Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Paul Costello

Reaping the Whirlwind: Soviet Economics and Politics, 1928-1932


First Published: Theoretical Review No. 27, March-April 1982
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Pol Pot’s Kampuchea. Babrak Karmal’s Afghanistan. Jeruzelski’s Poland. These three moments in the crisis of world communism represent different but related expressions of an inescapable contradiction: between the programs of a Party and State committed to a particular theory and practice of socialism, and a population, in the main indifferent or opposed to them. In each of these cases the Party and State chose not to handle the contradiction by means of slow and patient political-ideological struggle, but through the use of coercion, violence and repression. The result in Kampuchea was torture and murder on a mass scale. The Afghan regime was able to survive only thanks to the support provided by an occupying foreign army, and in Poland we have witnessed a process by which the working class in an advanced industrial society has been alienated from Marxism by the systematic abuse it has suffered at the hands of a corrupt Party and governmental bureaucracy, all in the name of socialism.

As a result of the coercive measures taken in response to this contradiction, the crisis in these three countries was deepened and intensified, rather than resolved. The social and popular base of socialism was further narrowed, while the State repressive apparatuses were enormously expanded. In short, by attempting to impose socialism by force–without the support of the people–the idea of socialism itself has been discredited, and the material conditions for its development, of necessity, had to be abandoned.

This fatally incorrect approach to handling contradictions with the people is certainly not a new development. Yet it must be admitted that its legitimacy among so many communists largely results from its first and most important application in this century: the “great turn” in the Soviet Onion in the years 1928-1932. Anti-communists have always attempted to present this period as the logical result of the Bolshevik Revolution, while apologists for the Soviet socialism of the 1930s have also attempted to legitimate the Stalin period as a new stage in the development of Leninism. Even those who disagree with both these views will unite with them in one respect: a fundamental transformation of Soviet society was accomplished in the years 1928-1932, a transformation whose effects would influence the course of Soviet and world communist development for years to come. In the last issue of the Theoretical Review we examined some of the effects of this transformation on the international communist movement.[1] In this issue we will examine certain of the more important economic and political changes in the USSR which occurred in this period which directly affected the way the government and party related to the masses and sought to influence them, as well as their changing vision of socialist construction. Soviet developments in this period have bequethed to us a particular legacy which world communism has not yet been able, or willing to abandon, but from which a break is absolutely essential if what happened in Kampuchea, Afghanistan and Poland is not to recur.

This article is an attempt to provide an overview of Soviet developments in those critical years. We begin with an examination of what we consider to be Lenin’s political testament, and then go immediately to the economic and political struggles within the Bolshevik Party in the 1926-1927 period. This is followed by a discussion of the grain procurement crisis of 1928-1929, the inner-party struggle over industrialization and collectivization, and finally, we conclude with an examination of the social costs of the victory of the Stalin group and their meaning for today.

Lenin’s Political Testament

NEP: The Legacy of 1923

Approaching the vast body of materials which is Lenin’s written legacy is always a difficult task. There are ideas and positions from one period which are altered, reinterpreted or even contradicted in texts from another, later time. There are gaps, omissions, tentative formulations, images and metaphors where one would prefer concepts and analysis. There are polemical excesses and formulations which later proved to be unfounded. There is nothing surprising in the fact that these problems exist. What is surprising is the extent to which the doctrine of infallibility has been incorporated into Marxism, with the resulting eternal game of seeking to reconcile all texts in an effort to find and uphold some “true Leninism,” immaculate and without error.

In titling this section “Lenin’s Political Testament,” we do not mean to imply that what follows is the only one true legacy. Instead we are emphasizing what we have chosen, not only because it had a material presence in the struggles and debates within the Bolshevik Party in the 1920s, but also because we feel that it, more than any other approach to be found in his writings, embodies the greatest possibility and hope for the construction of a genuine socialist society.

Given all this, we believe that Lenin’s last writings, particularly On Cooperation, Our Revolution and Better Fewer, But Better, for all their hesitations, metaphors and ambiguities, represent the tentative nucleus of a specific program for socialist construction appropriate to the actual conditions prevailing in the USSR at that time, one guided by a popular and democratic vision of socialism.

Unlike those for whom socialist construction is primarily a matter of increasing economic development measured in steel and machine output, Lenin saw the socialist transition period as predominantly a political-ideological-cultural process, particularly in Russia, dominated as it was by its backward, overwhelmingly peasant population. For Lenin the transition to socialism in such a country was impossible without an active alliance between the small and struggling working class, on the one hand, and the rural masses in their millions on the other. This would have to be an alliance not only for restoring reconstructing the country, but one capable of leading the vast majority of the population–the peasantry–onto the socialist road “through the aid-economic, political and ideological brought to them by the proletariat.”[2]

The New Economic Policy (NEP), inaugurated in 1921, was the specific form which this class alliance took in Lenin’s perspective: a form which was not a temporary retreat at all, but one which had as its long-term goal “the final establishment and consolidation of socialism.”[3] Of course, this form would have to be modified in accordance with changing conditions, but Lenin saw it as a long-term policy and not some temporary measure. In On Cooperation he wrote, in regard to winning the peasants to socialism:

It will take a whole historical epoch to get the entire population into the work of the co-operatives through NEP. At best we can believe this in one or two decades ... without this historical epoch ... we shall not achieve our object [socialism].[4]

This issue of winning the peasantry to socialism–of the worker-peasant alliance–was central to Lenin’s thinking during his last years. It was, he said, “of decisive importance for the whole of our revolution” (emphasis added).[5]

More concretely, the worker-peasant alliance was primarily a matter of the Party’s policy toward the middle peasants, given their predominance in the countryside. Official statistics from 1928 showed that, in 1926-27, out of a rural population of 108 million, more than 81 million were middle peasants, as opposed to 21 million poor peasants, and less than six million entrepreneurs.[6] As early as 1919, at the Eighth Congress of the Bolshevik Party, Lenin had made clear his position on the correct approach to the middle peasants. In his opening speech to the Congress he insisted on the need for a concrete plan to “place our relations with the middle peasants on the basis of a firm alliance” (emphasis in original).[7] Over and over again he told the Congress that the use of coercive measures–necessary against the Kulaks–if used against the middle peasants would be “such idiocy, such stupidity” that only “provacateurs could deliberately act in such a way.”[8]

“Coercion applied to the middle peasants would cause untold harm,” he emphasized again and again: “coercion would ruin the whole cause.” In words which still ring true today, after Afghanistan and Poland, he declared:

nothing is more stupid than the very idea of applying coercion in economic relations with the middle peasant. The aim is not to expropriate the middle peasant but to bear in mind the specific conditions in which the peasant lives, to learn from him methods of transition to a better system, and not to dare to give orders! That is the rule we have set ourselves, (emphasis in original)[9]

A resolution adopted at the Congress and drafted by Lenin made this point even more strongly:

to confuse the middle peasants with the kulaks and to extend to them in one or another degree measures directed against the kulaks is to violate most flagrantly not only all the decrees of the Soviet government and its entire policy, but also all the basic principles of communism.[10]

We have belabored this point precisely because scarcely a decade later Stalin was to turn a violation of “all the basic principles of communism” into a basic law of socialism and thereby imperil Lenin’s entire conception of socialism and the means necessary to achieve it.

