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Nigel Harris

Agriculture, Peasants and Accumulation

(October 1969)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.40,October/November 1969, pp.37-39.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘Marxism takes its point of departure from the world economy, not as a sum of national parts but as a mighty and independent reality which has been created by the international division of labour and. the world market, and which in our epoch imperiously dominates the national markets ... In respect of the technique of production, socialist society must represent a stage higher than capitalism. To aim at building a nationally isolated socialist society means, in spite of all passing successes, to pull the productive forces backwards even as compared with capitalism ... means to pursue a reactionary Utopia. If the heralds and supporters of this theory nevertheless participate in the international revolutionary struggle (with what success is a quite different question), it is because, as hopeless eclectics, they mechanically combine abstract internationalism with reactionary Utopian national socialism.’ [1]

Thus Trotsky on Socialism in One Country. But while the comment is correct in relationship to socialists who pursue an isolated revolution, it tells us little concretely about the processes which would transform the Soviet Union from the first Workers’ State to a State capitalist regime. Trotsky certainly identified some of the contradictions which would force Stalin in directions inimical to socialism. To develop the Soviet economy, in isolation from the world market, capital must be accumulated out of the surplus value generated by the mass of the population. More exploitation, not less, was the sole remaining avenue for progress until the European revolution arrived to relieve the beleagured proletarian garrison.

One element in Stalin’s response to the central problem was his treatment of the majority of the population, the peasantry. His response is important, not just for understanding the evolution of the Soviet Union, but also for analysing the powerful pressures on any regime in any backward country today. M. Lewin’s remarkable book, Russian Peasants and Soviet Power [2], begins the account of the factors precipitating collectivisation in the Soviet Union, 1928-30, and lays out in full detail the central contradiction facing Stalin’s regime. To redistribute the land, to break up the great estates of the Russian nobility, was the vital element for the Russian peasantry in its acceptance of the leadership of urban workers in the Russian revolution. But the Bolsheviks were aware that this element was a noose they put round their own necks if they accepted the demand. [3] They had no option if they were to keep the peasantry from joining the bourgeoisie in opposition to Soviet power. Land redistribution simultaneously created a new class of private owners of land – or strengthened the position of the existing class of owners – in Lenin’s terms, a ‘petty-bourgeoisie’, committed to the defence of private property in agriculture. It also deprived urban industry of a significant part of the agricultural surplus. The new regime lost its capacity to export grain (an export important in the growth of the Tsarist economy), and a flow of resources to build industry.

Politically, the regime had to try and retain the neutrality – if not the support – of the peasantry lest it, the majority Russian class, became the seedbed for counter-revolution. Yet to do so was to accept development only at the pace at which the peasantry voluntarily expanded its output – the peasant would control the generation of the agricultural surplus, and thus the pace of urban capital accumulation. Yet to accept this was to accept that the Soviet regime would be inherently weak, continually subject to the possibility of foreign intervention or pressure. And even this slow pace depended upon urban industry producing a flow of goods at prices acceptable to the peasantry so that an urban-rural exchange could operate at all.

Nor would the situation remain stable, given the slow paceof change. The administrative machinery – in this case, the Party in the rural areas – was itself changing. As in China, in the Kiangsi Republic [4], or just after 1948 [5], the richer peasants constantly encroached on the Party, became Party members and manipulated the local Party to their own advantage. In a similar manner, in India’s Panchayeti Raj, the richer peasants constantly overshadowed the ‘representative institutions’ and took the lion’s share of development funds. But it was not a one-way process. For, as Lewin shows, the rural Party cadres in Russia were also able to use their position to become richer peasants. Thus, in the absence of counter-pressures, the Party – an urban beachhead in the countryside – would tend to become an instrument of the richer peasants. If it did, then there would be no way of preserving the class character of the Party and its political aims, let alone having available a means to siphon off resources from agriculture to industry.

During NEP, the balance of economic power tilted away from the cities. Urban industry, shattered by Civil War and the destruction of the Russian working-class, did not produce a sufficient flow of goods to induce the peasants to expand their exports to the towns. The first ‘scissors’ crisis – a ‘goods famine’, a contraction of the rural market – occurred in 1923. In the mid-20’s, agricultural output was still far below its 1913 level. The grain the peasants were prepared to market never resumed its pre-war level, although the population had increased substantially in the interim.

The State procurements for 1928-29 were 630 million poods; before the war, 1,300 million poods had been marketed annually. Before the war, Russia exported 11.4 million tons of grain annually; in 1928, Russia was compelled to import grain to feed both the towns and sections of the poorer peasantry. [6] The population, both urban and rural, had increased; the demands of the cities had increased; the land redistribution, the destruction of the larger estates, had radically cut back the surplus.

