Varvara Stepanova ‘The results of the first five-year plan’ 1932 (State Museum of Contemporary Russian History, Moscow). That was the revolutionary dream. The reality was counterrevolution within the

First plan backgrounds

Planning and socialism are synonymous. However, as Jack Conrad argues in a two-part article, there is planning and planning. The Soviet Union’s first five-year plan owed more to chaos than plan

There are still those unfortunate souls who look back fondly on the Soviet Union’s first five-year plan.1 The idea being that the economic growth piled on after 1928 proved, beyond a shadow of doubt, the superiority of socialism over capitalism and carried with it the promise that, if emulated, such planning would deliver material “superabundance” across the whole globe.2 Aaron Bastani, Nick Srnicek, Alex Williams and the other accelerationists are just the latest variants on this Promethean (ie, productionist) theme.3

Admittedly, every society engages in planning. Our original communist ancestors planned hunting expeditions according to the phases of the moon and the seasons; Chinese emperors planned roads, palaces, cities, canals, ports and treasure fleets; feudal kings planned royal tours, military campaigns, castle building and marriage-bed alliances.

However, none of these societies remotely compare with the Soviet Union. There planning assumed the proportions of an official cult - celebrated for lifting the country out of poverty, delivering miraculous growth rates and providing the wherewithal needed to defeat the Nazi war machine and, going on from there, the guarantee of overtaking the west. Five-year plans came with congress reports, resolutions, workplace meetings, poems, songs and festivities. Each enterprise had its plan and every worker their planned target. General secretaries and prime ministers promised that full socialism - communism itself - was inevitable with the ‘planned economy’.

Yet, as we know, especially from our present-day historical vantage point, nothing could be further from the truth. The first five-year plan re-enslaved workers, re-enserfed peasants, consolidated a self-serving bureaucratic elite and locked the Soviet Union on a course of development that did, and had to, eventually grind to a halt in stagnation. Such were its laws of motion. The final collapse happening in December 1991 with only farcical resistance mounted.

In short, the first five-year plan was neither the vindication of socialism, as celebrated by Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky alike, nor the birth of what Tony Cliff saw as the highest stage of class society prior to socialism, ie, bureaucratic state capitalism. No, in actual fact, the five year-plan was the triumph of counterrevolution within the revolution and the beginnings of an unsustainable, ectopic, social formation.


Undoubtedly, Lenin’s first thoughts on the matter of practical planning were inspired by what he had read about Germany’s 1916-18 Kriegssozialismus (war socialism). After failing to secure a lightening victory over France - the Schlieffen plan - the kaiser state took command over wide swathes of the economy. A temporary suspension of the law of value. Chief of general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy, Erich Ludendorff, were determined to win the ‘battle of war materials’.4 Max Weber described the result as a “political military dictatorship of the most comprehensive kind”.5

Without such emergency measures there would have been ignominious defeat, given that Germany faced war on two fronts. The Oberster Kriegsamt (supreme war office) imposed strict guidelines and much tighter controls on labour, which included importing workers from “occupied Europe”.6 Some two million women, war wounded and foreign labourers were put to work and arms production - in particular munitions - more than doubled. Obviously, Lenin was impressed by what could be achieved through the concentrated application of state power. Again and again he cited the example of Germany:

Here we have ‘the last word’ in modern large-scale capitalist engineering and planned organisation, subordinated to Junker-bourgeois imperialism. Cross out the words in italics, and in place of the militarist, Junker, bourgeois, imperialist state put also a state, but of a different social type, of a different class content - a Soviet state (that is, a proletarian state) - and you will have the sum total of the conditions necessary for socialism.7

Clearly, for Lenin, Kriegssozialismus provided not only the means to put an end to economic dislocation in post-tsarist Russia. His intention was to take steps in the direction of socialism via a mixed economy, regulated by a combination of binding directives, state purchases, tax incentives, etc. A holding measure which would allow Soviet Russia to last long enough before socialist Europe came to the rescue. However, civil war, capitalist sabotage and imperialist intervention meant that the emergency ‘war communist’ measures adopted from mid-1918 to early 1921 were about survival, not steps in the direction of socialism.

