Russian Agrarian History and Soviet Debates on the Peasantry

There is a Chronological Chart summarising key dates and events at the end of this document

First, a few remarks about the Russian revolution. The Russian case has evident parallels with the French case, and more limited parallels with the Mexican case:

1. European Russia: Early emancipation of serfs in Baltic (1817) without land allotments led to wage-labour based big capitalist estates, exporting to Western Europe. Western Ukraine: Sugar-beet and other agro-industry renting peasant allotments;

2. Southeast and Siberia: Commercial small-holder farming, small capitalist farms. Because Siberia was a zone of colonisation, there were no obshchina;

3. North/Lakes/Central Industrial Province: Commercial agriculture only profitable near big cities. The nobles sold off their land. Peasants became seasonal migrants to cities (migration becoming more permanent when Stolypin reforms cut imposed ties to obshchina);

4. Central Black Earth/Middle Volga (‘core' of old agrarian Russia): Uncommercialised peasant subsistence agriculture, obshchina general, rental of estate land to subsistence peasantry — sometimes to communities as collectivities, sometimes to households.

As we'll see, ideology was far less significant than practical pressures on the state-building process in Russia after the Revolution. Early ‘libertarianism' rapidly disappeared, as the encouragement of ‘soviets' and popular power gave way to an emphasis on building a strong, centralised revolutionary state. But while the state-building process was going on, Bolshevik economic policy, particularly towards the countryside and the peasantry, remained undogmatic. The shift to the new collectivist paradigm for agriculture represented a major sea-change in Soviet policy, made possible by the consolidation of post-revolutionary state power. The ‘outcome' of the Russian revolution was a ‘bureaucratic state' which was accompanied by a surprisingly strong reemergent social stratification: though Soviet society made great strides in eliminating ‘basic poverty', it was not, in fact, a very equal society in terms of income distribution, though all Soviet citizens received part of their income in the form of free social services — the ‘social wage'. It would also be a bit naïve to ignore the fact that Soviet workers did not really control their society's use of its economic resources in any real sense.

Soviet economic development gave priority to industrialisation, and in this sense, the Bolshevik regime was to continue the work of the ‘modernising' Tsarist governments of the 19th century. It is a moot point, particularly from the peasant point of view, whether Soviet development was any less painful than the Tsarist model would have been — though it would be oversimplistic to deny that the Soviet policy was in some respects qualitatively different from its predecessors.

I'll begin, then, with a brief discussion of the attempts by pre-revolutionary Russian governments to ‘modernise' the country and resolve the ‘Agrarian Question'. These events of the later 19th century certainly made a significant contribution to the revolutionary processes of the 20th century (see the Chronological Chart).

Serfdom was abolished in 1861. The 1861 settlement divided the land between landlord and peasant in a way which peasants in the agrarian ‘core' of Russia rejected ideologically. The lords had theoretically held domain over lands by virtue of their role as government officials, not as absolute private property. Furthermore, the Russian peasants had to pay for the land they received, to redeem themselves from serfdom. And not only did the peasants have to pay — once they'd paid, many could not, in practice, become full private small-holders, because they continued to be subject to the obshchina system of the peasant commune, where village lands were periodically redistributed to even out variations in household demography. There were, however, large parts of Russia where communal village landholding had either never existed or was already in a state of decay before 1905, and there is a lot of debate about how far the obshchina system actually functioned in practice even where it did exist: there is some evidence of processes of land concentration which were not linked to the fact that some households in a village were inevitably bigger than others. On the other hand, it is important to note that the degree of commercialisation of both landlord and peasant agriculture remained more limited in the Central Black Earth/Middle Volga zones: commercialisation mainly impacted on the peasant commune to the North, especially in the Central Industrial Province near the big cities. Nevertheless, on balance, it's an acceptable rough generalisation to say that ‘land hunger' became an increasingly important source of peasant unrest in the later 19th century. Furthermore, discontent with the fruits of ‘emancipation' was hardened by the introduction of new tax policies designed to make the peasants pay for Russia's industrialisation.

These new policies were the work of the Tsarist minister Witte, who, anticipating later Soviet policy, rigged the urban-rural terms of trade to keep down industrial costs and reinforced this indirect policy with direct taxation of the peasantry to provide investment funds for creating modern heavy industry. During the 1890s, Russia made rapid ‘industrial progress', and this is the period when a relatively homogeneous classical proletariat begins to form in the appalling slums of Russia's industrial cities. The Tsarist government's motivation for industrialising was identical to that of Germany: to keep Russia a Great Power in the international geo-political arena. Germany's development was seen as threatening Russia in particular, and the Russian autocracy sought to emulate her rival as rapidly as possible. The 1905 revolution brought together urban and rural unrest linked to rapid modernisation: the fact that the autocracy was engaged in a disastrous war with Japan at the time ensured that there would be a serious crisis. But after the troops had been returned from the East to put down the revolt, the regime's reaction was extremely straightforward: it simply repressed every kind of dissidence in the most brutal manner possible. Since the Russian upper class was very weak politically within the strongly autocratic Russian state, there was no effective force to press for reform from within the ‘system'. But there was a change of agrarian policy, motivated not by a desire to compromise, but by the conviction that something more radical should be done to increase the pace of modernisation, in the face of Russia's recent military humiliations. The regime also reasoned that the easiest way to deal with peasant unrest was by removing the ‘peasants' from the countryside and speeding up the ‘transition to full-blooded capitalism'.

