Supplement: The birth of a new system

As well as celebrating the Russian Revolution, says Jack Conrad, we should never forget the counterrevolution

‘The victory of the five-year plan is a blow against capitalism’

Every society engages in planning to one degree or another. Our original communist ancestors planned hunting expeditions according to the phase of the moon, the season and the desired game animal; Roman emperors planned the building of ports, aqueducts, roads and temples; feudal kings planned marriage-bed alliances, military campaigns and castle-building programmes. And, alongside the development of monopolies and the expanding role of the state, capitalism became planned capitalism within whole industries, within certain markets and to a degree even across state borders.

But none of these societies can be compared with the Soviet Union. There planning was celebrated as “an objective necessity, an economic law”.1 Indeed the claim was that Marx’s vision of a socialist economy had been realised with the completion of the first five-year plan. A claim that was widely accepted at the time, but which can easily be disproved, if we go to the trouble of examining the prehistory and history of the first five-year plan.*


Starting with 1925, various drafts of a five-year plan were produced by what was then Gosplan’s relatively small staff of economists, accountants, mathematicians and political leaders. There had been advocates of two-year plans, seven-year plans, general plans covering 10-15 years, etc. The five-year period was chosen because it supposedly conformed to the cycle of industrial investment; the cycle of construction for electrical power stations, mainline railways and inland canals; it was also believed that a five-year period would eliminate the effects of cyclical fluctuations in harvest yields, etc. Needless to say, the idea of long-term planning was to direct the various branches of the economy with a view to efficient, coordinated and speedy development.

Initial drafts were a vast but imprecise statistical exercise. However, by 1927, the quality had markedly improved with republics and regions being assigned their own distinct control figures (targets). The state planning committee, Gosplan, also built in a range of variants. At the maximum end, there would be high tempos of growth because of favourable conditions (eg, foreign loans and bumper crops). Such circumstances result in the five-year plan being fulfilled early. At the minimum end, unfavourable circumstances might lead to the five-year plan lasting six or seven years.2

Undoubtedly, Lenin’s first thoughts on the matter of practical planning were inspired by what he had read about Germany’s 1914-18 Kriegwirtschaft (war economy). Germany’s chief of general staff, Paul von Hindenburg, and his deputy, Erich Ludendorff, introduced a series of harsh measures in 1916 designed to double the output of military goods. The Oberster Kriegsamt, or supreme war office, attempted to control and coordinate all aspects of the economy. Eg, more than two million people were forced out of agricultural work and into arms production. Obviously Lenin was impressed. Indeed he devoted a whole chapter of his pamphlet ‘Leftwing’ childishness and the petty bourgeois mentality (April 1918) to Germany. Here, after all, was the “most concrete example of state capitalism” and “the last word” in “modern, large-scale capitalist engineering and planned organisation”.3 Lenin’s intention was for the Soviet regime to preside over a mixed economy, using a combination of binding directives, state purchases, tax incentives, etc. However, that proved impossible because of capitalist sabotage, imperialist intervention and spontaneous takeovers by workers’ factory committees.

Great hopes had been placed in the factory committees. They mushroomed in the spring of 1917 and served brilliantly as organs of revolutionary struggle. Factory committees set up workers’ militias to replace the hated police. The men and women who joined up kept their day jobs and served “according to a rota drawn up by the factory militia commission” (on full pay).4 In April 1917 the Red Guards were established by decision of factory delegates and, of course, they played a vital role in October. But the factory committees were completely inexperienced in management and, having chased out the old directors and technicians, they often had to beg them to return. No less damning, the factory committees took many decisions in “light of the interests of the workers in a particular factory” - that could include selling off plant and stock.5 Wider needs went unseen. This was syndicalism, not socialism, and risked total collapse. Therefore the swift move towards the nationalisation of “every important category of industry” (preceded by the enforced trustification of whole branches of the economy: eg, sugar, oil, railways).6

A crude form of planning was already in place both centrally and regionally, depending on the size and importance of the enterprise. Annual targets were the norm. Overall, though, Soviet Russia “remained fundamentally a market economy”.7 Around 50% of national income was still accounted for by agriculture.8 Even within industry - certainly after the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1922 - relations between enterprises were based on rouble exchanges. And, though there were proposals to include workers and consumers in the running of nationalised enterprises, one-man management soon became a mantra. So, while ownership changed, the workplace hierarchy remained largely unaltered. It should be stressed, therefore, that the planning being pursued in the mid-1920s was far removed from what the Marx-Engels team had envisaged (systematic control from below, the end of money and a society of abundance being taken as a given).


For planning to really be planning, no matter what the society, over time - ie, with repetition - there has to be a strong, positive correlation between initial aims and final results. Certainly when it comes to complex societies, for planning to really be planning there has to be more than the issuing of commands from above. Branches, sectors and units must match up and smoothly move forward together. Eg, to produce additional steel requires an extra quantity of pig iron and coal. To increase the output of coal requires the introduction of new machinery. That machinery requires metal, the production of which requires coal, etc. By the same measure, the installation of new machinery in that mine must see the presence of labour with the requisite skills, the availability of spare parts and regular maintenance. Without that there will be bottlenecks and ever-widening circles of disruption.

Under capitalism the supply of new machinery, raw materials, labour, etc, is normally ensured spontaneously, through the market, through the law of value. This is what gives capitalism its relative coherence. However, at the most elemental level, capitalism is characterised by a disjuncture between production and consumption. Some sellers cannot find buyers. Capital, though, strives for endless expansion. Eventually this must lead to overproduction. Commodities cannot be sold at their value. Surplus value cannot be realised. Production has to be curtailed. Workers find themselves unemployed or on reduced hours. Demand falls. Slumps are therefore predictable (their timing, depth, duration and effect are an altogether different matter). Companies see meticulous global plans, financial projections and marketing strategies torn to shreds by the anarchic workings of the system. Even state plans can go badly awry. On September 16 1992, Black Wednesday, money markets forced the British government to oversee a disorderly withdrawal of the pound sterling from the European Monetary Union - it entailed a £3.4 billion loss to the UK treasury. In short, with capitalism, planning can only but be severely limited.