Lenin saw a firm and active alliance with the poor and middle peasants developing on an all-sided material foundation. He called for a “cultural revolution” which would wipe out illiteracy and transform the world outlook of the rural population. He advocated the strengthening of the rural Soviets and the improvement of their class composition so that the peasants could more effectively participate in the exercise of political power. He called for an active policy of industrialization which would be able to provide the countryside with the manufactured goods necessary to improve their standard of living and the machinery necessary to transform agriculture. Through the leading role of the working class and the voluntary cooperation of the peasant masses, step by step, socialism was to be built.

By 1921, however, it had become increasingly apparent that such a policy of alliance could not be implemented so long as the relations of coercion and forcible grain requisition which characterized the period of “War Communism” continued. A thorough-going rectification of party policy with regard to the peasantry was required. Lenin began to move toward the New Economic Policy. In his last writings the theme of maintaining the worker-peasant alliance is ever-present: “in the final analysis the fate of our republic will depend on whether the peasant masses will stand by the working class, loyal to the alliance.”[11]

On the Socialist State

In the immediate post-revolutionary period the Bolshevik Party operated under a number of illusions as to the class and social character of the state apparatus with which it was operating. Lenin himself was later to admit that the optimism of the Party regarding the transformation of the old state system and the creation of a new one was not realistic. His last writings contain a brutally frank and honest assessment of the actual character and conditions of the emerging Soviet State. The issue of the state apparatuses and their practice was of particular concern to him. To those who complacently believe that the revolution had smashed the old Czarist State and immediately constructed in its place a dictatorship of the proletariat, Lenin’s words must come as something of a shock:

with the exception of the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, our state apparatus is to a considerable extent a survival of the past and has undergone hardly any serious change. It has only been seriously touched up on the surface, but in all other respects it is a most typical relic of our old state machine.[12]

Elsewhere he speaks of the machinery of state as “utterly useless” and “deplorable, not to say wretched.” “Five years of struggle trying to improve the state apparatus had proved useless,” he pessimistically warned, “it only served to clog up our institutions and our brains.”[13]

Equally serious was his assessment of the long period which would be required to create the necessary elements for building a “really new state apparatus, one really worthy to be called socialist.” “It will take,” he mused, “many, many years.”[14] Thus for Lenin the problem of a socialist state had not been solved by the revolution. On the contrary, the revolution had merely provided certain conditions which made the solution to this problem possible. How unlike the Stalin group in the 1930s for whom the “socialist character of the Soviet State” was a given, no matter how far the practice of that State deviated from the elementary norms of socialism and workers’ democracy!

Given Lenin’s long term perspective on socialist transformation, his methods of achieving this goal were equally long term in character. He warned against “doing things in a rush, by assault, by vim and vigor.” “The most harmful thing would be haste,” he repeated.[15] Instead, he called for a cutting back of the state apparatus to the utmost degree of economy, for a resolute struggle against bureaucracy and bureaucratic tendencies and on behalf of drawing the advanced and most active sections of the working class and peasantry into the exercise and supervision of political power.[16] Again, the contrast between these views and the Stalinian mania for crash programs and lightning campaigns, always sponsored and directed by an ever-growing state apparatus, could not be more striking.

In very rough and schematic form we have sketched out some of the salient features of what we consider to be the best of Lenin’s political testament. After his death these positions, particularly on the worker-peasant alliance, continued to serve as a guide for the theoretical and political orientation of the Party leadership. At the same time, however, it should not be overlooked that his positions were already beginning to be disregarded in certain important respects, particularly after 1925. The abandonment of Lenin’s conception and strategy for socialist transformation, first in practice and later in theory, is the subject of the rest of this article.

Sowing the Wind: 1926-1928

Historical Background to the Fifteenth Congress

Entire sets of books have been written about Soviet economics and politics in the 1920s. We do not intend to repeat all their conclusions here. At this point we are concerned only with the general economic and political trends within which the tendency toward the abandonment of NEP developed as it affected the worker-peasant alliance and the role of the party and state.

Throughout the mid-1920s no issue was more hotly contested than that of the future of NEP. The struggle over NEP developed in response to an inescapable reality of Soviet society: economic development was proceeding unevenly. There were two different sectors–the state sector, primarily urban and industrial, and the private sector which encompassed nearly the whole countryside and the vast bulk of agricultural production. Each sector was governed by its own internal laws and its own conditions and tempo of development. Over the state sector the Party and government had a margin of control, but the private sector operated on the basis of laws which could only be externally influenced, not controlled.

A political-ideological link between the two sectors was attempted through the government’s social campaigns in rural areas (combatting illiteracy, providing health care, etc.) and the Party’s efforts to recruit and expand its base in the countryside as well as strengthen the rural Soviets. Given the vastness of the Soviet hinterland, the lack of resources available to the Soviet government and the weakness of the Party’s non-urban base, all these efforts met with only limited success in the early years of NEP. Far more important were the economic links: in the stimulation of agricultural production, aid for the formation of agricultural cooperatives, and, most important of all, increased trade and the development of the market. Indeed, the expansion of exchange between town and country and the expanding supply of industrial products to the rural population was the most important material basis for the worker-peasant alliance.

In the middle years of the 1920s progress was being registered in those areas strengthening this economic basis of the alliance. In 1926-27 the gross yield of grain was more than 25% in excess of that of 1922-23. Industrial production in 1926-27 was three times the value of that produced in 1921-22. The trade turnover for 1926-27 was 2.5 times that of 1923-24.[17] The country was passing from a period of restoration after the civil war, to a new period of reconstruction.

Nevertheless the picture was not entirely a rosy one. The government did not possess adequate grain reserves in case of famine or a procurement crisis, neither were there reserves of merchandise, currency nor gold. And, if agricultural production were up, increasing the volume of grain actually put on the market was a different problem all its own. Peasants tended to hold on to grain in case of a future bad harvest, for their own consumption, or because there were no industrial products available for them to buy. Moreover, there were no guarantees that the notorious “scissors crisis” of 1923, when the industrial price index rose until it was three times the agricultural price index, would not recur.

The leaders of the left opposition within the Bolshevik Party after 1924, particularly Trotsky and Preobrazhensky, were profoundly uneasy with the strength of the private sector and distrustful of the peasantry. They feared that a continuation of NEP would further strengthen this sector and ultimately capitalism itself throughout the USSR. Correctly considering the state sector to be the pivot of the entire economy, they were deeply concerned that its development not be retarded by the relatively slower growth of the agricultural sector. To prevent this from occurring (what they termed the crisis of NEP), they proposed that the USSR undertake a program of rapid industrialization, a program which, so they said, could be financed from only one source: the surplus produced by the peasantry. This was Preobrazhensky’s famous “primitive socialist accumulation.” While Preobrazhensky claimed that he was only an “economist” and that he was leaving the problems of politics to others, he did not shrink from the political consequences of his own position. He did not hesitate to refer to the peasantry as an “internal colony” of the state sector nor to see the relationship of industry to agriculture as one of “exploitation.”[18] The prime way that this exploitation was to occur was by raising the price of industrial goods relative to agricultural ones thereby financing industrialization. This same approach was to reappear, after the defeat of the Left Opposition, in the works of Stalin and his theory of extracting a “tribute” from the peasantry. So similar were the two approaches that Preobrazhensky, then in exile, would find Stalin’s formulations to be a striking vindication of his own policies and he briefly rallied to the Stalin line.[19]