So in 1906, a new Tsarist minister, Stolypin, launched an all-out attack on the peasant commune, as the basis for the new policy known as the ‘wager on the strong'. Stolypin aimed to resolve both Russia's economic problems and her social problems by fostering peasant differentiation and the destruction of the ‘village community': destroying the obshchina system would allow richer peasants to consolidate their landholdings and produce bigger commercial surpluses, fostering agricultural growth, whilst poorer peasants would be driven off the land and into the cities where they could be kept in check by repression more easily. The policy did lead to an increase in permanent as distinct from seasonal emigration to the cities from the villages of the Lakes/Central Industrial zones. It also had a big impact in the heavily commercialised region of the Ukraine, where peasant agriculture was already under severe pressure from the expansion of agro-industry and commercial wheat farming, and peasant differentiation of the Leninist kind is most readily apparent. Stolypin was assassinated by an anarchist (middle class) peasant organiser (Narodnik) in 1911, and there is no doubt that Stolypin's ‘reform' of traditional agrarian structure, so like the liberal reform in Mexico, made an important contribution to fueling the social revolutionary process which erupted five years later, though it should be stressed that it was far from complete at the outbreak of the First World War. It was therefore no more than a further contributory pressure, but its importance lies in the legacy it left to the post-revolutionary regime.

The early Soviet land reform programmes did not eliminate the inequalities in landholding within peasant communities which had developed in regions like the Ukraine, which also became notorious for the existence of ‘disguised' forms of allegedly ‘capitalist' exploitation during the period of NEP in the 1920s. Naturally, the Soviet regime set something of a premium on going in for ‘disguised' forms of capitalist relationships, since being an overt exploiter still wasn't too healthy, even under NEP! In any event, we do have extensive reports of the proliferation of, for example, ‘sharecropping' arrangements between ‘kulaks' and ‘poor peasants' which involved the former taking the lion's share of the profits or indeed, the whole surplus above the partner's minimal subsistence income. Lenin's point of view on the ‘Agrarian Question' may therefore have had validity in certain areas at least, as a result of the Stolypin reforms: Chayanov himself conceded this point. But the enormous irony is that Lenin, now that he himself headed a modernising regime and was faced with pragmatic choices, chose to forget his entire analysis when he embarked on the NEP, and downplayed the menace which he had earlier argued that the kulak theoretically posed for the development of socialist relations in agriculture!

So Stolypin's ‘reform' created problems for the Bolsheviks in the long run, but its immediate impact was to enhance the prospects for peasant rebellion. Social conditions in the cities were also probably as conducive as they could have been to workers' uprising: a relatively homogeneous proletariat, with a high proportion of recent rural migrants from a region full of agrarian grievances, lived in appalling conditions, faced a totally inflexible and repressive regime. Middle-class revolutionaries had ideal conditions for organising, which were further improved by the effects of the war, though it doesn't necessarily follow that the views of the workers who spontaneously organised themselves into ‘Soviets' in the cities were intrinsically ‘forward-looking' and wholly consistent with the Bolsheviks' political philosophy — precisely because their rural background was so recent? Nevertheless, Riot and Rebellion only turned into social revolution when the disasters of the war weakened the Old Regime at the very moment in Russian history when strong government was essential to control the massive social tensions created by ‘modernisation from above'. The war also armed a significant proportion of the malcontents pressed into the army — although Russian industry couldn't supply enough arms and ammunition to meet the needs of the armies at the front anyway, it seems that quite a few of the deserters made off with functioning weapons! It's important to stress that what produced the revolution was not the war in itself: Russia was really in an even worse state economically in 1942. But war didn't articulate with the same conjuncture of political and social crisis on that occasion, and the Soviet state retained, even enhanced, its authority.