What about the Soviet Union? Instead of celebrating Gosplan’s initial draft plans as the “mighty historical music of the progress of socialism”, to quote Leon Trotsky,9 it is, perhaps, better, less fanciful, more accurate, to describe them as blueprints for the post-reconstruction period in the Soviet Union. This involved proposals for reshaping existing industry and agriculture, assessing possible input-output ratios, estimating maximum growth rates, locating sources of investment, detailing new factories, etc.10 The dream was of an economy that functioned like a single enterprise. Nepman trade and kulak-dominated agriculture were, however, more than planning nightmares. It is worth noting, in this context, that, while Yevgeni Preobrazhensky sought to achieve “a certain coexistence” between the two economic systems operating in the USSR - ie, the socialist-commodity sector and the petty commodity capitalist sector - he stressed the “antagonistic” nature of these two systems and their “two different economic laws”.11 And having to deal with these two fundamentally incompatible economic systems, unable to count on any meaningful aid from abroad and burdened with notoriously unreliable statistics, Gosplan had to resort to plenty of guesswork, assume a degree of coercion when dealing with the countryside and at the end of the day bank on gallantly muddling through, if its ambitious goals were to be realised.

Death and birth

Still in charge of Comintern and editing Pravda, with allies dominating the trade unions, topping the government, the Moscow party organisation, etc, Nicolai Bukharin castigated the widespread assumption that the fast growth rates notched up during the period of reconstruction that followed the civil war could be taken as the norm. He fired off a series of Aesopian polemics against Trotsky and the “super-industrialisers”. His real target, of course, was Joseph Stalin.

Incidentally, there is no secret as to how the impressive growth rates were achieved during reconstruction. When the production of coal had, for example, been thrown back to a tenth of what it had been prior to World War I, as it had, all that was required to double output in the space of a single year was to repair and put x mines back into operation. But, so argued Bukharin, attempts to maximise the extraction of “tribute” from the countryside, with a view to building innumerable new, gigantic enterprises, risked finally snapping the already strained link with the peasantry. These voracious projects would “give nothing, but take enormous quantities of the means of production … and the means of consumption”.12

Needless to say, Bukharin’s insistence on serving the peasant market, of balanced economic growth between industry and agriculture, etc came under concerted attack. Calls for rapid industrialisation, especially of the production of the means of production, as against going at the pace of the peasant’s nag, grew louder and louder. Stalin came out with a shrewdly worded statement: “in order to preserve and accelerate our present rate of industrial development, in order to ensure an industry for the whole country, in order to raise further the standard of life of the rural population”, temporarily there had to be an “additional tax levied on the peasantry”. Naturally, though, this “additional tax” was going to be paid “in a situation in which the living standards of the peasantry are steadily rising”.13 Stalin could, that way, maintain his centrist image, while simultaneously abandoning his old centrist programme. Yet the fact of the matter was that the economic crisis was getting worse with every day that passed. NEP was about to die. A new society was about to be born.

The 1927 minimum variant of the draft five-year plan proposed only slightly reduced growth rates. In its maximum variant, growth rates were higher - quite considerably so for the last year of the plan. But Gosplan clearly lent in the direction of the minimum variant. The draft called for the development of “industries concerned with national defence” at the fastest possible rate; however, a “moderate approach” to appropriating resources from agriculture was adopted. Indeed Bukharin’s warning against the danger of “excessive” investments in large-scale projects seems to have been recognised: they would tie up huge resources and only come on stream after many years of hugely costly construction.14

The “definitive text” of the first five-year plan came in three hefty volumes: volume one, general outline; volume two, part one, programme for construction and production; part two, social problems, problems of labour, distribution and cultural problems; volume three, regional subdivisions of the plan. Over their 2,000 pages the plan’s objectives were presented in hard, exact figures that had allegedly been carefully calculated, taking into account the manifold interconnections and technical potential of every branch and unit of the Soviet economy.

The projections were certainly impressive. In the maximum variant industrial production was to increase by 179% (the minimum variant was 135%). In line with that trajectory, pig iron was set to reach 10 million tons from a 1928 base of 3.3 million tons; steel was to follow a similar upward curve. Besides defence, particular emphasis was placed on agricultural machinery, chemicals and machine building. There was to be import substitution, when it came to wool, leather and cotton. Proposed investments were accompanied by sources of taxation, credit facilities, production surpluses, etc. Branch by branch, region by region, the authors - chief amongst them being Gleb Krzhizhanovsky, Grigory Grinko, Emanuel Kviring and Stanislav Strumilin - describe known or potential natural resources, the possibility of applying new techniques and obtaining substantial increases in production.

There are general estimates of other necessary balances: eg, the chapter on electric power links coal mines, power stations and projected levels of consumption. In the section on labour there are estimates of the optimal distribution between agriculture and towns, the distribution of workers by branch and a “precise computation of labour productivity by sector”. There is also an assessment of national wealth, national income and its distribution, as well as the rouble flows between the state and the countryside. The market for consumer goods and the supply of production goods are discussed with a view to achieving a sustainable balance. Interestingly, the aims for fuel production were set rather low. Coal output was targeted to go from 35 to 75 million tons and oil from 11.6 to 22 million tons. Somewhat amusingly, coal was favoured over oil: supposedly oil would not have the same importance “as over the last 15 to 20 years”.15

Collectivisation would progress, but with studied caution. By the end of the first five-year plan 12.9 million people were to be organised in kolkhozi and sovkhozi (collective and state farms) out of a total rural population of around 134 million. So individual peasant farms would still account for the great bulk of agricultural production even by the end of 1933. Private trade therefore continues. Moreover, the expansion of industry would not be achieved at the expense of consumption levels. The five-year plan promised to increase living standards by between 77.5% and 85%.16

Doubtless, especially to the untrained eye, the “definitive text” of the first five-year plan appeared well founded, thoroughly researched and exhilaratingly far-reaching. But would it result in efficient, coordinated and speedy development? Serious doubts were raised by a number of prominent economists. Eg, VG Groman and VA Bazarov - the first a former Menshevik, the second, a co-thinker of Alexander Bogdanov. Both occupied responsible positions in Gosplan.** In tandem they warned of bottlenecks, inflation and how rising incomes could not be reconciled with high rates of growth in plant, machinery and overall output. Events were to prove them more than right.