But this was still 1925-26 and the majority of the Bolshevik Party, committed to strengthening the worker-peasant alliance, was in no hurry to embark on an overly ambitious program which threatened to drive the countryside into opposition to Soviet power. But the defeat of the opposition did not mean an end to the controversy. A number of key problems were posed with renewed sharpness in 1926-27 relative to the condition of agriculture, industrialization and the relationship between the state and private sectors. These included:

(1) How and where were the monetary and real reserves for industrial investment to be generated within the economy as a whole and then utilized within the state sector?
(2) What was the appropriate rate of such investment and the appropriate rate of growth for the economy as a whole, as well as its various components?
(3) Were there necessary and desirable proportions between agricultural and industrial development? If so, how were these proportions to be maintained?
(4) How was agricultural production to be optimally influenced? How could the state purchase of food supplies for the urban population be regulated and increased? What line should be taken with the Kulaks? With middle peasants? What about the collectivization of agriculture?
(5) If industrialization were essential, which areas of the industrial sector should be given priority and to what extent? Should light industry be emphasized to satisfy urban and rural demand or should heavy industry be emphasized to increase capital stock?
(6) Could and should the NEP be continued into the period of reconstruction? What was the future of the worker-peasant alliance?

The leading theoretician and spokesperson for the Party majority in this period was Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin (1888-1938). In a number of important respects the position of the majority as he articulated it, and that of the Left Opposition were similar in nature. Both agreed that industrialization should be the central aim of Bolshevik economic strategy; both agreed that the state industrial monopoly should be utilized to achieve it.[20] Both also agreed on the need for some kind of shift of economic surplus from the private sector to help finance industrialization.

Where the majority and the left opposition differed was on the economic-political basis for these economic measures. For the majority, in the first place, the worker-peasant alliance was the indispensible political condition for socialist construction: any economic program for industrialization had to be consonant with this link.[21] As Bukharin explained it, the dispute was not over the necessity of financing industrialization, but its character:

It would be wrong to argue that industry should grow only on what is produced within the limits of this industry. But the whole question involves how much we can take from the peasantry . . . to what extent we can carry this pumping over, by what methods, where are the limits of this pumping over, how ... to receive the most favorable results... Here is the difference between us and the opposition . .. Comrades of the opposition stand for pumping over excessively, for such intense pressure on the peasantry ... is economically irrational and politically impermissable.[22]

Secondly, for the majority the development of industry was only possible in the context of economic growth of the economy as a whole, including the agricultural sector. Stalin was speaking for the majority when he stated: “while industry is the leading element in the national economy, agriculture in its turn is the base on which our industry can develop.”[23] This expressed the view of the majority that the economy was an integrated, if complex, whole with certain necessary proportions which had to be respected if a balanced development plan were to be successfully implemented.

Third, the majority stood for strengthening the alliance with the poor and middle peasants by expanding trade with them and strengthening the state procurement agencies so that food supplies could be increased. Collectivization, at a speed appropriate to the level of development of peasant consciousness, and without coercion of any kind was the long term goal. Where the left opposition saw a crisis in NEP itself, the Party majority saw a need to modify the NEP in accordance with the new tasks posed by the reconstruction period. All of these themes and issues came up for discussion at the Fifteenth Party Congress held in December 1927.

The Fifteenth Congress

The months preceding the Congress were ones of relative optimism, since the first results of the 1927 harvest had been positive. This optimism began to turn into anxiety in October, however, when grain collections fell to two-thirds of the previous years total, and again when November’s yield was less than one-half.[24]

Not surprisingly the Congress itself dealt chiefly with agricultural and peasant questions and problems of industry and planning. The policy of NEP was reaffirmed, but modified to take into account the change in the country in the previous two years. The Fifteenth Congress was also notable because it passed a resolution on the drafting of the First Five Year Plan and because it came out for the collectivization of agriculture in a vigorous way.

The Congress recognized that the central problem of the economy, and the principal obstacle to producing an effective state plan, was “the fundamental disproportions of our economy,” in particular, “the disproportion between industry and agriculture.”[25] Resolving the contradictions raised by these disproportions was the chief concern of the delegates. On problems in the rural sector itself, as early as October 1927 Bukharin had called for “a reinforced offensive against capitalist elements and, first of all, against the Kulaks.”[26] At the same time he tempered this proposal with a warning: “we cannot proceed to a reinforced offensive against capitalist elements in the countryside if we do not have the middle peasants with us.”[27] In short, Bukharin sought to increase the workers’ support for the class struggle of the masses in the countryside, at the same time that he was seeking to avoid a situation which pitted the urban population against the peasantry as a whole.

This was why a correct approach to collectivization was so crucial. It would determine whether or not the party and State strengthened their ties to the rural population or risked alienating the entire peasantry. The Congress came out for a policy of collectivization, but emphasized that it was only one element of an overall agricultural program, and not a panacea which would, by itself, solve the problem of agricultural supplies. Collectivization, insisted the Congress resolutions, had to be carried out with caution, by means of persuasion, without coercion, “only if it is agreed to by the toiling masses.”[28] This language recalled Lenin’s warning that, “the transition to collective cultivation must be carried out by the proletarian state power with the utmost caution and gradualness, by force of example, without the slightest constraint on the middle peasantry.”[29]

The Congress also came out against excessive pumping of surplus from the private sector declaring, in words which presaged exactly what was to happen under the First Five Year Plan:

It is not right to proceed from the demand for a maximum transfer of resources from peasant farming to industry for this would not only signify a political breach with the peasantry but also would undermine the supply of raw materials to industry itself, disrupt both the internal market and exports, and upset the entire economic system.[30]

On the question of industrialization, the resolutions unanimously adopted at the Congress reaffirmed the need to establish definite relations and proportions between and within the different sectors of the economy. They called for an optimum combination of planned growth between town and country, between production and consumption, between light and heavy industry. In the long term they called for a realistic, yet high and steady, rate of development, with priority given to heavy industry.

Although unanimity was publically registered at the Congress, differences in emphasis were already to be found in the views of different party leaders. These differences were to widen into a full-blown split the following years in response to a series of crises which were to emerge shortly after the Congress’ conclusion. Inevitably these differences turned on the interpretation and implementation of the line of the Fifteenth Congress. One tendency, led by Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky, responded to these crises by seeking to actively implement and deepen the direction of development set forth at the Congress. Another tendency, led by Stalin, Molotov, and Kuibyshev, came to increasingly disregard the Congress resolutions in practice, replacing them with administrative fiat and governmental coercion, while still paying lip-service to the Resolutions and the Leninist legacy.

The Grain Procurement Crisis of 1928

As noted previously, the problem of grain procurement became acute in the last months of 1927. Grain played an essential role at the time, both for feeding the urban population and in Soviet exports. While the 1927 harvest was smaller than the previous year, procurement was down even more, at a time when no reserves are available. The normal bumper months of November and December yielded less than half of the previous years collections. Not only did this jeopardize the supply of food to the towns, but also the previously adopted export plan, which had called for an increase of 1.7 million metric tons of grain exports over the previous year.[31]

The causes of the grain collection crisis were many and complex, but all were rooted in the class struggle in the countryside and the contradictions between, and within the state and private sectors. Soviet statistics of the time showed that three-fourths of the grain that came onto the market was provided by poor and middle peasants. At the same time they bought more than 80% of the manufactured goods sold in the villages.[32] Traditionally the sale of grain by poor and middle peasants at the markets began in October and continued through the winter. But, in the Autumn of 1927 these supplies failed to materialize. The reasons for this were several.