The disaster of the war produced something a political revolution against the Tsarist regime which culminated in the dominance of Kerensky (a liberal democrat). But Kerensky's provisional government exacerbated the conditions which were pushing Russia beyond mere political revolution: in order to continue the war, Kerensky resorted to requisitioning peasant grain, whilst making no moves whatsoever on land reform. The military situation continued to deteriorate, and Kerensky could not even build up a power base in the cities: more and more soldiers were deserting, encouraged by Bolshevik cadres sent out to the front, and the countryside was completely out of government control. Despite Eisenstein's heroic cinema images, the Provisional Government wasn't so much overthrown as withered away: the Bolsheviks simply walked into a vacuum of state power.

But there was something very substantial underneath the Bolshevik revolution — the peasant land seizures, strikes and spontaneous creation of Soviets. I emphasise this spontaneous, mass, aspect of the Revolution: much of what happened was not really orchestrated by the Bolsheviks, though they subsequently claimed credit for it. It was more a case of the Bolshevik line being that which was most suited to the reality of the mass revolution: once the various social strata which made up the Russian underclasses had taken power, the Mensheviks' strategy of leaving the ‘bourgeoisie' to get on with the task of capitalist modernisation ceased to have any meaning, and the Mensheviks' mechanical, evolutionist notion of socialism being achieved through a series of necessary, economically-determined ‘stages' became irrelevant. The Bolshevik ‘line' was one of a ‘worker-peasant' alliance to strangle capitalism at birth in the ‘backward' countries. But, it's important to stress, the Bolsheviks themselves in 1917 did not envisage having to build ‘socialism in one country'. The Leninist position assumed that ‘breaking the weakest links in the imperialist chain' — revolution in ‘peripheral areas' — would lead almost immediately to generalised proletarian revolution in the ‘developed' capitalist metropoles. When this failed to happen, the Bolshevik mastery over revolutionary theory was also shown to be less than total.

In 1917, then, a group of middle-class urban intellectuals found themselves, perhaps rather unexpectedly, in command of what remained of the apparatuses of the Russian state, brought there on the backs of peasant allies they neither really knew or trusted, and had certainly not organized systematically, with the support of an urban workers' movement which represented only a tiny minority of the population of Russia. The Bolsheviks faced a double dilemma:

(1) The party had to remain in power in order to defend the revolution, but this, in practice, meant rebuilding the shattered state apparatus as rapidly as possible, while consolidating the Bolshevik hold on that apparatus. This wasn't easy. The party cadres were not numerous enough to run the state on their own, old Tsarist officialdom, and for that matter, policemen, had to be employed, and this made it all the more difficult to use the state to implement policy. Furthermore, the central State now had a rival in the form of the rural and urban Soviets, which demanded a radical form of popular, participatory government.

(2) Secondly, it wasn't completely clear what the policy of the new revolutionary state should actually be, particularly given the expectation that the fledgling revolution in Russia would shortly be receiving the economic and military aid of new ‘workers' states' in Western Europe as the entire imperialist chain began to collapse.

These pressures didn't operate so much simultaneously as consecutively, but they did work in the same direction. As the prospects of international revolution receded, and international reaction as manifested in armed interventions by imperialist powers on Russian soil became the order of the day, the state-building process took precedence. The internal discipline and hierarchic structure of the party was reinforced, and it increasingly became an instrument for retaining power, at the cost, where necessary, of actually widening the gulf between the party and its state and the mass society which it ruled. Even under Lenin, in fact, the low-level, genuinely ‘popular' worker-peasant Soviets were increasingly seen as a symptom of ‘anarchism', and his speeches make increasingly blunt reference to the need to counter ‘syndicalist tendencies' in the revolution. Indeed, he seems to spend more time attacking these ‘syndicalist tendencies' than capitalist saboteurs and foreign enemies. Seen from this point of view, Stalin's dictatorship can't be seen as a betrayal of Bolshevism, but might be seen, in a sense, as the natural end of tendencies which were immanent in the revolution from the start: the masses were to be ‘represented' politically by a revolutionary state in which the majority of them had little real political participation.

I'll develop this argument by analysing the sequence of events leading from the Bolshevik seizure of power to Stalin's ‘second revolution' — the enforced collectivisation of agriculture and forced industrialisation of the 1930s. The dates and names mentioned are included in the Chronological Chart.


[1] War Communism, 1918-21

Although the first phase of Soviet policy is conventionally known as ‘war communism', it is better seen as a response to chaos than as a leap into the socialist future. At the start, consolidation of Bolshevik control over the state apparatus was declared the primary objective: Lenin argued that the revolution had to be defended at all costs, and he seems to have envisaged a kind of ‘state capitalist' model for Soviet economic development. The difficulty was to implement such a model, given that the popular Soviets did not embrace it with enthusiasm, and the Bolsheviks did not, at this stage, have the means to deal with such opposition. Hence the attacks on ‘syndicalism'. But what happened in practice was largely dictated by the foreign invasions: the need to build and supply the Red Army added tremendously to the pressure for centralised state control and iron party discipline, and the Soviets were forced to go along with this as far as the defence of the revolution was concerned. In 1919, the rouble collapsed, as the economy became completely disrupted, and foreign capital became convinced that the Bolshevik beast was not going to disappear overnight. The only practical way to keep some sort of economy working, and the Red Army fighting, was to replace the market with a system of forced requisitions, confiscation and rationing, with the government running a simple physical allocation system — a thousand boots to Novy Sibirsk, 50 tons of coal to Leningrad, etc.