While its maximum variant was surely unfulfillable, conceivably, given favourable conditions, the minimum variant might have been fulfillable. The party’s two principal spokespeople in Gosplan, Krzhizhanovsky and Strumilin, were, implicitly, willing to accept some inflation and coercive measures in the countryside, “for the sake of promoting industrialisation”.17 Secondary problems, such as bottlenecks, could be dealt with as part of the muddling through - provided, one presumes, the minimum variant was adopted.


However, having attained near autocratic status, Stalin ensured that the party’s 16th Conference (April 23-29 1929) and then the 5th Congress of Soviets (May 29 1929) voted unanimously to approve the maximum variant. And he was determined to go still further and still faster. He had the annual plan for 1929-30 drawn up with targets that effectively rode roughshod over even the maximum variant. Catching up with the west had to be achieved in the “shortest possible time”.18 During the course of 1929-31 the leadership relentlessly upped targets in the name of achieving “the maximum capital investment in industry”. One “high tension” figure leapfrogged another till the initial targets were nearly doubled.19 The norms expected from workers followed the same giddy path.

All this was only partially due to impatience. Shortages plagued every sector. Instead of reigning back the pace of development in one sector, in order to bring it into line with another, again and again Stalin urged higher targets in every industry and in every enterprise in the attempt to overcome backlogs. Predictably, this approach of maximising everything without taking into account who was a tortoise and who was a hare added to what became a bewildering confusion. Enterprise managers, including the well connected, responded to the higher targets by, firstly, feeding back exaggerated reports, secondly, reducing the quality of output to a bare minimum and, thirdly, insistently demanding more allocation of raw materials and labour. It was always better to have too much in the way of inputs than just enough. Stalin, we can be sure, knew there were countless lies, but, simultaneously, he needed to accept them in toto if his five-year plan was to be credited as a dazzling success. Gosplan could only have had the vaguest idea of what was really going on. The true state of affairs lay hidden behind a thick smog of fakery contrived at every level. And, of course, any notion of this being an example of rational planning is utterly risible.

Creating absolute pandemonium, collectivisation suddenly appeared as an objective to be directly realised throughout the country. Petty commodity production was to be cut down, minimised, shackled. The kolkhozi and sovkhozi universalised. Stalin drew a parallel with Peter the Great: the tsar whom Alexander Herzen described as a “crowned revolutionary” ruthlessly subordinated the whole of society to his will in the attempt to modernise the Russian state and its armed forces. But, whereas Peter and the “old classes” failed to “break out of the grip of … backwardness”, Stalin was determined to succeed.20 The country would be transformed from above using what he called Bolshevik methods.

Industrialising and collectivising would overcome “external conditions” of being surrounded by technically and militarily more advanced capitalist countries and the “internal conditions” of resentful rural and urban basic producers.21 Through industrialising and collectivising, the Soviet Union would build an unbeatable Red Army. Through industrialising and collectivising, the rural and urban workforce would become disciplined, cultured and their productivity greatly enhanced. Such were Stalin’s stated goals.

The first five-year plan triggered a genuine wave of popular enthusiasm, most notably amongst the younger generation of workers. Each chemical plant, engineering factory or blast furnace opened up was greeted as a victory for human liberation; or, more prosaically, a chance for promotion into the lower ranks of management. The soaring targets, the scientific aura, the promise of national glory appealed to modernising, socialistic and patriotic traditions … and the desire for personal betterment. Whether it be through some misplaced collectivity, or merely individual aspiration, the most ‘advanced’ workers overcame the ‘normal’ intensity of labour. They willingly performed miracles to meet targets.

Others bitterly complained of sweated labour, bad living conditions, inadequate food supplies, pressure to sign up as shock workers and growing managerial privileges. Workers, including former kulaks and other refugees from collectivisation, quietly connived with go-slows, messing up orders and undermining shock brigades. Not infrequently they gained support from rank-and-file communists and Komsomol (Young Communist League) members. And it was these people who often took the lead in escalating actions. There was a short-lived but intense outbreak of wildcat strikes. Textile workers, building workers, engineering workers, miners, dockers and shipyard workers were all involved. In Moscow, Leningrad, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Gorky, Minsk and Odessa strikers from different workplaces joined together in protest marches. In Odessa “a portrait of Lenin” was carried at the “head of the procession”. Bread shortages and bad food were a common cause of complaint. Sometimes the authorities conceded, sometimes strikes were forcibly broken, sometimes ringleaders were arrested and disappeared.22

Strikes were as much against the trade union secretary as against the enterprise director. Over the course of the first five-year plan, trade unions became ever more an arm of management. The idea of trade unions defending workers against a so-called workers’ state was denounced as a petty bourgeois deviation. And, to ensure that trade unions did not defend workers, draconian legislation, resolutions and other such measures followed. Trade unions lost any right to have a say over the appointment of personnel (February 2 1929); management was given powers to punish or dismiss workers without consulting trade unions (March 6 1929); the Central Trade Union Council ordered local branches to respect the right of managers to exercise full and unfettered control (March 17 1929); the Central Trade Union Council resolved that it would not defend workers’ rights in the courts (March 26 1929); etc, etc.23 Within the enterprise, the director was expected to exercise supreme power and set pay rates without the least reference to the trade unions. Piece-work individualised labour, reduced productivity, prematurely wore out machines and increased accidents. But it discouraged any tendency of workers looking towards collective solutions to their problems. By the mid-1930s the workforce “had been both reconstituted and politically broken”.24


As already mentioned, Bukharin responded to the first stirrings of the ‘second revolution’ cryptically, with renewed criticisms of Trotskyist “super-industrialising”. Not surprisingly, this line of attack suited Stalin perfectly. Bukharin’s polemics both missed their intended target and secured Stalin talented allies from amongst the conciliationist wing of the left opposition - Preobrazhensky, Radek and Pyatakov among many others. The living dead. Stalin could afford to treat them with contempt. If Bukharin ever seriously had a right-left bloc in mind, he played his hand with an extraordinary lack of skill. Firing at the left, and not directly at the Stalinites, ensured that the rapprochement Bukharin seemingly attempted with Lev Kamenev came to nothing. It also assisted Stalin in another way. He agreed that there needed to be a struggle against the left. But, stating the obvious, it had been very much weakened due to his efforts. However, with food shortages in the towns and turmoil in the countryside being blamed on the kulaks, Stalin could, quite logically, claim that the main danger now came from the right.