(1) An important incentive for poor and middle peasants to sell their grain was to secure cash with which to purchase manufactured goods. By the Autumn of 1927, however, both town and country were in the grip of an acute shortage of industrial goods of all kinds, and the peasants could not buy the products of industry even if they had the cash.[33]
(2) Another incentive had also been removed when the government had granted tax reductions to poor and middle peasants. The taxes had to be paid in cash which was usually derived from grain sales.
(3) A further factor which must be taken into account is the reality that the needs of agricultural consumption itself were not being met in this period in a number of respects: personal consumption by the peasants, the feeding of their animals, maintenance of seed and reserve supplies, etc.
(4) Yet another factor was the passivity and negligence of official state procurement agencies which failed to actively encourage peasant sales to the state rather than to the private market.
(5) There was also the problem of Kulak hoarding and speculation. While Kulak grain reserves were not large enough to solve the collection crisis, they were nonetheless significant.
(6) The problem of the supply of manufactured goods to the peasants had still another component. The poor and middle peasants were starting to purchase modern instruments of production, not only to equip their farms, but also to free themselves from dependence on the rich Kulaks and entrepreneurs. In this regard supplies of such instruments had always been inadequate. By the Autumn of 1927 they were virtually non-existent.

Because of this situation the ability of the State sector to provide the rural masses with such instruments was essential not only to the worker-peasant alliance and the favorable resolution of the class struggle in the countryside, but also to the problem of grain collection. The extent to which the state sector could provide them with this machinery and technology was the extent to which the poor and middle peasants were ready to take the road of cooperation and collectivization. The failure of the State and Party to sufficiently grasp this fact and to provide adequate support for the rural masses was the principal cause of the procurement crisis.[34]

Reaping the Whirlwind I: 1928-1929

“Emergency Measures”

The Party was confronted with a serious problem in the Winter of 1927-28. A fork had appeared in the revolutionary road: the issue before the Party was which path to take. It is now clear that the potentiality of NEP agriculture was far from exhausted, particularly in light of what was possible if the peasantry had received the necessary equipment and had entered on the road of collectivization and mechanization.[35] The procurement problem was, therefore, not at all the result of an agricultural crisis, the dead-end of NEP. On the contrary, it was a result of political mistakes, which could have been rectified in the context of the NEP program laid out at the Fifteenth Congress. The Party tendency led by Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky leaned precisely in this direction. The other tendency, led by Stalin, with its base in the state bureaucracy and administrative apparatuses, was inclined to a very different response. At first tentatively and cautiously, but with increasing boldness, they began to implement a policy which was radically different from that which had previously guided the Party’s thinking, at least since the end of “War Communism.”

The Party’s immediate response to the falling off of grain collections was “emergency measures” which in fact harked back to the forcible requisitioning of the 1918-1921 period. In the early months of 1928 large quantities of grain were confiscated, illegal searches were conducted of peasant households, trials of speculators and hoarders were convened. A number of authors have argued that these operations were undertaken at Stalin’s personal instigation.[36] This campaign was ostensibly aimed at the Kulaks and rich peasants. In fact, the Party leadership knew very well that the real target was the middle peasants. Mikoyan, who was in charge of grain procurement through the Commissariat of Trade, admitted that “the main masses of grain surpluses were in the hands of the middle peasants,”[37] and that wheat taken from them was confiscated by means of measures which were “harmful, illegal and inadmissable.”[38]

Such policies had a disastrous effect, not only on the future of agriculture, but also on the worker-peasant alliance and the class struggle in the countryside. Grain collection was effected at the expense of the peasants’ own consumption: deprived of even the grain they needed for sowing, there was a subsequent fall in production. At the same time, the peasants, fearful of a return to war communism, interpreted the emergency measures as an attack on the worker-peasant alliance itself and everything it had stood for in terms of their own needs. The result was an alienation of the middle peasants from the working class and the state, which pushed them in the direction of opposition to Soviet power and into the arms of the Kulaks.

The tragedy of this situation was that, as Stalin himself admitted, the grain problem could have been otherwise resolved if, instead, grain prices had been raised and additional wheat had been imported.[39] In fact, the use of state repression and coercion produced the necessary wheat, but serious damage had already been done. The relations between the town and country were disturbed; the worker-peasant alliance had been damaged; and the influence of the Kulaks over the middle peasants had increased.

By April 1928, grain procurement had fallen off again, largely because the extraordinary measures of January-March had depleted much of the peasants’ grain reserves. New “emergency measures” were now undertaken which fell largely on the poor and middle peasants, and which increased the dependency of these groups on the rich peasants, whose larger resources enabled them to better weather the storm. These measures too were accompanied by what the Central Committee called “administrative caprice, violations of revolutionary legality, and frequent application of methods of requisition.”[40]

The peasants resisted by reducing their sown areas and opposing further collections, as well as by strikes and acts of sabotage. The problem of declining production was particularly troublesome. Henceforth, in addition to the problem of obtaining the grain once it was harvested from a hostile peasantry, the State was now required to undertake the task of organizing sowing. Meanwhile, grain procurement was suffering a real collapse. It came to no more than 78.4% of the collections obtained without emergency measures in 1926-27.[41]

As the situation grew increasingly critical the rift in the Party leadership began to widen. In June, 1928, Moshe Frumkin, deputy Peoples Commissar for Finance, and a member of the Central Committee, sent a letter to the Politbureau which made no effort to conceal the difficulties. “The countryside,” he alleged, “with the exception of a small section of the poor peasants, is against us.” Moreover, he called attention to the widening gap between the theory of NEP and the actual practice of the State administrative machinery:

the whole party is taking a new line about the middle peasant; through inertia, we still talk of the link with the middle peasant, but in practice we drive the middle peasant away from us.[42]

As important as the letter itself was, equally significant was Stalin’s response. Contrary to the decision of the Politbureau, which resolved to write a collective response, Stalin personally composed a reply and on his own sent it to the members of the Central Committee. This was an early example of the process of gradual abandonment of the principle of collective leadership, and the shift of power and authority from the Political bureau and the Central Committee, to the office of the Secretary General (Stalin).

By July the divergence in the leadership could no longer be concealed. As Moshe Lewin has noted, at stake were two kinds of programs, two opposing views of the way the nation should progress to socialism. “The fundamental point at issue was the ’accursed’ peasant problem, that is, the problem of deciding how a backward and predominantly peasant society should be industrialized.”[43]

“Notes of an Economist”

The viewpoint of the forces associated with Bukharin was given expression in his article, “Notes of an Economist (the beginning of the New Economic Year),” which appeared in Pravda on September 30, 1928. As several commentators have noted,[44] this work embodies a number of significant theoretical-political advances over the line of the Bukharin tendency of 1925-26. No longer is there any discussion of “accumulation through circulation,” or development “at a snail’s pace.” Alexander Erlich expresses the view that the “marked increase in incisiveness and power of analysis as compared with earlier pronouncements reflected, no doubt, the actual developments in the Soviet economy”.[45] An equally important factor seems to have been the sharpening political struggle in the Party itself, and Bukharin’s critical reflection on his own previous views. Because, if “Notes of an Economist” is ostensibly directed against the Trotskyist “super-industrializers,” its real target is the unfolding policies and practices of the Stalin group.