Everything that could go to the Red Army went to the Red Army. Money exchange and commodity production disappeared from industry. State officials directed physical products and workers just about kept body and soul together on meagre rations. Everyday items, such as tools, clothing, footwear, household utensils, etc, needed by peasants, no longer came from industry. With nothing to buy, peasants refused to sell. To prevent starvation in the urban areas the authorities turned to forced grain requisitions - a source of huge resentment in the countryside. Nationalist and anarchistic sentiments mushroomed. Revolts broke out.

True, the Goelro plan for the electrification of Soviet Russia was launched in 1920 and eventually proved a great success. However, besides that, planning was crude. Annual targets for each enterprise were the norm. Overall, though - certainly after the introduction of the package of measures known as the New Economic Policy beginning in March 1921 - Soviet Russia “remained fundamentally a market economy”.8 Forced grain requisitions were abandoned in favour of the NEP’s state prices and taxes in kind. Agriculture, note, accounted for around 50% of national income and some 80% of the workforce.9

Relations between state-owned enterprises were once again based on rouble exchange. And, while there was a degree of supervision exercised from above, enterprises were expected to make a profit and lay off workers if they made a loss. There was wage labour. Unemployment too. And, though there were strong trade unions and proposals to include workers and consumers in the running of nationalised enterprises, one-man management soon became the ruling mantra. So, while property relations changed, the workplace hierarchy remained largely unaltered. It should be stressed, therefore, that the state capitalist planning being prepared in the early Soviet Union was far removed from what the Marx-Engels team had envisaged (control by the associated producers, the end of money and a materially rich society being taken as a given).

Mixed economy

For planning really to 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 really to be planning there has to be more than issuing orders 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 instillation 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. At a micro level, within the factory, mine, warehouse, call centre, etc, there often is planning down to the smallest details. Capitalists go to great lengths to save on workers, time, raw materials, etc. After all, profits are at stake. However, at the macro level, even with government intervention, giant banks and transnational monopolies, capitalism is characterised by overaccumulation and periodic crises. The credit bubble bursts, sales dry up, means of production are destroyed and the reserve army of labour assumes massive proportions. In short, with capitalism, planning has severe limitations.

What about the Soviet Union? Instead of celebrating Gosplan’s initial draft five-year plans as the “mighty historical music of the progress of socialism” (Trotsky’s somewhat purple phrase),10 it is perhaps better, less fanciful, more accurate, to describe them as blueprints for the post-reconstruction period … and taking steps in the direction of socialism. This involved proposals to boost existing industry and agriculture, locating sources of investments, recommending new projects and so on and so forth. The dream was, yes, of an economy that functioned like a single enterprise. Nepman merchant trade and petty peasant agriculture were, however, to put it mildly, problematic. In fact, while they could be nudged this way or that through taxation policy, legal restrictions, etc, they were inherently unplannable.

It ought to be emphasised therefore that, while Yevgeny Preobrazhensky, Trotsky’s chief economic theorist, sought to achieve “a certain coexistence” between the two main systems operating in the USSR - ie, the socialist-commodity sector and the petty commodity capitalist sector - he insisted upon their “antagonistic” nature, their “two different economic laws”.11 Following Lenin, he nodded in the direction of new forms of agricultural and consumer cooperatives. However, at the end of the day it would either be capitalism or socialism which triumphed - the law of the plan and the law of value were fundamentally incompatible.

By the way, the claim that the Left Opposition wanted to launch something like the 1928 five-year plan, in “1922-23”, is not just nonsense: it is triple nonsense.12 Firstly, Trotsky, actually proposed a “very guarded” - that is a weak - variant of the 1921 NEP … in 1920: ie, rouble payments for grain and a “correspondence” between the goods supplied to peasants and the grain they deliver.13 Secondly, the Left Opposition only formed in 1923. Thirdly, and surely leaving no room for doubt whatsoever, in The new course (1923), Trotsky, writes that the state and private peasant sectors coexisted side by side - sometimes allied, sometimes not - and that it would be “many years” before a “single” plan directed the entire economy.14 The bone of contention being the direction of travel: towards socialism or towards capitalism?

