considered to be socialism. The NEP alone gave the green light to the development of many capitalist elements whose objective interest was to overthrow Soviet power.
These contradictions were echoed within the Bolshevik party in the form of several oppositions. To maintain proletarian power they were forced to increasingly accentuate the monolithic character of the party to the point where in the 30s it became difficult to express a different opinion. The 1934 congress, for instance, was the first where at least in appearance, there was unanimity of opinion among the delegates. However, a large number of them were purged in the following years, which leads one to question if the contradictions had not been stifled, rather than resolved.
We said before that the NEP was to assure the accumulation of the necessary funds for industrialization. The major question after that was which class would control this accumulation.
The NEP soon produced the economic results expected. The 1913 level of industrial and agricultural production was attained by 1926. A new bourgeoisie appeared, the nepmen, born from commerce and industry.
Capitalism developed in the countryside as well, and the differences between classes of peasants was accentuated. A rural capitalist class was growing stronger, owning 50% of land, and 60% of machinery and producing 60% of the wheat produced in 1925. These were the “kulaks” who made up only two to three per cent of the rural population. The majority of peasants were middle peasants and there was a smaller number of poor peasants. Their rudimentary farming techniques meant that they had very poor productivity, and barely succeeded in feeding their own families.
The kulak farms were the only ones which produced enough to have a surplus to feed city dwellers, especially workers. The kulaks therefore had a great deal of power because of their virtual control of agriculture, and the absence of Communist Party members almost complete in that field.
Through the sale of their surplus production, the kulaks accumulated a great deal of money, money needed by the State to industrialize. The struggle for the control of this resource caused multiple crises, particularly in 1923, 1925 and 1927. Each time, the cause of the problem was the same. The price of industrial products rose very quickly while the price of agricultural goods remained very low. It could have been a way to finance industry, but it did not take into account the resistance of the peasants, who were hurt by this inflationary process.
What happened was that the peasants, unable to buy industrial goods that were too expensive, began stockpiling their wheat instead of selling it, or to reduce their production to what they themselves consumed. In both cases this caused serious problems in feeding the cities. The export of grain was also put into jeopardy, preventing the State from obtaining indispensable foreign exchange which it used to buy industrial machinery.
During each crisis the State had to make concessions to the peasants: increased opportunity to hire salaried workers and to rent land, the lowering of real estate taxes, increased credits, etc. This situation was paradoxical and untenable – the kulaks had the future of industrialization in their hands through their control of a significant source of accumulation of funds.
The Communist Party was divided on this subject. One group took the side of the kulaks and wanted to permit the accumulation of capital in private hands, so that the State would then be able to use it. The others held that economic exploitation of the peasants was an objective law of socialism at that stage, and than that accumulation should be accomplished on the backs of the peasants.
As we have seen, the NEP permitted the rebirth of economic activity in the U.S.S.R., but at the price of dangerous contradictions for Soviet power. Industry, and particularly heavy industry developed too slowly, and its technical base had stagnated at the level of industry in 1913.
Given the menacing world conditions at that time, this situation could not be tolerated. Britain broke off diplomatic relations with the U.S.S.R. in 1927 and anti-Soviet hysteria reached new heights in all imperialist countries. Capitalism had become relatively stable and communist forces were on the wane throughtout the world. They were crushed in Shanghai in 1927, and most communist parties were seeing their membership melt away. The U.S.S.R. found itself more isolated than ever. This state of affairs was theorized in 1928 in the programme of the communist international, where the possibility of constructing socialism in a single country would be advanced. This is what the U.S.S.R. would try to do.
The Communist Party began to apply an audacious over-all plan to transform Soviet society to socialism. They began the era of the five-year plans. From this day forward, all economic, cultural and social activity of the U.S.S.R. would be integrated in an over-all State Plan. This would not be done without strengthening the power of leaders at different levels, like in a very centralized war economy.
The first plan (1929-1933) was comprised of three inseparable parts reinforcing each other the creation of heavy industry (petrochemical, building means of production, etc.): the collectivisation of peasents (this meant transforming tens of millions of individual peasant homes into several hundreds of thousands of agricultural co-operatives called kolkhozes); and third, a marked increase in the cultural level of the masses. The absolute necessity of increasing productivity, an indispensable condition for progress, was at the heart of the plan.
In some ways, their aim was to accomplish a few years what capitalist countries had barely managed to accomplish, over decades. And they were successful. If one wanted to find a parallel to what took place at that time in the U.S.S.R., one would have to compare it to the industrial revolution in capitalist countries. It is the same process that was begun in the U.S.S.R. at that time.
Private industry and commerce were essentially eliminated and the priority given to heavy industry, which would progress in a spectacular fashion. This would soon make the U.S.S.R. independent of world markets for its principal needs. Small peasant holdings would be amalgamated into larger units, which would also have happened under capitalism, but to the profit of capitalists. In the U.S.S.R., on the contrary, collectivization meant the end of kulak power and better control by the State and Party over agriculture. It could be called the October 1917 revolution being spread to the countryside. On the cultural level, they succeeded in eliminating illiteracy, which was still widespread in 1929. Technical. and higher education were developed to train the necessary cadre and qualified workers needed to sustain technical progress.
These results were not achieved in total harmony, as you can well imagine. Collectivization quickly became imposed by force on peasants. Their resistance would force Soviet power to step back and put the accent on incentives, while permitting peasants to keep small means of production, including a plot of land.
If industrial progress created enthusiasm in the working class, one must not forget it was reached through pressure on workers. There was inflation and rationing until 1936 and many measures were taken in relation to workers, some of them repressive. Lack of discipline at work, for instance, carried heavy penalties up to prison terms. At the same time, one must remember that the number of workers tripled in three years as collectivization liberated workers, and that these workers were not used to industrial discipline.
Again, these repressive measures, as contrary as they may be to socialism, should not be judged in an absolute manner.When you take an overall look at these twenty years of history of the U.S.S.R., one can see remarkable progress achieved, starting from almost nothing and in very difficult circumstances. The knowledge of the laws governing the development of societies was put to good use to achieve more quickly and better the accomplishment of the industrial revolution which was so difficult in the Western world. But one can also see that the circumstances – backwardness and international isolation – forced them to take paths which are contrary to the development of socialism. We will have to go more deeply into the laws which govern the building of socialist societies in comparison with the laws of capitalist development.