For Bukharin the way out of the 1928 crisis was not an abandonment of NEP and the worker-peasant alliance, but a more vigorous application of these policies and an end to the deviations from them which had already cost the nation so dearly. From this perspective the key feature of the economic situation in the Autumn of 1928 was the simultaneous presence of a shortage of industrial goods and a shortage of grain, coupled with a disproportionate growth of capital construction in industry. Bukharin supported the tempo of industrial growth and the maintenance of investment at the level already attained under the plans drafted at the Fifteenth Congress, as well as the preferential treatment of heavy industry. What he opposed was the way investment was increasingly being distributed and how it was accumulated.

In “Notes of an Economist” he systematically elaborated on the principle, established at the Fifteenth Congress, that it was necessary to develop an economic plan, in the context of the worker-peasant alliance, which would permit the harmonious development of both industry and agriculture; rather than base one on the stagnation or even decline of the other. He thus reaffirmed the long standing view that “the greatest sustained speed is achieved by a combination in which industry develops on the basis afforded by a rapidly growing agriculture.”[46]

Bukharin strongly opposed any conception of industrialization which would be achieved at the expense of the living standards of the masses, particularly the peasant masses, as such a policy would destroy the unity between urban and rural classes which were the social base of the Soviet regime. As he reminded the Party in another article, Lenin had always insisted that the ultimate victory of socialism could only be secured “when the peasants had full confidence in the dictatorship of the proletariat.”[47]

Bukharin was acutely conscious of the direct political and ideological effects any economic policy would have on the class struggle and the balance of class forces in the Soviet social formation–hence his concern with the tendency of the Stalin group to abandon the NEP. “Serious mistakes in the direction of the economy,” he cautioned, “can cause regroupings of classes to take place which would be extremely unfavorable to the proletariat.”[48]

On the question of economic growth and planning, Bukharin identified a key weakness in the Soviet state sector. The demand from the countryside was expected to amount to only a fifth or a quarter of the total demand for industrial goods in 1928-29. The main demand was coming from industry itself. Industry was expanding too rapidly, outstripping its own demand for industrial goods. Instead of the planning agencies cutting back industrial quotas, planning goals were being set which failed to correspond to the material and human resources available. To demand still higher goals, as the Stalin forces were urging, was surely madness. Such a policy could only render permanent the already critical problem of lack of reserves. One example of this problem was the planning policy of allowing for a discrepancy between targets and resources, as when control figures predicted a 20% gap between building targets and the production of the necessary iron. In Bukharin’s famous phrase, “one does not build today’s factories with tomorrow’s bricks.”[49]

Related to this was the growing problem of an excessively dispersed investment front. Too many new building sites, for example, dragged on or stalled out entirely due to shortages, bottlenecks of various kinds and especially the inability to carry on so many projects simultaneously. Such policies if pursued, would intensify rather than alleviate the perennial goods shortage.[50]

On the problem of rural policy Bukharin posed a fight on two fronts. On the one hand, he disagreed with the “super-industrializers” who advocated postponing the economic development of agriculture until after industrialization was secure. For him, industrialization meant more than a simple expansion of the industrial sector. It also required the mechanization of agriculture and raising the technological level of the entire economy. Any advance in agricultural development would be rendered impossible if too much surplus was “pumped over” into the state sector.

On the other hand Bukharin opposed the “petty bourgeois knights” who defended agriculture against “all levies in favor of industry” and preferred to keep the small farm as it always had been with its “wretched technical equipment, its family structure and its narrow cultural horizon.”[51] These forces, he warned, were nothing less than mouthpieces for the Kulaks. Bukharin supported collectivization but refused to see it as a process dependent on coercion. Instead he urged a real ideological-cultural campaign to win the peasants over, coupled with an expansion in the supply to them of industrial goods at reasonable prices. Such a policy would allow the countryside a chance to accumulate, if other important factors in the accumulation process were taken into account. Specifically he was referring to rational and scientific management, improved labor productivity, better use of science, increased efficiency and a reduction in bureaucratic waste and mismanagement.[52]

This last point introduces an entirely different aspect of Bukharin’s critique–his explicit inclusion of political and ideological factors in the economic debate, something which we shall see was lacking in the economist-technicist approach of the Stalin group. Bukharin repeatedly returned to Lenin’s phrase about the desirability of enlisting “the real participation of the masses” in socialist construction. “The working class must be told the truth about the situation,” he stressed. “We must put our trust in the masses, we must take account of the needs of the masses, and in our management of their affairs we must identify ourselves with the masses.”[53] Nowhere was this need more strongly felt than in the countryside where effective and productive mechanization and collectivization was impossible without the active support and initiative of the peasant masses.

Directly related to the problems of mass participation was the matter of the State, particularly its administrative apparatuses. The problems with the state machinery on which Lenin had commented in his last years continued to exist, if, in fact, they had not grown more serious in the late 1920s. Bukharin was very concerned with the tremendous growth of the state system, its over-centralization, and the consequent destruction of local initiative. He feared that this bloated apparatus, far from being an aid, would become a hindrance on the process of socialist transition, and advocated measures to cut it back and curb its power. The social forces which were being produced by this state system were clear to Bukharin:

Elements of bureaucratic degeneration are making their homes in the pores of our gigantic apparatus, and these are entirely indifferent to the interests of the masses, to their lives, their material and cultural progress.[54]

In words which were truly prophetic he warned the working class of the danger of not arresting the development of this bureaucracy adding, “if it fails to do so, other forces will take it upon themselves to destroy the power of the proletariat.”[55]

The Line of the Stalin Group

The supporters of the Stalin group could not deny the fact that the country was facing a crisis caused by shortages of both grain and industrial goods. But they took sharp exception to the way the Bukharin group characterized the crisis and the solutions that were offered, in order to resolve it. The Stalin group judged the situation to be essentially a crisis of relations inherent in the NEP, rather than one caused by its non-application, as Bukharinists had argued. For Stalin, agricultural problems were essentially technical in nature: small, private farms were inefficient, so agriculture would not be put on a solid foundation until it was collectivized and mechanized. Industrialization could not wait until the peasants were ready; the cities needed food now and the state had to see to it that agriculture met its quotas. If that required compulsory methods, then so be it. The purpose was no longer political–strengthening the worker-peasant alliance. Now the Party was guided by an exclusively economic strategy–increase agricultural production and particularly its marketable proportion, while insuring that the state could acquire all the grain it wanted at stable, low prices.[56]

The Stalin group was able to defend this position because it had already abandoned the Leninist policy on the peasantry which the Party had consistently followed since 1921. Even before 1928 Stalin had expressed a pervasive distrust of the peasants.[57] By 1928 he was increasingly replacing sharp attacks on the Kulaks with attacks on the peasantry as a whole. Whereas the party had consistently spoken of the class differentiation occurring in the countryside, and the necessity of a firm alliance with the poor and middle peasants, in May 1928 Stalin defined the peasants as “a class apart,” and as “the last capitalist class.”[58] The implication of this line of thinking was clear: that this class could in no sense be a reliable ally of the workers.