Bukharin, therefore, found himself completely outmanoeuvred. NEP had reached its limits. Yet the right had no genuine alternative except, maybe, constituting the Nepmen and kulaks as a political base and offering the apparatus the prospect of becoming full-blown capitalists. At the time such a programme probably lacked any traction. The apparatus was committed to socialism … albeit socialism in one country. That included Bukharin (as evidenced by his Philosophical Arabesques written in 1937, when he languished in the dungeons of the Lubyanka25). The restoration of capitalism, by the apparatus for the apparatus, while it flowed from the right’s overall approach, was, at the time, both unsayable and unthinkable.

No less to the point. Stalin controlled the apparatus. The positions occupied by Bukharin and his allies, even those supposedly at the very apex of power, could be attacked from the middle and below, with the full blessing and connivance of the real apex: ie, the general secretary. Stalin began with denunciations of anonymous rightists, in the press, in the trade unions, in party meetings. Subordinates in Comintern, the trade unions and Moscow duly rebelled. Stage-managed meetings, resolutions and exposures were then used to undermine, demote or remove. The whole exercise was deftly orchestrated from Stalin’s office. Rumours of an armed rightist plot followed. Arrests were made by the GPU secret police.

Stalin’s coup de grâce came in January 1929. Despite impassioned, tearful objections from Bukharin, Tomsky and Rykov, the politburo agreed to Trotsky’s deportation. He was to be exiled in Kemal Atatürk’s Turkey in order to end his “counterrevolutionary activities”.26 Almost immediately afterwards, so-called left oppositionists handed out leaflets in Moscow. They, conveniently, reproduced the text of the conversation between Bukharin and Kamenev from July 1928. A provocation surely directed by Stalin. The GPU had, after all “an extensive network of agents among the oppositionists”.27 Whatever the truth, Stalin got what he wanted. Bukharin and the right could be accused of factionalism, with people now officially branded counterrevolutionaries.

It was not only the right that was politically neutered. The ruling party which had previously functioned - albeit to a diminishing degree - as a political organisation, with debate, with majorities and with minorities, was remade into a rigidly hierarchical structure similar to a military institution.

Planless plan

In February 1931, Stalin talked of fulfilling the five-year plan in “the basic, decisive branches of industry”, not in four, but in “three years”.28 This was the same speech where he issued his famous justification: “We are 50 or 100 years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in 10 years. Either we do so, or we shall go under.”29 Alec Nove, obligingly, half apologetically, adds the obvious, but highly charged, fact that “1941 was 10 years away”.30

Stalin might well have had a premonition of the coming war. Certainly, by demanding the maximising of output in every branch, in every enterprise, the economy was shunted forward. But it could only but be in a chaotic manner. For instance, the target for oil production was supposedly reached in two and a half years. Naturally this was cause of much official rejoicing. But it completely disrupted and overwhelmed auxiliary sectors. Storage, refining and transport facilities failed to achieve the pace of growth needed to adequately handle the premature triumph. Such unevenness is, of course, the very antithesis of planning. Obviously, no coordination existed between what were closely related branches of the economy. And, while oil that cannot be refined and transported had plan-value, it had no use-value.

Where in the petroleum industry there was a discrepancy between output and the facilities needed to handle it, in engineering there was a discrepancy between output and the raw material and labour inputs. The plan was fulfilled in three years and output increased fourfold. Yet steel production fell short by some 40%. How machine tools, pumps, turbines, etc, were built without the planned inputs of steel is probably explained by extravagant managerial lies, the very low base level in this sector and the ability of enterprises to circumvent the plan by unofficially obtaining scarce raw materials and labour - thus denying others. Hence, whereas spontaneity gives capitalism a certain coherence, in the Soviet Union spontaneity could only but drain any coherence there might otherwise have been.

The plan was, in other words, inherently planless. This salient fact was recognised at the time by a number of observers. Amongst them were the left Mensheviks Aaron Yugov, Solomon Schwartz, O Domenevskya, Fedor Dan and Yu Braginskaya organised around the émigré journal Sotsialisticheski Vestnik (Socialist Herald). Braginskaya insisted that the projected growth of the Soviet economy in general, but especially in areas such as machinery and construction, could not be sustained by the iron and steel industry. The execution of the plan “has hardly been sinned against by being overly well thought out”, she damningly wrote.31 Existing capacities and potential had been wilfully ignored. There was no organic interconnection between all branches of industry and all stages of development. Gosplan simply decreed the maximum growth of each industry. But overfulfilment in one sector resulted in underfulfilment in another sector. The economy was therefore liable to fly apart at any moment.

Christian Rakovsky, one of Trotsky’s co-thinkers, shared much of this critique. He too pictured the first five-year plan as planless:

Today they increase the programme for coal and iron to make it possible to fulfil the programme for machine building; tomorrow it will be necessary to expand the programme for machine building to make it possible to fulfil the enlarged programme for coal and iron, in order to guarantee the new programme for machine building. In the midst of this spiral it suddenly turns out that it is posing tasks for transport that transport will not be able to cope with, unless the latter receives an appropriate supply of iron and steel - and so the programme for coal and iron is boosted again and the circle begins anew. Hence the exaggerated tempos, the exaggerated figures, the exaggerated plans, which collapse as soon as they come into touch with reality.32

Rakovsky - along with Bukharin and the Sotsialisticheski Vestnik Mensheviks - thought that the attempt to overcome the underaccumulation of the means of production (ie, Russia’s historic backwardness) in the shortest possible time by maximising the development of every sector, every branch, every unit in department A, had to result in an unsustainable unevenness. A crisis of disproportionality was therefore inevitable. Eg, the construction of a new iron and steel complex requires reliable transport facilities and the delivery of cranes, electric cable, steel girders, concrete, bricks, furnace parts, boilers, etc. But if there are constant transport delays and constant shortfalls in the production of component parts, the new iron and steel complex will never be completed. The projected iron and steel complexes, chemical plants and engineering factories of the first five-year plan were, therefore, follies, destined to slowly fall into ruin like the pyramids of ancient Egypt. So reasoned Rakovsky, Bukharin and the Sotsialisticheski Vestnik Mensheviks.

Obviously, a mistaken prediction. By the late 1930s these follies were successfully churning out steel, artificial fertilisers, tractors and tanks. Nevertheless, the gigantic projects tied up enormous resources … and the problem of delayed construction became a permanent feature of the Soviet economy.