Russian industry was largely destroyed by the wars of intervention, and a large proportion of the urban working class died in the Red Army. Given the military priorities, longer-term socialist development policy was not really on the agenda at this stage. But the Soviet regime did embark on some land redistribution, trying to dismantle the Stolypin reform as far as possible. By the mid-1920s, 90% of Russian land was in the hands of peasants, most of it technically still subject to communal redistribution under the obshchina system, even if the system was no longer functioning in the traditional way. What is certain, and needs stressing, is that only a tiny proportion of Russian agriculture was reorganised by the Soviet state before December 1929. The Soviet regime did introduce two new ‘socialist' agricultural production forms more or less at the outset: sovkoz (state farm whose members were paid wages) and kalkhoz (a collective farm whose assets are owned by its cooperating members). But neither system was much developed in the period of war communism, and what was done was partly undone during the period of NEP.

The 1918 decree of ‘land socialisation' quite explicitly placed the ‘Sovkhoz' state farms at the top of a hierarchy of desirable agrarian organisational forms, with individual peasant holdings a distinctively undesirable ‘obsolete and transitory' third option, after cooperatives. So the ‘state capitalist'-’rationality of large-scale production' model was clearly strong in soviet thinking — as it also was, initially, in more modern socialist revolutions like the Nicaraguan Sandinista revolution. In any event, no serious attempt could be made to implement the state farm model in Russia in 1918. Most of the sovkozy were created on expropriated landlord estates, but most of the land was actually being seized by the peasants themselves, and there was very little to the Soviet government could do to compel or persuade them to hand it back to the state. Peasants were generally adamant about rejecting alternatives to individual tenure. Furthermore, even where state farms were actually set up, usually with the ex-managers of the old landlord enterprise still at the helm, no finance was available to make them into the ‘modern', ‘rational' farming enterprises the Bolsheviks saw as the high road to agricultural progress — there were no spare parts for machines, and certainly no funds for new investments. The state farms accomplished little at this stage.

So if Lenin was really just as wedded to the urgency of ‘agricultural modernisation' as Witte and Stolypin had been, such programmes were dreams given the weakness of Soviet power in the face of the peasantry. The peasants supported the Bolsheviks because they were the only politicians who had favoured ending the war against Germany and because they permitted and ratified land seizures: the Bolshevik regime would have collapsed had they totally alienated that support, which was passive rather than active. Indeed, once it became clear that the landlords would not be coming back, and the policy of grain requisitions began to bite, peasant support for the Bolsheviks did, indeed, begin to wane. In February 1921, the sailors of Kronstadt mutinied, amid a rising wave of peasant mobilisations directed against grain requisitioning. Then the 1921 harvest failed, and the situation reached breaking point. The survival of the Bolshevik's ‘proletarian' revolution turned out to be dependent on the grace and favour of the peasantry. Given the weakness of Bolshevik power, the only possible course was one of retreat, mollifying the peasantry. After Kronstadt, confiscation of peasant surpluses was replaced by a tax. In May 1921, the revolutionary decree nationalising small-scale property was revoked, in order to placate the urban bourgeoisie and further calm peasant anxieties. Lenin started making speeches full of historical allusions to the French Revolution, warning of the dangers of moving too fast and reminding his audience about what happened to Robespierre. The initial concessions turned into a full retreat. It was called the NEP.

[2] NEP, 1921-1929

The period of NEP permitted a process of economic reconstruction, and it also gave the Bolsheviks a breathing space to build up a stronger state apparatus. Essentially, the policy permitted ‘free enterprise' to reemerge, and allowed ‘market incentives' to operate, though with some government intervention in controlling prices. Many of the problems involved in NEP have reappeared in subsequent attempts at socialist reconstruction, and arguably are inevitable in ‘mixed' economic regimes, so all this is not just of historical interest. NEP could be judged a ‘success' in the short term, and it is certainly difficult to see what else the Bolsheviks could have done in the circumstances, given what they had to work with and their initial political philosophy. But the policy stored up longer term contradictions, and was not without its moments of crisis even early on.