The unreliability of the peasants was, for Stalin, the main cause of the grain crisis, the growing power of the Kulaks and the rise of anti-Soviet agitation in the rural areas. In this he conveniently overlooked the serious errors and excesses of the Party’s own policies among the peasant masses. Instead of advocating tactics to win back the middle and poor peasants to socialism, Stalin proposed rapid and compulsory collectivization as the sure guarantee of a reliable food supply. Little did he know at the time that it would have precisely the opposite effect. The Stalin group made the fundamental error of believing that basic economic-political problems could be solved by relatively simple administrative and technical means. At the time, however, no one could deny that these policies, regardless of their future impact, represented a decisive break with the policies of the Fifteenth Congress.

Stalin also abandoned the line laid out at the Fifteenth Congress regarding industrialization. Rather than starting from the need to respect certain propositions between the various components of the national economy and their inter-relationships, the Stalin group put forward the view that the development of production of the means of production (heavy industry) was to determine all other economic policy. Later this rule was to be elevated, quite without foundation, into the “basic economic law of socialism.” Not only did this one-sided policy not recognize the point previously made by Stalin himself, that industry could only effectively develop on the basis of the development of agriculture, but it also, by disregarding light industry, ignored the standard of living of the masses and the need for it to rise.

The Stalin group reduced planning to an essentially technical and administrative process. Higher and higher goals were constantly being set after 1929, in accordance with a theory of the need for an ever increasing growth rate, without regard to resources or social costs. “Tempos dictate everything!” became the slogan while the voluntarism that resulted was summed up by the economist S. G. Strumilin who boasted: “We are not bound by any (objective) law. There is no fortress that Bolsheviks cannot storm. The question of tempo is subject to men’s will.”[59] Bukharin’s demonstration in “Notes of an Economist” that the material basis for such rates of growth did not yet exist in the Soviet Union was now considered to be “counter-revolutionary.”

Stalin came up with a startlingly unoriginal idea of how this massive industrialization was to be financed. Taking a page from Preobrazhensky’s notebook, he suggested that the peasants be required to pay relatively higher prices for industrial products and be “more or less underpaid for their own produce.” In short, a sort of “tribute” would have to be extracted from them. Stalin sought to soften the blow by claiming that the industrialization process would ultimately supply the peasants with machinery and tractors, thus reestablishing the worker-peasant alliance on a new foundation. Tomsky was not fooled by this ruse. In 1929 he dismissed the Stalin plan: “Now you have started to threaten us with a new form of the worker-peasant alliance which you have discovered ... There is nothing new in this idea. What it means is emergency measures plus ration cards.”[60] Bukharin was equally blunt. The “tribute,” he said, implied nothing less than a “military-feudal exploitation of the peasantry.”[61]

What was to be the political-ideological basis of Stalin’s new policy, the so-called “Third Revolution”? Since it entailed the extraction of tribute from the peasants and a decline in the standard of living of the workers and peasants alike, it could not securely rest on their unqualified support. Its base was instead to be constructed out of the enormous and steadily growing State apparatuses. As the History of the CPSU(B) explains: “the distinguishing feature of this revolution is that it was accomplished from above, on the initiative of the state, and directly supported from below. . .”[62] In short, unlike Bukharin and his supporters for whom the activity and initiative of the masses was the decisive factor, for the Stalin group the decisive role was assigned to the State. The role of the masses was correspondingly reduced to that of “supporting” state initiatives.

Given the primacy of the State and the multitude of new tasks before it, its administrative apparatuses were subject to a massive and rapid expansion. This was particularly true of the state repressive apparatuses which grew enormously as the effects of the new line began to take their toll and stimulate widespread discontent. At the same time serious attacks on the bureaucracy and state mismanagement were no longer permitted as this smacked of “anti-Soviet activity” and the sabotage of industrialization.

In sum, the line of the Stalin group represented a fundamental break with Lenin’s theoretical-political legacy and with the Party’s established policies and program, then embodied in the documents of the Fifteenth Congress. That this line also lacked the material basis for its realization in the actual conditions of the country itself we shall see in a moment.

Reaping the Whirlwind II: 1929-1932

Stalin’s Victory: Toward the “Great Change”

Looking back on it now, the victory of the Stalin group was never really in doubt. Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky had been largely responsible for the cult of Party unity during the struggle against the Left Opposition. Their fear of splitting the Party paralyzed them and prevented them from mounting the necessary and vigorous campaign against the new line which was required. Instead, at the November 1928 Plenum of the Central Committee, an offensive was launched against them as the so-called “right opposition.”

They were not immediately defeated, however. In January 1929 Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s widow, came to their aid with an article in Pravda entitled, “Lenin and the Building of Collective Farms.” In it she reminded the Party that Lenin had said that “it was madness” to imagine that collective farming “could be decided and dictated from above,” and that “there could be no greater folly than to imagine the coercion can play any part in economic relations with the middle peasant.”[63]

Throughout 1929 the offensive against the “right” continued. At the April 1929 Plenum of the Central Committee Bukharin was relieved from his positions as editor of Pravda and head of the Communist International. Tomsky was also removed as leader of the Soviet Trade Unions. In August of the same year Pravda mounted an open attack on Bukharin and his supporters. The attack with words was soon after followed with administrative measures affecting a large number of persons including Krupskaya and Lenin’s sister, Maria Ulyanova.[64]

The original calculations of the Five Year Plan dealing with agriculture, drawn up under the influence of the Fifteenth Congress had been ambitious, but not excessive. They recognized that collectivization would proceed only to the degree that mechanization, particularly an adequate supply of tractors, was provided to the peasants, and that coercion was to be avoided. The defeat of the “right opposition” removed the only force standing in the way oi altering these plans. And altered they were: constantly. Both agricultural and industrial targets were repeatedly revised upward throughout 1929, until they were totally fantastic and unrealizable.

Originally the Five Year Plan had called for less than eight million hectares of collectivized land by 1930. In June 1929 this figure was raised to eight million hectares. In August Mikoyan used the figure of ten million hectares. In September the goal was reset to thirteen million hectares. In October and November this figure was raises to 15.2 million hectares. Finally, in December the plans were revised again: the new goal was announced to be no less than 30 million hectares.[65] As a number of historians of the period have pointed out, the control figures and goals set out in the revised plans drawn up the Stalin group in 1929 regarding both industry and agriculture were so unrealistic in terms of the nation’s capabilities and resources, that they ceased to function as a plan in any meaningful sense of the word. One specialist in the history of the Five Year Plan explains their actual function:

the only purpose of the figures was to spur the country on to ever-increasing efforts, and each individual figure served purely as an indication of the limit which was to be exceeded. In this sense, the plan became merely a body of figures which were constantly being scaled upwards.[66]

Planners, fearful of opposing the Party leadership, acquiesed to these unrealizable goals. As Strumilin acknowledged, the planners “prefer to stand up for high rates of expansion rather than sit in jail for low ones.”[67]

The “Great Turn” in Agriculture and Industry

Unrealistic planning goals notwithstanding, the 1929 grain collections illustrated the true state of affairs. Except for two months the procurement of grain in the first half of 1929 fell far below the figure for the previous year. It came to only 2.6 million metric tons as compared with 5.2 million in the same period of 1928.[68] There were a number of reasons for this new downturn. The harvest itself had been poor and grain prices on the private market were higher than those of the State Procurement agencies. Moreover, the “emergency measures” of the previous years had rendered many peasants singularly indisposed to trade with the government.