It should also be understood that Gosplan, the state planning committee, was in its infancy. Initial five-year plans drafted by its small staff of economists, accountants, mathematicians and political leaders were a vast, but imprecise, statistical exercise. Only in 1927 had the quality improved sufficiently to the point whereby republics and regions could be assigned distinct control figures (targets). Gosplan also managed to build in a range of variants. At the maximum end, there would be high-tempo growth rates 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 conditions might lead to the five-year plan lasting six or seven years.15

There was, true, amongst the Left Opposition the suggestion of voluntary collectivisation - but only on the basis of the introduction of the appropriate agricultural technology: ie, tractors, combines, threshers and the like. Evidently that too would take a whole number of years. Either way, the starting point of any five-year plan had to be industry. And, unable to count on any meaningful aid from abroad, Gosplan would therefore have to siphon off surplus product, via unequal exchange and increased taxation from “pre-socialist economic forms - first and foremost the petty capitalist peasant sector (ie, tribute gained from the countryside) to pay for what Preobrazhensky, borrowing from Marx, called “primitive socialist accumulation”.16

Grand theft

Though previously he had been committed to NEP as a long term strategy and had attacked the Left Opposition for endangering the alliance with the peasantry in pursuit of their madcap ‘superindustrialising’, Stalin was forced to change direction.

The fact of the matter was that the mixed, NEP economy was, even by the mid-1920s, already showing its limits. The nationalised industrial sector and the peasant agricultural sector were disengaging - to use a phrase, the “scissors” between town and country were diverging. Crucially, when there was nothing worth buying from industry, the rich peasants, the kulaks, refused to sell their surplus grain at the prices set by the state. They could without too much sacrifice fall-back onto self-sufficiency. To feed the cities prices had to be raised again and again, thus depriving the state of the roubles that would otherwise have been used to restore, update and expand industry. Tribute was being paid by the town to the countryside. Matters became particularly acute in 1927 and 1928. Once again there were forced grain requisitions. NEP was visibly malfunctioning.

Stalin, in effect, decided to steal the economic programme of the Left Opposition. Here he is addressing the July 1928 plenum of the central committee:

In the capitalist countries industrialisation was usually effected, in the main, by robbing other countries, by robbing colonies or defeated countries, or with the help of substantial and more or less enslaving loans from abroad.

You know that for hundreds of years Britain collected capital from all her colonies and from all parts of the world, and was able in this way to make additional investments in her industry. This, incidentally, explains why Britain at one time became the ‘workshop of the world’.

You know also that Germany developed her industry with the help, among other things, of the 5,000 million francs she levied as an indemnity on France after the Franco-Prussian war.

One respect in which our country differs from the capitalist countries is that it cannot and must not engage in colonial robbery, or the plundering of other countries in general. That way, therefore, is closed to us.

Neither, however, does our country have or want to have enslaving loans from abroad. Consequently, that way, too, is closed to us.

What then remains? Only one thing, and that is to develop industry, to industrialise the country with the help of internal accumulations .... But what are the chief sources of these accumulations? As I have said, there are two sources: firstly, the working class, which creates values and advances our industry; secondly, the peasantry.

The way matters stand with the peasantry in this respect is as follows: it not only pays the state the usual taxes, direct and indirect; it also overpays in the relatively high prices for manufactured goods - that in the first place, and it is more or less underpaid in the prices for agricultural produce - that is in the second place.

This is an additional tax levied on the peasantry for the sake of promoting industry, which caters for the whole country, the peasants included. It is something in the nature of a ‘tribute’, of a supertax, which we are compelled to levy for the time being 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 and then abolish altogether this additional tax .... It is an unpalatable business, there is no denying. But we would not be Bolsheviks if we slurred over it and closed our eyes to the fact that, unfortunately, our industry and our country cannot at present dispense with this additional tax on the peasantry.17

The plagiarism was clear to everyone at the time. However, despite the frank admission about “additional tax” - “tribute” - being an “unpalatable business”, Stalin’s version of primitive socialist accumulation was sugar-coated, surely cynically, with the promise of raising “further the standard of life of the rural population”.

There remained, though, the partisans of NEP as a long term strategy. Despite still being in charge of Comintern and editing Pravda, with allies dominating the trade unions, topping the government and the Moscow party apparatus, Nikolai Bukharin hardly suffered from over-confidence when he began to criticise the call to “preserve and accelerate” the industrial growth rates notched up during the NEP period of reconstruction. His polemics were Aesopian and seemingly directed against Trotsky and the so-called “superindustrialisers” of the Left Opposition. The real target was, of course, his fellow duumvirate member, Stalin himself.

