MARXIST INTERNET ARCHIVE | Martin Nicolaus

4  Collectivization

 

    In the 1920s the Soviet industrial proletariat was still an island -- though a growing one -- in a vast peasant sea.

    While in the state-owned industries the retreat toward state capitalism had been halted and a definite forward march toward socialism was underway in the late 1920s, out in the countryside capitalism was in full bloom.

    Agricultural laborers and poor peasants were being ground into misery; middle peasants were being squeezed down, and the richest capitalist farmers -- the kulaks -- were accumulating grain and power.

    The kulaks' arrogance can be measured from an anecdote Stalin reported in April 1929 to the Party's central committee. In grain-rich Kazakhstan, "one of our agitators tried for two hours to persuade the holders of grain to deliver grain for supplying the country, and a kulak stepped forward with a pipe in his mouth and said, 'Do us a little dance, young fellow, and I will let you have a couple of poods of grain.'" (Works, Vol. 12, p. 95)

    The harvests had been good; yet the state was menaced by famine. The resistance and -- in many areas -- armed rebellion of the kulaks threatened to reverse the progress toward socialism in the cities and to undermine the power of the Soviet state.

    In this emergency, and after heated intraparty struggles against the "left" and right opposition, the central committee, led by Stalin, resolved to launch an all-out offensive against the last great bastion of capitalism in the USSR: capitalism in agriculture.

    This was the campaign for collectivization of agriculture. Its aim was to combine the millions of small- and medium-sized peasant plots into tens of thousands of collective farms (kolkhozes). In a collective farm, the individual patches of land are merged (apart from small plots for household consumption) into large tracts which the farmers cultivate collectively. A portion of the harvest is taxed off by the state; but the remainder is the property of the collective, to be sold by it to its best advantage, with the proceeds divided among the collective farmers in proportion to their work.

    (In state farms [sovkhoz] by contrast, the entire crop goes to the state and the farmers receive a predetermined wage, just as in a factory. There were already state farms in the USSR at that time, based mainly on expropriated big landlords' estates; but the majority of the peasantry was not ready for this higher form.)

    In order to achieve the collectivization of agriculture, however, it was necessary to deprive the capitalist forces in the countryside of their strongest and leading elements, the kulaks. For this purpose the party put forward the slogan to "liquidate the kulaks as a class." This meant to deprive them of their economic base, their property, their possibilities for exploiting the middle and poor peasantry and laborers and for resisting the Soviet state.

    The struggle that began in agriculture in late 1928, lasting some five years, amounted to a second Bolshevik revolution. It was a revolution carried on both from above, by the Soviet state including the Red Army, and from below, by the masses of agricultural laborers, poor and middle peasants.

    Like all genuine revolutions, it was "not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture," it was not so "refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous." It was, much like the peasant movement in Hunan described by Mao

Tsetung In 1927, "an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another." (Selected Works, Vol. 1 p. 28.) It therefore did not lack instances when the peasantry went "too far," and liquidated the kulaks (as well as some who were mistaken for kulaks) not only economically but also physically. But, as the chief bourgeois critic of this revolution, Prof. M. Lewin, admitted, "In order to understand this process of wholesale dekulakization, it is also essential to bear in mind the misery in which millions of bednyaks [poor peasants] lived. All too often they went hungry; they had neither shoes nor shirts, nor any other 'luxury items.' The tension which had built up in the countryside, and the eagerness to dispossess the kulaks, were in large measure contributed to by the wretchedness of the bednyaks' condition, and the hatred they were capable of feeling on occasion for their more fortunate neighbors, who exploited them pitilessly whenever they had the chance to do so." (Lewin, Russian Peasants and Soviet Power, Evanston, 1968. p. 488.)