As a result of this situation, the government embarked on a vigorous new anti-peasant policy in June of 1929. A whole series of new State administrative agencies was established to deal with the rural areas, and a new law was passed which made the failure to meet grain quotas punishable by imprisonment, confiscation of property and even deportation. These quotas were imposed on whole villages without any right of the local village assemblies to alter them in any way. For this additional reason these quota policies were now resolutely opposed by many members of the Party and the Soviets in rural areas. As a result these bodies underwent constant purges of so-called “unreliable elements.”

Opposition was widespread and growing in the countryside–and it found its echo in party circles which still sought to avoid a total rupture in the worker-peasant alliance. A writer in the Party’s theoretical organ, Bolshevik, criticized the notion that collectivization could be viewed simply as a technical process involving increasing farm size plus mechanization:

the transformation in the traditional forms and patterns of the agricultural economy would only be possible if the task of collectivization were conceived not merely in terms of machines, but rather in terms of machines plus the concerted efforts of the peasants themselves.[69]

But such an alternative conception required a basic trust in the peasant masses, which was precisely what the Stalin group lacked. This lack of faith in the poor and middle peasants and the possibility of winning them voluntary to socialism was well illustrated in the matter of ownership of the all-important tractors.

Leaders of the Cooperative movement in the countryside had always insisted that, as tractors became increasingly available, they should be turned over to the peasants themselves, to be owned and operated through the cooperatives and collective farms directly. The Party leadership in 1929, however, insisted that they be state run and state operated. Not only did this policy reveal a failure to take into account the interests and desires of the rural masses, it was also economically unrealistic inasmuch as the state had neither the resources nor the personnel to operate them successfully. In the first place the supply of tractors was woefully inadequate. In the second place they were largely wasted in state hands. Tsylko, the future deputy commissar for Agriculture, reported that as much as 48% of the operational time of the tractors was lost through breakdowns or through their being used in non-productive activities.[70]

In spite of all this, the government persisted in its erroneous rural policy of alienating the broad masses of peasants. Deluded into thinking that the majority of the peasants were unreliable, that the Kulaks were a small and easily targeted group, and that the agricultural problem could be solved by compulsory collectivization and mechanization alone, the Stalin group decided upon a policy of rapid state-directed agricultural transformation in the last months of 1929. Stalin provided the justification for this new policy in an article published in late 1929 entitled, “The Great Turn.” Stalin listed three reasons for the change: (1) A decisive improvement in labor productivity in industry; (2) successes in the field of industrial construction; and (3) a radical” change in the attitude of the peasantry in favor of collectivization. In point of fact, not one of these assertions was fully accurate. Labor productivity in 1929 had not risen, but declined. The industrial growth figures Stalin cited were extremely inflated. Finally, in the words of a contemporary Soviet historian, “no such fundamental change in the attitude of the middle peasantry had as yet taken place.”[71]

Nevertheless, as a result of this erroneous conjunctural analysis, a campaign of mass, state-directed coercion and terror was unleashed in the countryside. Under the guise of “collectivization” and “de-kulakization” the bulk of the peasantry was forced against its will into collective farms. Although previous Soviet estimates had listed the number of Kulak households at around one million, some ten million peasants, characterized as “kulaks” on the basis of a definition broad enough to include anyone opposed to the campaign were deported to Siberia, many of them dying on the way. By March 1930 59.3% of peasant households were collectivized. The methods used to accomplish this result were so horrendous that even the Party which had authorized and justified them was forced to call a halt. In an article entitled “Dizzy with Success,” Stalin tried to put the blame for what had occurred on the “zeal” of local cadre. It was not the line which was incorrect, he stated, but “errors” which were made in its implementation. Not everyone was fooled by the effort of the General Secretary to shift the blame onto others. Nadezhda Krupskaya told a Party Conference in the summer of 1930 that the methods used in the collectivization campaign had nothing in common with Lenin’s plans for winning the peasants to socialism. She also criticized the Central Committee for attempting to blame local people for its own mistakes.[72]

Krupskaya’s statements provide us with an orientation, but the figures speak for themselves. Only a few weeks after Stalin’s article “Dizzy with Success” appeared, the 59.3% collectivization figure dropped to 23%; nine million out of the fourteen million peasant households previously included seized the opportunity to abandon the collective farms. Other figures are equally telling. In February and March of 1930 fourteen million head of cattle had been destroyed together with one-third of all pigs and one-fourth of all sheep and goats.[73] The First Five Year Plan forecast an increase in gross agricultural output from 1927-28 to 1932-33 of 50%. Instead gross agricultural output declined throughout the First Five Year Plan. Taking 1928 output as 100%, in 1929 it fell to 98%, in 1930 to 94.4%, in 1931 to 92%, in 1932to86%, and in 1933to81.5%. Gross output for 1937 (a very good year) was only 8% above the 1928 figure, but the output for 1938 and 1939 was still below that of 1928.[74]

The disastrous effects of Stalin’s “great turn” in Soviet agriculture, the effects of which are still being felt today, has been summarized by Charles Bettelheim: “by setting into motion an immense social transformation without the active participation of the broad masses of the peasantry, and frequently even against their will, serious prejudice was done not only to the worker-peasant alliance, but also to collective farming itself and to the role that it might have played in the development of agricultural production.[75]

Equally unrealistic goals had been set for industry with similar disastrous results. From 1929 to 1932 targets for industrial growth were, respectively, 21.7%, 32%, 45% and 36%, but official figures (which are certainly exaggerated) showed the actual growth in these years to be 20%, 21.8%, 22% and 15%. In 1933 the target was set at only 16.5% but the economy only achieved a 5% growth rate.[76] Other economic results of unrealistic planning were even less favorable. These included a fall in labor productivity, a deterioration in the quality of manufactured goods and all kinds of bottlenecks and shortages. Too wide of an investment front swallowed up more resources than could be effectively used so that there was much waste and disorganization, and many projects had to be abandoned. The distribution network was so bad that the Chairman of the State Planning Commission admitted that 30% of the consignments of supplies went bad before they even reached the consumer.[77]

The conditions of life of the rural and urban population, particularly the poor peasantry and working class, continued to deteriorate throughout these years. The disastrous agricultural policies of the party led to chronic and general food shortages, and strict rationing had to be reintroduced. What food was available could often only be found on the “free market” where high prices were charged. The grain crisis of 1928 had already led to a sharp fall in real wages,[78] and this trend continued in the early years of the 1930s. Real wages in 1932 were no more than 88.6% of those in 1928 and the 1928 wage levels were not reached again until 1940.[79] Moshe Lewin summarizes the condition of the working class in those years as follows:

The drop in the standard of living, together with the increase in production norms in the factories, the uncertainties of the supply system and poor treatment on the part of the authorities all helped to create profound discontent among the workers.[80]

The government’s response to discontent, urban and rural, was to continuously strengthen and expand the State system and state repressive apparatuses. In the factories the authority of managers was reinforced and the trade unions were converted into agents of the managers to increase speed-up and raise labor productivity. Trade union leaders who sought to defend the standard of living and employment conditions of the working class were purged en masse.[81] Indeed, the Five Year Plan, which was so detailed in its technical aspects, was entirely silent on the critical questions of changing the social organization of labor and production, and developing workers power in any meaningful sense of the term. But this was the true character of the Stalin program: it was a plan for economic development which was lacking any genuine socialist dimension. In its zeal to turn the USSR into a modern industrial power, the Stalin group postponed indefinitely the political-social problems of constructing socialist relations of production, and socialist forms of political power. The local and regional Soviets lost their power and all organs of proletarian democracy became converted into state appendages. All dissent within and without the Party was treated with profound distrust and ultimately with administrative measures. NEP had come to an end and with it the socialist vision of the 1920s.