Incidentally, there is no mystery about how the impressive growth rates were achieved during reconstruction. If 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 mines back into operation.

But, so argued Bukharin, attempts to extract “tribute” from the countryside with a view to building numerous, new, gigantic enterprises, risked finally snapping the already tenuous link with the peasantry. Certainly these projects would “give nothing” in return for ages, but would “take enormous qualities of the means of production … and the means of consumption”.18 Instead of pursuing the illusions of accelerated growth, better results would be gained through optimal growth. Bukharin advocated establishing a positive, “unstable equilibrium” - ie, expanded reproduction - which would rest, almost by definition, on maintaining the link with the peasantry, on serving the peasant market, on industry and agriculture interlocking during the long transition to socialism (which, of course, eventually dispenses with the market and the law of value).19

Needless to say, Bukharin’s ideas were subject to concerted attack … along with the positions he and his comrades occupied. Stalin controlled the apparatus. Even those supposedly at the very apex of power could be assaulted from the middle and below, with the full blessing and connivance of the real apex of power: ie, the general secretary and the heads of the party apparat.

Things began with denunciations of anonymous rightists - in the press, in the trade unions, in party branches. Subordinates in Comintern, the trade unions and Moscow rebelled on cue. Stage-managed meetings, resolutions and exposures were then used to undermine, demote or straightforwardly remove targeted individuals. The whole exercise was deftly orchestrated from Stalin’s office. Rumours of armed rightist plots served as accompanying mood music. Arrests by the GPU followed.

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 to Kemal Atatürk’s Turkey in order to end his “counterrevolutionary activities”.20 Almost immediately afterwards, so-called left oppositionists handed out leaflets in Moscow. They, conveniently, reproduced the text of the conversation between Bukharin and Lev Kamenev from July 1928 - quite conceivably a provocation directed by Stalin. The GPU had, after all, “an extensive network of agents among the oppositionists”.21 Whatever the truth, Stalin got what he wanted. Bukharin and the right could be accused of factionalism - now, bizarrely, a sin of the first order - with those who were found guilty officially being branded as 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 minorities, was remade into a rigidly hierarchical structure resembling a military formation. ‘Command and obey’ became the mode of operation - not ‘Propose, attempt to convince and vote’.

Gosplan’s plan

But let us not run ahead of ourselves. Back to Gosplan.

The minimum variant of its 1927 draft five-year plan proposed slightly reduced growth rates, compared with what has already been achieved under the NEP. In its maximum variant, growth rates were higher - quite considerably so for the last year of the five-year plan. But Gosplan officials 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.22

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 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 course. Besides the arms sector, 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 achieving substantial production increases. There are general estimates of other necessary balances: eg, the chapter on electric-power-linked 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”.23

Collectivisation would progress, but with studied caution - just as the Left Opposition had recommended. By the end of the first five-year plan 12.9 million people were to be organised in kolkhozy and sovkhozy 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%.24

Doubtless, especially to the untrained eye, the “definitive text” of the first five-year plan appeared well founded, thoroughly researched and thrillingly audacious. But would it result in efficient, coordinated and speedy development? Serious doubts were raised by a number of prominent economists. Eg, Vladimir Groman and Vladimir Bazarov - the first a former Menshevik; the second, a co-thinker of Alexander Bogdanov. Both occupied responsible positions in Gosplan.25 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 not fulfillable, conceivably, given favourable conditions, the minimum variant might have been. The party’s two principal spokespersons in Gosplan, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky and Stanislav Strumilin, were, implicitly, willing to accept some inflation and coercive measures in the countryside “for the sake of promoting industrialisation”.26 Secondary problems, such as bottlenecks, could be dealt with by muddling through.

Maximum and more

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 Stalin 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”.27 All available resources were to be mobilised in an “offensive” on all fronts.28

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 initial targets were nearly doubled.29 It was a case of superindustralising on steroids.

Norms expected from workers inevitably followed the same trajectory. All this was only partially due to impatience. Shortages occurred everywhere. Instead of reining back the pace in one sector, in order to bring it into line with another, 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 created chaos.