The first of these was the so-called ‘scissors crisis' of 1923. After the catastrophe of the 1921 harvest failure, which resulted in widespread starvation, the 1922 and 1923 harvests were excellent. But this, in turn, created a problem. Bumper harvests made prices fall, and urban manufactures were already relatively expensive. Rural-urban terms of trade deteriorated, so peasant incomes, in terms of the goods they could buy from the cities, fell. The peasants, or, as we'll see, private grain merchants who bought peasant grain, reacted by withholding their grain from the market, to force the price up. Now the workers began to complain, or worse, because of food shortages. The 1924 harvest was poor, and the ‘scissors' began to close again as prices rose by over 100%. Now, however, the state stepped in, pressured by the urban workers, to fix maximum prices. Again, the countryside hoarded its grain. The government then tried to force the peasants to sell their grain by demanding prompt payment of the agricultural tax in cash, a classic remedy which had been used by the Tsarist government. But this didn't work where peasants hoarding their grain were better-off and had cash reserves or could sell livestock to pay the tax. At this juncture, the other consequence of NEP became starkly apparent. Private merchants reappeared in the villages quite overtly buying up peasant grain at prices above the official maximum price: state price control collapsed. In the face of peasant hoarding and merchant speculation, urban food prices rose again, and the workers demanded higher wages, increasing industrial costs, making Russian manufactured goods even more expensive, offsetting some of the effects of the scarcity of grain on urban-rural terms of trade, etc. Worst hit of all were the poorest peasants with inadequate land resources, who had to buy grain to feed their families: they had produced less of their own grain than usual, and had to buy more grain on the market at higher prices. Their fate did not go unnoticed by the critics of NEP, as we'll see in a moment.

In retrospect, what happened in the following year, 1925, turns out to have been the turning point. The harvest was really excellent, and government thoughts turned back to the problem of avoiding a repetition of the scissors crisis. This time, it was argued, price controls should be used to avoid too big a fall in price — and the system proposed to manage this was the same one we have today in the EEC: the state would buy the surplus grain and take it off the market. But optimistic assessments for the benefits to flow from the 1925 harvest were not fulfilled. Despite the good state-guaranteed price, the peasants yet again refused to sell. In particular, they would not sell in regions like the Ukraine, where commercialised agriculture was most advanced, and kulaks were thought to be dominant. The flawed logic of NEP became painfully apparent. To encourage the peasants to produce more for the market and invest, the agricultural tax had been reduced. Now the state had shown the peasants that it would tolerate higher agricultural prices, and that they no longer had to resort to the ‘black market' to get them. They appeared to be sitting on their grain to force still bigger concessions.

So, at any rate, the increasingly numerous critics of NEP in the Bolshevik party began to argue. They pointed out that by 1925, increasing indulgence of the kulaks had gone as far as letting this ‘rural middle class' occupy local administrative posts: their confidence was high, and they had built up large cash reserves in the previous round of speculation. Many on the left of the Bolshevik Party saw the grain procurement problem as entirely the product of kulak speculation, though this interpretation of what was going on was challenged, as we'll see later. It was at least plausible to argue that hoarding offered the well-to-do peasants the chance to maximise money income and wring further concessions from the regime. There was, however, another problem: the weak Soviet industrial sector couldn't supply enough consumer goods to satisfy peasant demand. This fact reduced the effectiveness of market incentives as a means of stimulating peasant commercial production — what was the point of earning more if there was nothing to buy? It also presented a dilemma for Soviet industrialisation policy, as we'll see shortly.

The failure to capture the expected marketed surplus in 1925 had immediate repercussions. Agricultural export plans were cancelled, and this meant there could be no imports of foreign capital goods from those countries which were willing to trade with Bolshevik Russia to help build up Soviet industry. The workers were eventually fed, but at very high cost. There had now been a recovery from the chaos and destruction of the wars of intervention, but the peasants seemed to be blocking further progress. Within the party, arguments for a change of course were now being voiced more loudly, and Lenin was dead. What eventually happened was decided by a power struggle within the party, and it was the revolutionary regime's ultimate inability to effect social change by means other than coercive action from above which demonstrates the limitations of the revolutionary process in the Soviet Union.

[3] The Soviet Industrialization Debate

1924 had already seen the opening salvos in what was still quite an open debate within the Party about the priority to be given to industrialisation relative to agrarian reconstruction. Perobrazhenski presented a paper to the Communist Academy entitled "The Fundamental Law of Socialist Accumulation". He argued that:

(1) NEP was justifiable as a temporary expedient, but could not be continued in the longer term, since it strengthened the development of capitalist social relations within Soviet society.

(2) Socialism needed to build itself on industry, run on socialist lines, to create a society which could realise socialist objectives of material equality and workers' democracy. It could not develop that industry by borrowing money from abroad, since foreign capitalism refused to make loans to the Soviet government, and therefore had no option but to generate resources for investment internally. The only possible source of such resources was agriculture. The Soviet regime had to tax the peasantry and turn the rural-urban terms of trade decisively in favour of industry.