The Aftermath

The events which followed are all too depressingly familiar. The attack on the peasantry and working class, begun in 1929, extended to government and Party leaders in 1934-38. In 1938, in the last great public purge trial, Rykov and Bukharin were found guilty of “crimes against the people” and executed. Roy Medvedev, basing himself on Soviet sources, wrote that in 1936-38, on the most conservative estimates, four to five million people were subject to repression for political reasons. At least four to five hundred thousand of them–above all high officials–were summarily shot. In 1937-38 there were days when up to a thousand people were shot in Moscow alone.[82]

Forty years after the execution of Bukharin, his son, Yuri Larin, issued an appeal to the world communist movement asking for help in the effort to rehabilitate his father’s name. The appeal was widely circulated,[83] gaining signatures from the National Executive Committee of the Communist Party of Australia, Louis Althusser, Etienne Balibar, Simone de Beauvoir, Paolo Spriano, Fernando Claudin, Paul Sweezy and Moshe Lewin, among others. But much more is needed than the rehabilitation of this one man. The world revolutionary movement demands a fundamental and all-sided rehabilitation of a vision of socialism itself, a vision which was nearly extinguished in the USSR in the long night of the Stalin period. Such a rehabilitation must be more than cosmetic–more than a superficial critique of “errors” in the application of a “correct line,” or the “cult of the personality.” What is at stake here is the ability of the left to pose and solve the fundamental questions which confront it as a political force: how to facilitate setting in motion a process of revolutionary transformation of society, and once having done so, how to successfully participate in a leading way alongside the masses in the long and complex transition to a new social order.

An understanding of Soviet events of 1927-32 is critical to posing and resolving these issues because the victorious line which emerged from them has blocked any significant debate on their meaning, while at the same time locking the majority of communists into a pattern of mechanically copying the Soviet experience as some “universal blueprint” appropriate for all times and places. In this artificial and ultimately sterile context which structured the thinking of Communists for generations, no genuine discussion was possible about the myriad problems facing the practice of socialists everywhere. Problems such as the nature of nationalization and socialization, the role of the masses and the role of the state, single party rule and the meaning of socialist democracy, what it means to lead and what it means to learn from the masses.

It is no longer sufficient (if it ever were) to try and grapple with these problems in the context of the theory and practice of the Soviet society which emerged in the 1930s. A different alternative must be constructed, based on the creative combination of international revolutionary theory and the concrete political requirements of the struggle for socialism in an advanced capitalist country such as the United States. Whether or not the US left succeeds in this task will go a long way to determining its ability to successfully intervene in and influence the direction of development of this country over the next critical decades.


[1] “The International Communist Opposition, 1928-1938,” Theoretical Review, No. 26.

[2] Charles Bettelheim, Class Struggles in the USSR: Volume 2 (MR, 1978), (hereafter Class Struggles 2), p. 22.

[3] Ibid., p. 23.

[4] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 33, 470.

[5] Lenin, “Pages from a Diary,” Collected Works, Vol. 33, 465.

[6] E. H. Carr and R. W. Davis, Foundations of a Planned Economy, Vol. 1, part 1 (Macmillan, 1969) (Hereafter Foundations), p. 131.

[7] Lenin, “Speech Opening the Congress,” Collective Works, Vol. 29, 144.

[8] Lenin, “Report on Work in the Countryside,” Ibid., 210.

[9] Ibid., 211.

[10] “Resolution on the Attitude to the Middle Peasants,” Ibid., 217.

[11] “How Should we Reorganize the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection,” Collected Works, Vol. 33, 486.

[12] Ibid., 481.

[13] “On Cooperation,” “Better Fewer, But Better.”

[14] “Better Fewer, But Better.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] “How We Should Reorganize the Workers and Peasants Inspection.”

[17] Class Struggles 2, 28-30.

[18] Moshe Lewin, Russian Peasants and Soviet Power (Northwestern, 1968) (hereafter Russian Peasants), 150.

[19] Ibid., 151.

[20] Keith Smith, “Introduction to Bukharin: Economic Theory and the Closure of the Soviet Industrialization Debate,” Economy and Society, Vol. 8, No. 4 (November 1979), 460.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 460-61.

[23] Class Struggles 2, 377.

[24] Foundations, 1,1, 38.

[25] Ibid., 40.

[26] Ibid., 33.

[27] Ibid., 36.

[28] Foundations, 1,1, 265.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Class Struggles 2, 383.

[31] Ibid., 38.

[32] Ibid., 89.

[33] Foundations, 1,1, 46.

[34] Class Struggles 2, 98.

[35] Ibid., 103-105.

[36] Russian Peasants, 217.

[37] Foundations, 1, 1, 55.

[38] Class Struggles 2, 39.

[39] Stalin claimed that the State lacked sufficient funds for these expenditures, but proof for this assertion is lacking.

[40] Foundations, 1,1, 64.

[41] Class Struggles 2, 110.

[42] Foundations, 1, 1, 74.

[43] Russian Peasants, 295.

[44] Moshe Lewin, Political Undercurrents in Soviet Economic Debates (Princeton, 1974) (hereafter Political Undercurrents), 53; Alexander Erlich, The Soviet Industrialization Debate, 1924-1928 (Harvard, 1960) (hereafter Debate), Ch. 4.

[45] Debate, 83.

[46] Nikolai Bukharin, “Notes of an Economist,” Economy and Society, Vol. 8, No. 4 (November 1979), 487.

[47] Russian Peasants, 327.

[48] “Notes of an Economist,” 479.

[49] Ibid., 492.

[50] Debate, 55.

[51] “Notes of an Economist,” 488.

[52] Russian Peasants, 333.

[53] Ibid., 321.

[54] “Notes of an Economist,” 499.

[55] Russian Peasants, 334-5.

[56] Class Struggles 2, All.

[57] Russian Peasants, 251.

[58] Ibid., 252.

[59] Class Struggles 2, 389.

[60] Russian Peasants, 328.

[61] Ibid., 322.

[62] Quoted in Class Struggles 2, 523.

[63] Russian Peasants, 319.

[64] Class Struggles 2, 459.

[65] Russian Peasants, 438.

[66] Ibid., 453.

[67] Foundations, 1, 2, 886.

[68] Class Struggles 2, 426.

[69] Russian Peasants, 367.

[70] Ibid., 422.

[71] Ibid., 457.

[72] Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge (Vintage, 1973), 88.

[73] Ibid., 87.

[74] Ibid., 90-1.

[75] Class Struggles 2, 474.

[76] Debate, 115.

[77] Russian Peasants, 398.

[78] Foundations, 1, 2, 540.

[79] Ibid., 542; Let History Judge, 107.

[80] Russian Peasants, 385.

[81] Class Struggles 2, 454.

[82] Let History Judge, 239.

[83] See Ken Coates, The Case of Nikolai Bukharin (Spokesman, 1978) for the background and text of the appeal as well as related documents.