Enterprise managers, including the well-connected, responded to the higher targets, firstly, by feeding back exaggerated reports; secondly, by reducing the quality of output to a bare minimum; and, thirdly, by 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, even if only by gut instinct, that there were endless lies, but, simultaneously, he needed to accept them (well, in the main), if his five-year plan was to be credited as being a roaraway success. Meanwhile, Gosplan would have had only the vaguest idea of the true picture. And, of course, any notion of this being an example of balanced, rational planning is risible.

Adding to what was already pandemonium, total collectivisation suddenly appeared as an immediate objective. Dragooned into the kolkhozy and sovkhozy peasants would thereby be robbed of their market power. To all intents and purposes they were re-enserfed.

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.30 The country would be transformed from above using what he called Bolshevik methods.

Industrialising and collectivising were to overcome both the “external conditions” of being surrounded by technically and militarily more advanced capitalist countries and the “internal conditions” of resentful rural and urban basic producers.31 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 the stated goals.

The first five-year plan triggered a genuine wave of popular enthusiasm - most notably amongst the firebrands of the younger generation of workers - each new chemical plant, each new engineering factory, each new blast furnace being greeted as a victory over counterrevolutionary “dogs” and “enemies” (Demyan Bedny).32 The soaring targets, the scientific aura, the promise of national glory appealed to socialistic, patriotic and voluntaristic sentiments. But whether it was through some misplaced collectivity or, more prosaically, a chance to get a foot onto the first rung of management, the most ‘advanced’ workers willingly overcame the ‘normal’ intensity of labour.

Others, however, complained of sweated labour, 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. On occasion they even gained support from rank-and-file communists and Komsomol members. And it was these people who often took the lead in escalating actions.

Rightless workers

Given the chaos, 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”. Shortages of bread and bad food were common grievances. Sometimes the authorities conceded, sometimes strikes were defeated using force, sometimes ringleaders were arrested and disappeared.33

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 now denounced as a petty bourgeois deviation. And, to ensure that trade unions did not defend workers, there came legislation, directives and other such measures. 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); and on and on.34

Within the enterprise, the director was expected to exercise supreme power and set rouble rates without the least reference to the trade unions. Piece work individualised the labour process, reduced productivity, prematurely wore out machines and increased accidents. But it blocked any tendency of workers to look towards collective solutions to their problems. By the mid-1930s the workforce “had been both reconstituted and politically broken”.35 To call the Soviet Union any kind of workers’ state, degenerate or otherwise, under such circumstances, is a travesty, is to rob words of accepted meaning.

As already mentioned, Bukharin responded to the first stirrings of the ‘second revolution’ cryptically, with renewed criticisms of Trotskyist ‘superindustrialising’. Not surprisingly, this line of attack suited Stalin to a tee. Bukharin’s polemics both missed their intended target and secured Stalin gifted allies from amongst the conciliationist wing of the Left Opposition - Yevgeny Preobrazhensky, Karl Radek and Georgy Pyatakov among many others. More recruits to 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 extraordinary ineptitude. Firing at the left, and not directly at the Stalinites, ensured that the rapprochement Bukharin seemingly attempted with Lev Kamenev came to nothing (along with Grigory Zinoviev and Leon Trotsky, he helped form the short-lived United Opposition in the mid-1920s). Bukharin’s line of attack 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 not least due to their joint 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. The NEP had reached its limits, yet the right had no genuine alternative - except, maybe, constituting the Nepmen and kulaks as a social base and offering the apparatus (or, as in post-Mao China, their sons and daughters) the prospect of becoming capitalists. At the time such a programme probably lacked traction. The apparatus was committed to socialism … albeit socialism in one country. That included Bukharin (as evidenced by his Philosophical Arabesques written in 1937 while he languished in the dungeons of the Lubyanka36). The restoration of capitalism, by the apparat for the apparat, though it logically flowed from the right’s overall pro-market approach, was, at the time, unsayable and perhaps unthinkable for them l