Intrinsically, the situation was most alarming. In the last two months of 1927, a sudden fall in State procurements threatened the towns – or, at least, some of the urban population – with starvation. It was this jolt to the unstable system which precipitated a process of State intervention to seize the grain by force, a return to some of the elements of War Communism. Yet to intervene in this way was to prompt the peasants to cut back their output to their own needs: they had no incentive to produce what could be simply looted by force. The peasants’ reaction then further forced the State to increase its efforts to seize the foodgrains that the peasants would otherwise have consumed. The moves developed ‘pragmatically’, but in sum they constituted Stalin’s Final Solution to the Russian agrarian problem: to destroy the peasantry completely as a class, and leave the land as a place to be looted at will for the needs of urban capital accumulation. The periodic bread queues in Russia today, the poor productivity of Russian rural workers, show one of the results.

Lewin’s book is one of the most important works to appear on the agrarian question. At no stage is he content with a shallow explanation of events in terms of the particular personality of Stalin (although this gave some differential emphasis to particular elements in his policies). With a superb wealth of concrete detail, he shows the nature of the problem, of the crisis, and the impossibility of the decisions.

But the Right (whose most articulate spokesman was Bukharin), and the Left (under Preobrazhensky and Trotsky) understood the nature of the dilemma, and accepted that private farming would remain the dominant element in Russian agriculture in the foreseeable future (that is, neither considered collectivisation as a serious possibility). Bukharin chose to accept the situation, to seek by all means available to preserve the goodwill of the peasant producers (which effectively meant the richer peasants). The State should assist the poorer peasants and help them to work in cooperatives. Gradually, the co-operatives would come to dominate the countryside, would move into collective farms, and then the richer peasants would see it was in their interests to join the richer and more powerful collectives. Socialism would have triumphed on the countryside by gradualist means. Yet, this meant that urban industry must produce in the short-term the goods the peasants wanted to buy, even though it could not expand at a rate faster than the peasantry would permit. Had the situation been ‘normal’, industry already satisfied peasant needs such that an expanding flow of grain reached the cities, the strategy might have made more sense. But it did not, and the towns led a precarious existence in terms of grain supply. On the other hand, the poorer peasants were not just weak vis-a-vis the richer, they were also economically a poor risk in terms of production. To divert State funds into this sector was possibly – although not at all inevitably – to improve peasant welfare, but not to create an area capable of supporting the towns, let alone capable of expanding industry to employ the surplus rural population. Long before the co-operatives became even self-supporting, the richer peasants would have achieved an absolute stranglehold on the market.

Was the Left any more realistic? Was there a visible alternative to Stalinism? Preobrazhenzky and Trotsky acknowledged that the terms of the urban-rural exchange operated to the disadvantage of the towns because industry was backward and weak after the long period of economic dislocation in Russia. Industry must be expanded rapidly if the terms of the exchange were to be corrected, and if the Soviet regime was to survive. But where was the surplus for accumulation in expanding industry to come from? In 1926, Preobrazhenzky was arguing that agricultural taxation for industrial development must be increased, but that the main source for capital accumulation must come from the industrial working-class itself. As Trotsky put it, at the 12th Party Congress,

‘there may be times when the State fails to pay you a full wage, or only pays half, and you, the workers, will give your State credit, out of your own pockets’. [7]

But the workers were already very poor; indeed, their poverty was a key factor in the low productivity of Russian industry. To strike at them in this way was to strike at whatever basis the regime had in Russian society.

A temporary sacrifice for a short-term emergency might have been defensible, but to base a long-term policy of capital accumulation on workers’ living standards would negate all the achievements of the revolution. In any case, the workers were few and already poor, so that to raise the rate of their exploitation would not realise a sufficient surplus for rapid accumulation. The peasantry, however, was enormous. Preobrazhenzky moved on. The main source of capital accumulation should be from the petty bourgeoisie, and in particular, the peasantry. Through taxation, through profits on the State monopoly of external trade, through the State use of credits and loans, and, above all, through the manipulation of the exchange between agricultural and manufactured goods, accumulation for urban industry would take place. There was no intention that this would be a ruthless process of looting; a substantial surplus must remain in the hands of the peasants, and the poorer peasants should both be protected by tax exemption and encouraged into State-assisted co-operatives. State collectives should be created to meet an increasing proportion of urban consumption needs.