And, even with the deliveries of steel, artificial fertilisers, tractors and tanks, shortages remained chronic. As Tajar Zavalani observed - he had first-hand experience of the Soviet Union during the first five-year plan - the only way the authorities could cope with the mayhem they had created was “to improvise, to waste precious materials and leave other things undone”.33 The regime was compelled to cut across its own chains of command and impose its own priorities to make sure what was absolutely critical got done. The armed forces, key construction projects, strategically important enterprises had to be granted privileged status.


The results of the first five-year plan were in comparative terms unarguably impressive - the rest of the world had been sent reeling by the great crash. In the leading capitalist countries industrial production fell by 10%-50%, while in the Soviet Union it officially doubled. At the end of 1932 Pravda triumphantly announced that the five-year plan had been fulfilled in four and a quarter years. In 51 months, it was claimed, the gross output of Soviet industry leapt from 15.7 to 34.3 billion roubles - 93.7% of the planned target for the five-year period. The minor shortfall being due to foreign provocations and the necessity of devoting more resources than expected to the armed forces (1932 witnessed the beginning of a series of border clashes with imperial Japan in Manchuria that only ended in 1939).

However, in the “main link” - ie, “heavy industry” - there was overfulfilment, boasted Stalin.34 He admitted that developing heavy industry involved enormous investments of raw materials and labour-power. But, he claimed, the party - ie, himself - had “declared frankly that this would call for serious sacrifices, and that it was our duty openly and consciously to make these sacrifices if we wanted to achieve our goal”.35 Put another way, the promise to increase living standards by between 77.5% and 85% proved to be a cruel hoax.

Nowadays, there is no serious doubt that official claims about the first five-year plan were absurdly exaggerated. Recomputations by western experts, even in the 1940s, reveal much lower increases. Their estimates for growth in the USSR’s national income between 1928 and 1937 - ie, two five-year plans - vary from between 33%, 64% and 74% (the discrepancy largely resulting from the use of US 1925-34 prices, US 1940 prices or real 1926-27 Soviet prices as statistical weights).36 Nevertheless, even allowing for rouble inflation and the gross inaccuracy of Soviet figures, the production of waste and the effective destruction of the statistically invisible, but economically significant, handicraft, small workshop and domestic sectors, a “great deal was achieved”.37 The engineering works of Moscow and Leningrad were comprehensively updated with the purchase and installation of foreign technology, the giant Dnieper hydroelectric dam started to generate electricity, the Magnitogorsk iron and steel complex rose vast from nothing, and, all in all, a total 1,500 new factories and other industrial enterprises were put into operation. Albeit at enormous cost in terms of resources and labour-power, the Soviet Union was being modernised.


As already mentioned, the aim of “total” collectivisation was absent from the “definitive text” of the first five-year plan. Events forced Stalin’s hand. The industrialisation drive, by its very chaotic nature, precipitated a goods famine and, as its speed was relentlessly upped month by month, runaway inflation punctured the value of the rouble. The real worth of the fixed price paid for agricultural products sunk below the cost of production. If there had been something to buy, the peasants still might have gone to market. But there was not. Hence the state’s options effectively closed. Higher real agricultural prices would divert - maybe halt - industrialisation, and reassert the peasants’ bargaining power with a vengeance. Extraordinary measures - ie, forced grain requisitions - inevitably resulted in a sowing strike and diminishing returns. Stalin, following the line of least resistance, had to go for “total” collectivisation.

On January 5 1930 a decree was issued to all rural organisations, instructing them to “lead the spontaneous growth” of collectivisation. An obvious euphemism. Behind the facade of voluntary union there was brute force and untold human suffering. The real history of collectivisation was written not by Stalin’s propagandists, but harassed regional and local officials. Their bland reports bear truthful, though unintended, witness to the saturnalia of confiscations, the arbitrary arrests, the savage treatment of kulak families, the torture, the starvation, the emaciated feral children, the batches of executions and the all-round dehumanisation.38

In the 13th century Genghis Khan and his immediate successors - Ögedei Khan and Batu Khan - laid waste to ‘old Rus’. In the 1930s Stalin did the same to the new Russia. He unleashed a ‘silent’ civil war on the countryside. Orders were issued demanding the liquidation of the kulaks - an altogether vague category - as a class. Eg, a hard-working, former hero of the Red Army, could easily find himself branded as a blood-sucking kulak. Not surprisingly there was widespread resistance. Anyone deemed to be a kulak was to have their property expropriated. Everything was to be taken. By quota 63,000 were shot or imprisoned, 150,000 exiled to remote regions like Siberia. The rest were to be forcibly moved out from kolkhoz land.39 Perhaps 1.5 million people were affected, among them so-called ‘ideological’ kulaks: ie, those middle or poor peasants who opposed collectivisation. Family relationships, dependency relationships, friendship ties, hatred of local communist officials, loyalty to the Orthodox church meant that were many potential kulaks.

Numerous protest demonstrations and revolts occurred - including the babski bunty ‘women’s rebellions’.40 Daring local Communist Party members, Komsomol members, soviet officials and militiamen to attack them, they scored numerous, albeit fleeting, successes. Horses, grain and other property was regained. In Siberia, the North Caucuses, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldavia and the Crimea peasant revolts assumed near civil war proportions. Red Army regulars, GPU troops, militia units and even military aircraft had to be used to suppress them. These revolts involved not only kulaks, but middle and poor peasants too. Amongst their leaders were serving militia lieutenants and former Red Army officers.

Though at the cost of many thousands of peasants’ lives, Stalin was forced to retreat. He issued his famous ‘Dizzy with success’ speech in Pravda (March 2 1930). Cadres were blamed for being carried away and using excessive force. But while low-quality and marginal land was once again divided into individual holdings, there was the promise to return to the offensive. Agriculture would be totally collectivised and kulak resistance finally broken. By 1932 that promise had been delivered.