At the time, Preobrazhenski's thesis played straight into the hands of the group who were already struggling to oust Trotsky and the Left Opposition from any position of power. Bukharin, in former days a close collaborator of Preobrazhenski, denounced his views as an attack on the Leninist principle of the worker-peasant alliance — the cornerstone of the Revolution in Russia.

Trotsky's days as Commissar for War were already numbered as Preobrazhenski and Bukharin debated. He resigned in January 1925, after rejecting pleas from the army to get rid of Stalin. After Lenin's death, Stalin had shared power in a triumvirate with Zinoviev and Kamenev, and all of them had backed NEP enthusiastically. It was Zinoviev, indeed, who had coined the slogan "Face to the Countryside" in July 1924 — a slogan which, if you think about it, accurately portrays the Bolsheviks' external relationship to the rural hinterland, though it was meant to imply other things! Along with the slogan, Zinoviev had proposed making further concessions to the peasants, and he had explicitly denied the existence of any significant class polarisation in the countryside, actual or incipient. But Bolshevik leaders put power and politics before ideology — not because they were all unprincipled by nature — though Zinoviev was certainly an unattractive character — but because this was a necessary part of the business of personal survival. As soon as Trotsky was out of the way, Stalin turned on his former colleagues, and in reaction to this, Zinoviev changed his stance completely and joined the Left Opposition in an attempt to block Stalin's ascent. In the autumn of 1925, the one-time friend of the undifferentiated peasant published an article in Pravda entitled "The Philosophy of an Epoch", and a book called simply "Leninism". Said publications and a series of public speeches built around them plundered Lenin's writings for anti-kulak sentiments. Zinoviev's researches managed to come up with such literary and philosophical gems as: "Kulaks are blood-drinkers, vampires and robbers of the people, speculators making profits out of hunger," against whom should be waged "merciless war". Zinoviev went so far as to launch a personal attack on Bukharin, leader of the Right, mentioning him by name, and he also attacked Stalin more obliquely, by attacking Stalin's insistence that it was possible to build "Socialism in One Country" without world-wide revolution — I should stress that the failure of the revolutionary attempts made in western Europe after WWI had still not brought many of the Bolsheviks round to the view that ‘going it alone' was really viable, something which helped Stalin to attack them for defeatist thinking subsequently. As a result of his attack on Stalin, Zinoviev suffered the indignity of having his Pravda article censored.

Bukharin had been the architect of the final series of concessions made to the peasantry under NEP, in January 1925: these were the most radical — they included the right to rent land and the right to hire labour. Shortly afterwards, in April, he went even further, and seemed to have advocated a return to Stolypin's policy! He spoke openly of "the need to remove...the break on the growth of the well-to-do and kulak farm", ending his address with the now infamous slogan: "Enrich yourselves!" After the grain procurement crisis of 1925, Bukharin was made to withdraw the slogan, in November, just before the Party Congress. Bukharin's ‘Wager on the Kulak' now disappears from official pronouncements, and is replaced by references to the need to help ‘the poor and middle peasants' — thereby, perhaps, suggesting hostility to kulaks — and more general injunctions to ‘strengthen the peasant economy'. But the Left Opposition were, in the end, completely routed at the Congress. Zinoviev and Kamenev hardly looked very convincing attacking a position they had been championing a year before, and Kamenev in particular got egg on his face, since he had technically been responsible for the over-optimistic projections on grain procurement. This gave Stalin the pretext he needed to have him dismissed from his post.

But Zinoviev and Kamenev's obvious lack of principle was not the only factor which undermined the Left Opposition's argument. There were also more reasoned objections. A number of speakers challenged the Left's diagnosis of the problem of the 1925 grain procurement as the problem of the ‘kulak speculator'. It was argued, using official statistics, that poor peasants sold 2/3 of their harvests, and were therefore responsible for 21.7% of total grain sales. ‘Middle peasants' were responsible for the biggest slice of the marketed surplus, 48.6%. Kulaks only produced 29.7% in toto. So the eliminating the kulaks wouldn't seem to be sufficient to solve the problem, and couldn't be the root of it. Less well-off peasants were withholding their grain because urban society offered them no real inducement to sell it, because of the shortage of consumer goods etc. Some speakers, following the Chayanovians, also hinted that the existence of wealthy peasants didn't necessarily imply that capitalist class polarisation was really going on in the countryside, or that individual family farming was antithetical to socialism and the development of cooperation. They also drew the attention of the Congress to the way errors in state policy had promoted the growth of the ‘black market' and the dependence of poor and middle peasants on rural usury which seemed to have survived the revolution.