But where was the process to begin, and how long was it to last? If this was no more than a temporary holding operation until the socialist revolution overtook at least one advanced capitalist country, it might have been possible. But without that revolution, it was likely the policy would diverge either towards Bukharin’s position, or more likely, towards Stalin’s. To start the process in any case demanded some immediate surplus, not automatically generated by the urban-rural exchange. To lay hands on the surplus in the countryside would have begun exactly the process Stalin became trapped in. The situation had its own logic in the absence of the revolution in the West, a logic which perhaps permitted differences of emphasis but not of the basic process.

It is this logic which Lewin superbly demonstrates. Once the process began, Stalin – or, indeed anyone else – had little option but to move towards collectivisation to avoid even greater disasters. The myths Stalin invented to justify his policies, the paranoia about the kulak plot, the insanity of the class classification of the rural population, all these were only tenuously related to the real problem; but the problem remains when the myths are despatched. Although Lewin himself suggests there were alternatives to Stalin’s policies – in the Opposition Platform, in the First Five-Year Plan [8] (the Plan was abandoned by Stalin in practice before it was even ratified), both of which strategies eschewed collectivisation – the weight of his evidence suggests that by 1928, there were no alternatives. Even a run of bumper harvests which would have removed perhaps the immediate crisis, would only have been a temporary relief. In the absence of outside assistance, the peasantry remained the only source of accumulation.

Again, had the Party remained a politically conscious organisation of Bolshevik workers – instead of, in its rural units, a collection of richer peasants and bureaucrats, manipulating the poorer peasants to ratify decisions – the process might have been modified. But the Left Opposition could not have recreated the Party from their offices in Moscow. Stalin purged the Party of richer peasants, and then used his crude ‘apolitical’ rural instruments as a blunderbuss. The cadres were reproved for the excesses which the leadership made inevitable, and thus Stalin exonerated himself in the eyes of the peasants. He recreated the Tsar, the Little Father, who protected his people from his evil satraps. [9] An identical process in China promoted the same ‘cult of personality’ in which the peasants found an illusory saviour in Mao and the cadres were adjudged not on their politics-but on their absolute obedience to the Leader. Pressure from the top within the Party led to the same ‘spontaneous’ zeal by the cadres, the same abandonment of political persuasion among the peasantry for the use of crude force. The same cult of ‘bigness’ led to the creation of vast administratively impossible units in the countryside. In Russia,, the brutality of the process stands out with sharp clarity. Perhaps as many as ten million peasants were deported, and many of them perished on the way. [10] The incredible history of misery and oppression of the Russian muzhik reached its climax in his destruction. Prison socialism, a barbaric despotism filled the gap created by the failure of the socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries.

Collectivisation – and Lewin is to publish a volume on the years of collectivisation proper – destroyed the problem of accumulation by force. With profound irrationality, it also radically lowered the potential rate of accumulation itself. One set of problems was overcome, but another was thereby created. Russian development became immediately much more difficult and strangled, and Russian agriculture an almost unrelieved tale of disaster. But the regime survived intact. It did so by making it impossible to contain within itself genuine socialists. For the Bolsheviks, the peasantry might have been a ‘petty bourgeoisie’, but this was not an argument for their destruction as a class by force. Collectivisation gave supreme power to the mindless bureaucrat prepared to savage anyone in the name of the Party, and robbed the political cadres of any organisation. Henceforth, the hectic priorities of Stalinism overruled any scruples at all. Thus the embryonic ruling-class of Russia received its first baptism in peasant blood.

Lewin’s book is a magnificent and sombre account of this process. For obvious reasons, his account lacks the authentic reply of the peasant, a reply still secreted in rural Party archives and in the memory of untold injustices by those still in exile. But given the material available, Lewin has written a superb synthesis and analysis. We are all in his debt.


1. Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution, 1930. English edition, London 1962.

2. A Study of Collectivisation, Allen and Unwin, 1968, 70s, 539 pp.

3. Cf. the citations by Tony Cliff in Marxism and the Collectivisation of Agriculture, International Socialism 19, winter 1964-65, p.4.

4. Cf. Harold Isaacs, Appendix, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (2nd edition), 1961, p.344 passim.

5. Cf. Kenneth R. Walker, Collectivisation in Retrospect, China Quarterly, 26, April-June 1966; and Thomas P. Bernstein, Problems of Village Leadership after Land Reform, China Quarterly 36, October-December 1968.

6. Cf. Lewin, op. cit., p.177.

7. Cited Carr, E.H., The Interregnum, p.25, cited Lewin, ibid., p.146.

8. Lewin, p.358.

9. Lewin, p.452.

10. Lewin, p.506.

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