When it came to agriculture, therefore, Stalin deviously tried to shift the focus. Instead of output, instead of surplus product, instead of improved productivity, he reported that the first five-year plan had been fulfilled “three times over”. Now there were 200,000 collective and 5,000 state farms. Far above the original five-year plan target … and this went hand in hand with the “routing of the kulaks as a class”.41 Imagine a newly hired journalist being told to do a 1,000-word piece on a vital vote by lawmakers and then two days early, before the debate opened, turning in 3,000, utterly confused, words. They proudly boast that the assignment had been fulfilled “three times over”. Such a talent would likely find themselves promptly escorted from the building by security. But Stalin was, in effect, both editor … and in charge of security.

Collectivisation had nothing to do with civilising, let alone socialising agriculture. Robert Conquest is quite right when he says that the “idea of smoothly planned progress was quite inapplicable”.42 Collectivisation was carried through barbarically and resulted in agriculture being hurled backwards, not least by the peasants’ gluttonous attempt to retain what was theirs. Mikhail Sholokov’s ‘socialist-realist’ novel Virgin soil upturned (1932 and 1960) vividly conveys the orgy of eating that accompanied collectivisation:

Not only those who had joined the collective farm, but individual farmers also slaughtered. They killed oxen, sheep, pigs, even cows; they slaughtered animals kept for breeding. In two nights the horned cattle of Gremyachy were reduced to half their number. The dogs began to drag entrails and guts about the village, the cellars and granaries were filled with meat. In two days the cooperative shop sold some 200 pounds of salt which had been lying in the warehouse for 18 months. “Kill, it’s not ours now!” “Kill, they’ll take it for the meat collection tax if you don’t.” “Kill, for you won’t taste meat in the collective farm.” The insidious rumours crept around. And they killed. They ate until they were unable to move. Everybody, from the youngest to the oldest, suffered with stomach-ache. At dinner-time the tables groaned under the weight of boiled and roasted meat. At dinner-time everybody had a greasy mouth, everybody belched as though they had been at a funeral repast in memory of the dead. And all were owlish with the intoxication of eating.43

Even when the butchery finally stopped the collectives were lacking in the expertise necessary for handling what little livestock remained. Neither the peasants nor the mobilised workers sent from the towns had been prepared or resourced for the technical consequences of collectivisation. Tending two or three cows was within the grasp of any half-competent peasant. Milking, feeding, sheltering and reproducing herds of 200 or 300 was an entirely different matter. Not surprisingly many animals “died from neglect”.44 The net result was that between 1928 and 1932 the number of cattle fell from 70.5 to 38.4 million, pigs from 26 to 11.6 million and sheep and goats from 146.7 to 52.1 million. Shortages of draft horses, due to slaughter and lack of fodder, the absence of tractors to replace them and sheer ignorance also disastrously reduced the grain harvest to below 70 million tons between 1931 and 1935.

True, the grain possessed the same colour, same weight and same size as before. However, a new “social soul” entered its body.45 Grain had been cultivated on a mass of tiny, independent farms. Now it was cultivated under the direction of a kolkhoz chairman, a kolkhoz party secretary, a kolkhoz agronomist and a kolkhoz accountant. Once the grain belonged to the individual peasant. Now it no longer belonged to them. And, despite the poor harvests, given urban expansion and the need to fulfil export contracts, state procurements followed an upward trajectory. *** Workers ate much less meat, but those in the countryside ate much less of everything, to the point where in the catastrophic years 1932-3 starvation took many lives. Michael Ellman gives a figure of five million.46 Robert Conquest quotes Soviet sources in 1988, which claim that the “deaths in the terror-famine cannot have been lower than six to seven million”.47 Here was the human cost of Stalin’s voluntary collectivisation.

It is worth quoting Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs. A member of Stalin’s inner-circle, and his effective successor, Khrushchev reckoned he had “no idea” how bad “things were” during the period of collectivisation.48 Unbelievable. The surely less well informed correspondent of the New York Evening Post, Hubert Nickerbocker, could pun at the time: “The plan is a method for Russia to ‘starve itself great’.”49 And there can be no doubt that it took some considerable time for Soviet agriculture to recover in absolute terms from the catastrophe of collectivisation. Indeed, when it came to agriculture, the Soviet Union remained hopelessly inefficient right through till Gorbachev and the fall in 1991. Despite that, peasants would never again engage in economic blackmail. Because of collectivisation, grain strikes, sowing strikes, etc were now impossible - and surely that, for Stalin, is what counted.

The kolkhoz robbed the peasants of their economic independence. The kolkhoz chair treated general meetings as a rubber stamp and acted to all intents and purposes in a manner little different from the old pomeshchik (landlord). In public the peasants held him in the greatest respect, if not awe. They would approach the kolkhoz chair cap in hand.50 Of course, the kolkhoz chair had no property rights. He was an agent of the state. He could be replaced at any moment, for any reason. So, unlike the post-1906 capitalist farmers of tsarist Russia, the kolkhoz chair was under no compulsion to cut costs, experiment with new crops, introduce innovative machinery or new forms of labour organisation. The main quality that distinguished the kolkhoz chair was conformity and being seen to implement directives coming from above.


Controversy has raged over whether or not, or to what degree, agriculture provided the surplus product necessary for primary accumulation. Agriculture, according to Alec Nove, “made a decisive contribution to the financing of the plan”.51 Standard Soviet historiography also claims that a “substantial contribution to industrialisation was made by the Soviet countryside”.52

Tony Cliff seems to hold a more nuanced view: “Collectivisation has resulted in the freeing of agricultural products for the needs of industrial development, the ‘freeing’ of the peasantry from the means of production, the transformation of a section of them into reserves of labour-power for industry, and the transformation of the rest into part-workers, part-peasants, part-serfs.”53 Because of collectivisation and the dramatic fall in the numbers of cattle, pigs and horses there was more grain, cabbage and potatoes available to deliver to the towns (there were fewer animals to feed and the peasants were allowed to go hungry).

Yet, whether or not this represented a net transfer of surpluses from agriculture to industry for purposes of primary accumulation is open to serious question. Some researchers argue that agriculture, as a source of surplus, declined in relative and maybe absolute terms. Eg, in 1928 “agriculture contributed 54% of accumulation for industrial growth, but in 1933 the figure dropped to 25%”.54 The US expert, James R Millar, believes that collectivisation was actually counterproductive and became a drain on industry and industrialisation.55 He largely bases himself on the Soviet researcher, AA Barsov - who, understandably, using official statistics, argues that there was a slight reduction in unequal exchange (probably higher in 1913 and 1928 than in the late 1930s).56 An assessment echoed by Robert Conquest.57 In other words, agriculture could well have received “tribute” from industry.