The more principled and rational critics of NEP in the Left Opposition did not, in fact, rest their case on the supposed ‘kulak menace' taken up by Zinoviev. Preobrazhenski's argument was much broader. Let's suppose, he argued, that peasants won't sell their grain because there's nothing for them to buy with their money. Ok, what is to be done? Should the government import the consumer goods we can't yet produce instead of spending what little foreign exchange we have on capital goods needed to make our own industrialisation possible? Perhaps it might be possible to expand consumer goods production later using domestic resources and it was true that increasing peasant consumption would widen the domestic market. But since Russia could not use foreign loans to develop her industries, this approach would be painfully slow — she would be using her surplus, agricultural exports, to finance consumer goods imports, and any domestic industrialisation would have to be based on very low wage levels indeed. The peasants would be holding the cities and workers to ransom, absorbing all the investible surplus that might have gone into improving general living standards for the whole population in the longer term. And socialism would be harder to achieve, because the dominance of the peasantry over Soviet society would reduce the growth of the urban working class. Wouldn't socialism remain an insecure dream, and the revolution face perpetual threats of extinction, until the regime obtained the social base it lacked? Surely, Preobrazhenski reasoned, it would be better to ask everyone, including the peasants, to make sacrifices in consumption in the short to medium term, so that industrialisation could proceed as rapidly as possible, so that everyone would have higher living standards in twenty or thirty years time when these investments bore fruit? The workers could also be asked to forego increases in consumption in order to give priority to heavy industry, so that the growth of domestic capital goods industries would reduce the need for expensive imports, and ensure full industrialisation in the shortest possible time. But the key to success was to make the non-capitalist peasant sector produce food as cheaply as possible in the short term, ‘exploiting' agriculture to extract an investible surplus for national development from it would lead to a better society for everyone. The workers would refuse to make sacrifices if they saw the peasants better-off than themselves, and they'd become even more disenchanted with the Bolshevik regime if they were forced to endure poor living standards for the length of time which would be entailed by making any further concessions to the peasantry. So Preobrazhenski was suggesting that the entire Soviet regime would be threatened by a failure to change course. The dilemmas under discussion here are clearly of wider interest than just the situation in Russia in the 1920s.

Though he criticised, and eventually murdered, Preobrazhenski, Stalin himself did come to appreciate the logic of these arguments in the longer term. The problem with Preobrazhenski's approach was that it specified only a theoretical solution to the dilemmas it identified. It didn't offer the slightest clue as to how the political problem of implementing the new economic policy could be resolved in practice. The peasants were to be offered lower prices and higher taxes. The Bolshevik state had no infrastructure of organisation in place in the countryside to win the ‘hearts and minds' of rural people — it had never really embarked on their politicisation systematically. And we can, I suggest, be fairly confident that there was a substantial cognitive and cultural gap between the average peasant and the average Bolshevik cadre, whose origins would generally be urban, notwithstanding the efforts of the Russian populist intellectuals to work with the peasant communities: Russia was, as we can still see from modern events, characterised by huge regional cultural and historical differences, and still very weakly integrated through state institutions. In any event, everyone knew that Preobrazhenski's plan would have provoked severe resistance in rural areas. Preobrazhenski spoke of ‘persuasion': he was never willing to be drawn on how far he would favour coercion if persuasion failed to work.

The Left Opposition's defeat at the 1925 Congress tended to distract attention from the fact that Bukharin's ascendancy was also on the wane. Already, Stalin's allies were giving subtle hints of a change of course. Molotov, one of Stalin's creatures par excellence, spoke of the need to ‘expel the kulak from those economic and political positions which he still holds in the countryside'. The main Congress resolution committed the Party to establishing a fully socialist society on the basis of ‘State Socialist Industry'. There was even a guarded reference to rural collectivisation. But Stalin remained cautious and ambiguous. The Central Committee in fact reaffirmed Bukharin's concessions on leasing of land and peasant use of hired labour after the Congress. In practice, however, the private sector ceased to grow after 1926. Emphasis on ‘the kulak problem' and ‘injustices suffered by poor peasants' increased in official publications. Stalin continued, however, to attack the Left Opposition, accusing them of being ‘anti-peasant' rather than simply ‘anti-kulak'. He also berated them for an excessive emphasis on industrialisation. This was all typical of Stalin — ‘The Man of the Golden Mean' as Isaac Deutscher termed him. He let the Left go out on a limb and appear extreme, chopped it off, and then took over their policies as his own. In the Spring of 1926, Zinoviev and Kamenev openly allied themselves with Trotsky, and this gave Stalin his chance to discredit them finally. Trotsky was expelled from the Politburo in October, and exiled by the end of 1927. Zinoviev and Kamenev, isolated, recanted. Then and only then did Stalin have the power to turn on Bukharin and the Right, using another grain procurement crisis as his pretext. Bukharin then tried to ally with Kamenev, but it was all too late...