  1. Naturally, there is Robert Griffiths, general secretary of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. He credits the first five-year plan with introducing a new - socialist - mode of production. Neither the “limited possibilities for mass-scale participative democracy and workers’ control” can “negate its profound significance” (R Griffiths Marx’s ‘Das Capital’ and capitalism today London 2018, p62). There are also unashamed rebels against the CPB’s ‘protocol’, banning “adulation of Stalin”. Andrew Northall writes the occasional letter to this paper, not least in defence of the first five-year plan (Letters, June 8 2023). However, more or less the whole gamut of orthodox Trotskyism takes a similar position, with just one or two minor variations. Take Ted Grant and Roger Silverman, leading figures in the Militant/Socialist Appeal tradition: “Fifty years of planned economic progress in the USSR tell us, in the irrefutable language of iron and steel, more than all the theoretical treatises put together about the need for society to exercise complete control over production” (T Grant and R Silverman Bureaucratism or workers’ power London 1982, p27). The first outing of this panegyric, it should be added, was in 1967.↩︎

  2. T Grant and R Silverman Bureaucratism or workers’ power London 1982, p43.↩︎

  3. A Bastani Fully automated luxury communism London 2020; N Srnicek and A Williams Inventing the future: postcapitalism and a world without work London 2015; P Mason Postcapitalism: a guide to our future London 2015.↩︎

  4. See M Kitchin The silent dictatorship: the politics of the German high command under Hindenburg and Ludendorff, 1916 - 1918 Abingdon 2020, pp62-88.↩︎

  5. P Lassman and R Speirs (eds) Weber: political writings Cambridge 1994, p127.↩︎

  6. J Horne (ed) A companion to World War I Chichester 2012, p439.↩︎

  7. VI Lenin CW Vol 27, Moscow 1977, p339.↩︎

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

  9. See A Markevich and M Harrison: www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/mharrison/data/greatwar/appendix.pdf (p6).↩︎

  10. L Trotsky The challenge of the Left Opposition 1923-25 New York 1980, p324.↩︎

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

  12. A Northall ‘Trotskyist error’ Letters Weekly Worker June 8 2023: www.weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1446/letters.↩︎

  13. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/mylife/ch38.htm.↩︎

  14. L Trotsky The challenge of the Left Opposition 1923-25 New York 1980, p119.↩︎

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

  16. E Preobrazhensky The new economics Oxford 1967, p88.↩︎

  17. JV Stalin Works Vol 11, Moscow 1954, pp165-67.↩︎

  18. SF Cohen Bukharin and the Bolshevik revolution New York, p302.↩︎

  19. KJ Tarbuck Bukharin’s equilibrium London 1989, pp19, 153.↩︎

  20. I Deutscher The prophet unarmed Oxford 1982, p468.↩︎

  21. M Reiman The birth of Stalinism London 1978, p100.↩︎

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

  23. Ibid p60.↩︎

  24. Ibid p61.↩︎

  25. Vladimir Groman apparently retained his allegiance to Menshevism, but in 1922 joined the staff of Gosplan. He regularly contributed to the journal Ekonomicheskaya zhizn and in 1928 was appointed chair of Gosplan’s internal economy section. His close collaborator, Vladimir Bazarov, applied his knowledge of chemical processes to develop the theoretical foundations for planning by way of analogy. Bazarov’s most important work was Capitalist cycles and the economic restoration process in the USSR (1927). For a useful discussion of Bazarov, see Elizeveta Burina’s ‘Natural science analogies in economic modelling: Vladimir Bazarov’s restauration process model’: historyofeconomics.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Paper_Burina.pdf. There is also Francis King’s PhD thesis: ‘The political and economic thought of Vladimir Aleksandrovich Bazarov (1874-1939)’ University of East Anglia 1994. For a general overview of early Soviet economists, see N Jasny The Soviet economists of the twenties Cambridge 1972.↩︎

  26. Ibid pp69-70.↩︎

  27. JV Stalin SW Vol 13, Moscow 1955, p41.↩︎

  28. Ibid p15.↩︎

  29. Ibid p256.↩︎

  30. Ibid p258.↩︎

  31. JV Stalin SW Vol 11, Moscow 1954, pp262-63.↩︎

  32. D Bedny, ‘Enemies of the Five-Year Plan’: ruverses.com/demyan-bedny/enemies-of-the-5-year-plan.↩︎

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

  34. M Reiman The birth of Stalinism London 1978, p110.↩︎

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

  36. N Bukharin Philosophical Arabesques Delhi 2007.↩︎