Often the whole issue revolves around the problem of calculation - eg, there was a huge divergence between the roubles the kolkhoz received from the state and the roubles kolkhoz members could gain on the free market. What is beyond doubt, though, is that peasants were subjected to a regime of often lethal exploitation, while producing less. True, when it came to deliveries of grain, cabbage and potatoes, there was an increase, but this hardly covers the increase in surplus product necessary for industrialisation. Unless the cities were to starve too, the state had to divert considerable resources to the countryside. Extensive agriculture requires tractors, combine harvesters and artificial fertilisers from industry. Because of the politically motivated rush to total collectivisation such means of production were largely absent during the first five-year plan. They were, though, with the second five-year plan, supplied, and on a substantial scale. Hence, the state eventually presided over a slow, but steady rise in agricultural production. However, results were always disappointing.

When it comes to primary accumulation, Ellman rightly emphasises the role of coercion, not the manipulation of prices, along with, of course, the “fall in urban real wages”.58 Force became a prime economic mechanism. Force atomised the industrial workforce, force expropriated the kulaks, force enrolled the peasants into kolkhozi, force supplied the gulag system with its human inputs and force made them work. And, yes, real wages in the first five-year plan may well have fallen by some 50%. True, overall, urban living standards did not decline by anywhere near the same degree. That was due to the ending of unemployment, social provisions, managerial connivance, etc.

Dekulakisation and collectivisation certainly provided for a much expanded workforce. Former kulaks were vital for projects such as Magnitogorsk and millions of others made their way to the towns ‘voluntarily’. They preferred speed-ups, low wages and crowded living conditions in industry to hunger and starvation in the countryside. In the course of the first five-year plan the number of registered workers shot up from 11.3 to 22.8 million. The urban population reached nearly 40 million (compared with the projected 32.5 million). Here, in the simultaneous fall in average living standards and the huge increase in the absolute number of workers made available by collectivisation, we surely find the main source of primary bureaucratic accumulation. Hence, industry “developed chiefly on the basis of its own resources”.59 Stalin’s plagiarised version of Preobrazhensky, and his programme of unequal exchange between agriculture and industry, resolves itself into exploitation within industry.

Expectations of radically boosting productivity failed to materialise. That despite the initial enthusiasm for the first five-year plan, the shock brigades, production communes and socialist competition. When the new plant and machinery came on stream, productivity did rise. But it is clear that the surplus needed for primary accumulation came mainly from squeezing the living standards of urban industrial workers. The figures speak for themselves. Eg, the proportion of national income devoted to accumulation rose in 1928 from “19.4% to 30.3% in 1932”.60 Longer term, estimates of total private consumption in 1952-53 show a rise of between 22% and 31% from the base year of 1928. An extremely modest increase. Yet over the same period what was available for the state, including for accumulation, grew by some 11 or 13 times over.61

True, a sizable chunk of the initial workforce had before it the prospect of promotion into the new intelligentsia of technicians and administrators - during the first five-year plan more than 100,000 party members entered higher education.62 A privileged stratum, which was not going to oppose the uninterrupted five-day week nor reductions in the real wages of unskilled workers. New workers (mainly former peasants, women and youth), they were in no position to collectively resist - draconian laws, police spies and the threat of the gulag saw to that. Hence, as Stalin’s triumphal world of target values went from one new high to another, their world descended into hardship, rightlessness and fear. Desperate, they trekked from job to job in search of better pay and conditions and doubtless, as part of establishing negative workers’ control, imposed nod-and-wink go-slows and from there progressed to sabotaging machines and inflicting punishment beatings on snitches, norm-busters and uncooperative foremen. Stalin responded by introducing yet still further legislation: workers were forbidden to change jobs without permission (1930). Absenteeism became a criminal offence (1932). Internal passports for industrial and transport workers were introduced (1932) and then for all workers (1938). Workers were meant to show their labour book when applying for a new job. And the legislation became ever more draconian.

The first five-year plan was clearly a historic turning point. Relations of production and relations of distribution became relations of exploitation. Members of the apparatus came to expect luxuries, they were supplied with servants, their apartments were spacious and well-furnished. Meanwhile, the living standards of ordinary workers and collective farmers were uniformly low. Legally the full might of the state was turned against them. Workers were re-enslaved. Collective farmers were re-enserfed. The position of women, national minorities and young people underwent a pronounced retrogression too. Perhaps Stalin really did believe that the first five-year plan would take the Soviet Union in the direction of communism. But objectively his ‘second revolution’ was a counterrevolution within the revolution.

And, of course, confounding the ideologues of the Soviet Union being a form of state capitalism - not in the Lenin-Zinoviev sense of working class rule over capitalist relations of production - this counterrevolution against the masses went hand in hand with the final uprooting of capitalism. Not the transformation of the bureaucracy into a “ruling class” that sought to “accumulate capital” as quickly as possible.63 Yes, in Soviet textbooks investment in plant and machinery was often called “capital”.64 Stalin did the same. But there was no “capital” in the Marxist sense of self-expanding value. The law of value did not drive the inner-workings of the system. Nor were other categories of capitalism operating as determinants. Most products were just that: they were not commodities. Nor did labour-power appear as a generalised commodity. The rouble was not money. Exchange took place via Gosplan’s allocations, targets and unofficial barter arrangements. The market became a mere vestige.

In the 1930s its main human representatives, the Nepmen and kulaks, were liquidated as a class. Stalin had, of course, already coined his ‘Marxist’ justification for inflicting ever further violence on society: the “intensification of the class struggle” under socialism. Because these “capitalist elements” were in decline, they supposedly increased their “resistance”.65 Here was the ideological justification for the purges to come.


*What we have here, in this Weekly Worker supplement, is part of a much bigger study of the Soviet Union. In fact, at the moment, it is chapter 32. I have done my best to edit it so that it reads as a coherent whole. Nevertheless, the reader is assumed to have some basic knowledge of the Soviet Union, its history, its institutions, its leading personalities and its economic categories.