In 1928, Stalin reintroduced coercion into grain requisition — using Cossacks practising the infamous ‘Urals-Siberian' method, i.e. killing people. At first Stalin continued to assert that it was impossible to expropriate ‘the kulak', however hungry the cities became. But even the Urals-Siberian method was proving unequal to the task, and general peasant resistance was mounting — it was clearly not conceivably a conspiracy by kulaks, but something much bigger. The crisis deepened. By 1929, Stalin was openly accusing Bukharin of having advocated capitalist development in the countryside: yet he still talked about ‘individual peasant farming' remaining ‘the predominant system'. By the end of the year, Bukharin had been expelled from the Politburo for ‘splitting the Party' and fostering capitalism, whilst Stalin was liquidating alleged ‘kulaks' physically and imposing collectivisation across Russia by military means in the face of a virtual peasant revolt. The peasants lost.

Though Stalin's methods appalled them, the Left Opposition might, had they lived, have conceded that he had finally resolved the contradictions they had identified: the price of that resolution was that the fundamental contradictions at the heart of the Soviet regime were reinforced: the Party/State machine became even more divorced from the ‘masses' in whose name it ruled.

Chronological Chart

1861 Abolition of Serfdom

1890-1905 Witte's Industrialisation Policy: taxation and unfavourable rural-urban terms of trade. Geo-political motivation. Culmination of rural and urban unrest in 1905 Revolution.

1906-1911 New Agrarian Policy: attack on the Peasant Commune and Stolypin's "Wager on the Strong"

Feb 1917 St. Petersburg Riots. Provisional Government of Kerensky

Oct 1917 Bolshevik seizure of power

Feb 1918 Decree of Land Socialisation. Sovkhozy and Kolkhozy, i.e. state farms and collective (cooperative) farms, declared most favoured options, in that order. Individual peasant holdings "obsolete and transitory". In practice little progress made on reorganising agriculture until 1929: further decline of sovkhoz and kolkhoz under NEP.

1918-1921 WAR COMMUNISM PERIOD. Collapse of rouble in 1919

Feb 1921 Kronstadt Rising/intensification of peasant unrest, riots.

March 1921 10th Congress Party approves NEP. 1921 harvest fails disastrously: 1922 and 1923 harvests good

1923-1924 "Scissors Crisis". Lenin dies January 1924. Triumvirate of Zinoviev, Kamenov and Stalin Preobrazhenski publishes "The Fundamental Law of Socialist Accumulation". Bukharin accuses him of attacking "the worker-peasant alliance". Zinoviev proclaims the slogan: "Face to the Countryside".

Jan 1925 Trotsky resigns as Commissar for War. Stanlin turns on Zinoviev and Kamenev. Bukharin makes further concessions to the peasants under NEP: right to rent land and hire wage labour.

April 1925 "Enrich Yourselves" - Bukharin advocates a Soviet version of the Stolypin policy?

Oct 1925 Zinoviev moves to the left: "Philosophy of an Epoch" and "Leninism" published. Attacks Bukharin, but censored. After grain procurement crisis, Bukharin withdraws "Enrich Yourselves".

Dec 1925 14th Party Congress. Left Opposition defeated, but intimations of change of line on kulaks and priority for industrialization. Kamenev sacked from his post after failure of grain procurement to meet expectations/projections.

March 1926 Zinoviev and Kamenev join Trotsky

Oct 1926 Trotsky expelled from Politburo. Beginning of progressive decay of NEP.

1927 Preparations for first five year plan. Trotsky exiled, Zinoviev and Kamenev, now isolated, recant.

Jan 1928 New grain procurement crisis. Stalin adopts the ‘Urals-Siberian Method' to resolve it, but without total success. Begins attack on Bukharin.

July 1928 Bukharin tries to ally with Kamenev.

Nov 1929 Bukharin expelled from Politburo, accused of "sponsoring capitalist development in agriculture" and "splitting the party".

Dec 1929 General military imposition of Forced Collectivisation. ‘Kulaks' eliminated/encouragement of denunciations within peasant communities/deportations/labour camps. Stalin begins to advocate industrialisation as the first priority, concentrating on the development of Heavy Industry and rapid expansion of the capital stock at the expense of present consumption: "The Soviet Road to Modernisation". (A Soviet version of Witte's pre-revolutionary programme?)

1930 Private trade defined officially as ‘speculation'; hiring labour for private gain declared illegal. Bureaucratic State based on ‘aparachiks' dependent on Stalin consolidated on the basis of destroying the old Bolshevik leadership politically and physically. Military High Command purged on eve of WW2. Unprecedentedly rapid process of industrialisation achieved, but at enormous human cost.

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