    There were also excesses committed "from above," by overzealous party leaders, who were often members of the intraparty opposition intent consciously or unconsciously on sabotaging the process. Inexperience, shortage of cadre and honest errors played their part as well. The opposition -- echoed by the bourgeois press abroad -- lost no opportunity to focus on these excesses and errors, to magnify them out of proportion and damn the general line of the revolution because of its tactical blunders. But there was in reality no other socialist alternative, and those members of the opposition who were dedicated to the cause of Soviet power, as Prof. Lewin records, soon came to see this truth. "He does the job badly," said these repentant oppositionists of Stalin, but he does it." The "most intelligent cadre," in Lewin's estimate at least -- meaning the more enlightened followers of Leon Trotsky and of Nikolai Bukharin, then the chief "left" and right opposition faction leaders -- complained of Stalin's "iron hand" and "despotic methods," but conceded that "thanks to this man's indomitable will, Russia is being modernized. Despite his shortcomings, a few more years of this terrible, almost superhuman effort will bring an all-round increase in prosperity and happiness."

    By the end of 1933, the long road of the New Economic Policy (NEP) had been completed. The initial retreat toward state capitalism, the consolidation, and then the general offensive toward socialism had been successfully executed. About two-thirds of the peasants were in functioning collective farms; private industry had all but vanished; socialist principles in state industry had gained the upper hand and the first five-year plan had been triumphantly completed ahead of time, unemployment was abolished. After 16 years of political rule, the new Soviet power had succeeded in remolding the capitalist economic foundation it inherited, and in creating the foundation appropriate to itself -- the foundation of a socialist economy.

    At the 17th party congress in January 1934, Stalin -- speaking for the central committee -- was able to make the landmark declaration that the socialist economic formation "now holds unchallenged sway and is the sole commanding force in the whole national economy." (Works, Vol. 13, p. 316.)

    At the time that the USSR entered the new era in its economic development, the rest of the world was plunging into the depths of the Great Depression. A front-page editorial by Pravda in 1931, on the occasion of the 14th anniversary of the October revolution, threw into sharp relief the contrast between the achievements of the Soviet power and the sufferings in the capitalist world:

    "Proletarians! Workers of all countries! Today in the squares, at meetings, demonstrations and rallies you will sum up the results attained by two economic systems -- capitalism and socialism.

    "Remember:

    "In the capitalist countries --

    "Tens of millions of unemployed. The deepening world crisis. Thousands of bankruptcies, tens of thousands of closed enterprises. Growing poverty, hunger and plunder of the colonies. Preparations for fresh imperialist wars.

    "In the country which is building socialism --

    "Powerful growth of industry. No unemployment.

Creation of large-scale mechanized agricultural production on the basis of state and collective farms. Improving material conditions of the working people. The rallying of the working people around the Bolshevik party and its Leninist central committee." (Quoted by Borisova et. al., Outline History of the Soviet Working Class, Moscow 1973, p. 168.)

    And in fact the triumphant march of socialism in the USSR in this new period appeared as a beacon amidst the gloom of the capitalist world. It was a period when phrases that today may seem strained and trite -- "glorious, triumphant, brilliant, dazzling" and the like -- came naturally to the lips of those who lived or saw it. It was as Marx had foretold: the integument of capitalist relations burst asunder, and the tremendous potentials slumbering in the lap of social labor began to stir. Momentous productive forces that the capitalists had tried for decades, in vain, to whip into life now suddenly found liberation. It was as if the country exploded with productive energy. It did not march ahead; it leaped, it stormed, it flew ahead. It left its critics in the dust as so many carping dwarves. It threw terror into the world's bourgeoisies. It traced out for the first time in history the magnificent future that opens before the world's oppressed and exploited people once they have seized state power.

    Today these achievements are in danger of being slowly forgotten. The period of socialist economy in the USSR lasted only slightly more than two decades, from the early 1930s to the mid 1950s. The reversals that have occurred in the last 20 years have tended to obscure what existed during the socialist period, and to efface from consciousness not only its achievements, but its very character. What really is socialism? Was the USSR really ever socialist at all? If it was socialist, how could it have turned capitalist afterwards? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to have a somewhat closer look at Soviet socialism in theory and practice.