** Vladimir Groman apparently retained his allegiance to Menshevism, but in the 1920s collaborated closely with the Bolshevik regime. He regularly contributed to the journal Ekonomicheskaya Zhizn and in 1928 was appointed chair of Gosplan’s internal economy section. Vladimir Bazarov worked on planning theory and methodology with a view to answering that most fundamental of questions in Marxist political economy: how to ensure the victory of socialism over capitalism? His conclusions were edited up into a book, Capitalist cycles and the economic restoration process in the USSR (1927). See N Jasny The Soviet economists of the twenties Cambridge 1972.

*** The plan demanded a 40% increase in the value of exports, including exports of grain, in order to pay for imports of foreign machinery. However, there was a big problem. The world economic crisis resulted in a precipitous fall in basic commodity prices. Hence to keep its imports up to plan requirements the Soviet Union would have had to increase the volume of exports by 57%. That proved impossible. Imports could only be increased by 35%. The foreign correspondent of the New York Evening Post reported that “many factories in the Soviet Union failed to receive important orders because imports had lacked coming up to plan by 5%” and that the export drive meant that “there was still less for the population to eat, wear and use” (HR Nickerbocker The Soviet five-year plan and its effect on world trade London 1931, p192). Perceptively this US bourgeois stressed that under Stalin’s plan “it is the state that is to become at once more powerful, not the population that is to become better fed, clothed, more comfortable and happy ... Power for the state has become an end in itself under the five-year plan” (Ibid p236).


1. GA Kozlov (ed) Political economy: socialism Moscow 1977, p98.

2. See E Zaleski Planning for economic growth in the Soviet Union, 1918-1932 Chapel Hill CA 1971, pp50-73.

3. VI Lenin CW Vol 27, Moscow 1977, p339.

4. See SA Smith Red Petrograd Cambridge 1983, p99.

5. EH Carr The Bolshevik revolution Vol 2, Harmondsworth 1976, p78.

6. Ibid p104.

7. EH Carr and RW Davies Foundations of a planned economy Vol 1, Harmondsworth 1974, p835.

8. See A Markevich and M Harrison:, p6.

9. L Trotsky The challenge of the Left Opposition 1923-25 New York 1975, p324.

10. EH Carr and RW Davies Foundations of a planned economy Vol 1, Harmondsworth 1974, p893ff.

11. EA Preobrazhensky The new economics Oxford 1965, p138.

12. SF Cohen Bukharin and the Bolshevik revolution New York 1971, p302.

13. JV Stalin SW Vol 11, Moscow 1954, pp167, 169.

14. E Zaleski Planning for economic growth in the Soviet Union, 1918-1932 Chapel Hill CA 1971, p56.

15. Ibid p60.

16. See ibid p61.

17. Ibid pp69-70.

18. JV Stalin SW Vol 13, Moscow 1955, p41.

19. Ibid Vol 11, p256.

20. Ibid Vol 11, p258.

21. Ibid Vol 11, pp262-63.

22. See D Filtzer Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialisation London 1986, pp81-87.

23. M Reiman The birth of Stalinism London 1978, p110.

24. D Filtzer Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialisation London 1986, p102.

25. N Bukharin Philosophical Arabesques Delhi 2007.

26. I Deutscher The prophet unarmed Oxford 1982, p468.

27. M Reiman The birth of Stalinism London 1978, p100.

28. JV Stalin SW Vol 13, Moscow 1953, p32.

29. Ibid p41.

30. A Nove An economic history of the USSR Harmondsworth 1982, p189.

31. Quoted in D Filtzer Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization London 1986, p40.

32. C Rakovsky, ‘The five year-plan in crisis’ Critique No13, 1981, pp48-49.

33. T Zavalani How strong is Russia? London 1951, p15.

34. JV Stalin SW Vol 13, Moscow 1953, p177.

35. Ibid p178.

36. See N Jasny The Soviet 1956 statistical handbook Michigan 1957, p32.

37. A Nove An economic history of the USSR Harmondsworth 1982, p194.

38. In July 1941 the invading German army captured the archives of the Smolensk oblast (area) Communist Party. Consisting of 536 files and totalling about 200,000 pages of documents, they were eventually seized by the US army. The archives cover the period 1917-38 and include reports from local party committee meetings, central committee directives, letters of complaint from ordinary Soviet citizens, party purges, the financing of state farms, Komsomol activities and the collectivisation drive (see M Fainsod Smolensk under Soviet rule New York 1958). Besides this material there are the surprisingly frank accounts carried in the regional Soviet press. And then, of course, there is the work of post-1991 historians who have been given access to the Moscow archives (see The Russian Review Vol 61, No1, January 2002).

39. R Conquest The harvest of sorrow London 1986, pp120-21.

40. Ibid p157.

41. JV Stalin SW Vol 13, Moscow 1953, pp193-94.

42. R Conquest The great terror - a reassessment London 1990, p20.

43. M Sholokov Virgin soil upturned Harmondsworth 1977, pp127-28.

44. A Nove An economic history of the USSR Harmondsworth 1982, p174.

45. K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1970, p746.

46. See M Ellman Socialist planning Cambridge 1989, p106n.

47. R Conquest The great terror - a reassessment London 1988, p20.

48. N Khrushchev Khrushchev remembers London 1971, p58.

49. HR Nickerbocker The Soviet five-year plan and its effect on world trade London 1931, p240.

50. See G Guroff and FV Carstensen (eds) Entrepreneurship in Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union Princeton NJ 1981, p267.

51. A Nove An economic history of the USSR Harmondsworth 1982, p212.

52. Istoriya sotsialisticheskoi ekonomiki SSSR Vol 3, Moscow 1977; quoted in Socialism: theory and practice April 1979.

53. T Cliff State capitalism in Russia London 1974, p54.

54. Ibid.

55. See JR Miller SovietStudies July 1970 and SlavicReview December 1974.


57. R Conquest The harvest of sorrow London 1986, pp170-71.

58. Ellman Socialist planning Cambridge 1989, p107.

59. Ibid.

60. A Nove An economic history of the USSR Harmondsworth 1982, p196.

61. See N Jasny The Soviet 1956 statistical handbook Michigan 1957, p43.

62. See S Fitzpatrick Education and social mobility in the Soviet Union 1921-34 Cambridge 1979, p187.

63. T Cliff State capitalism in Russia London 1974, pp153-54.

64. GA Kozlov (ed) Political economy: socialism Moscow 1977, p98.

65. JV Stalin SW Vol 12 Moscow 1953, p37.