Economic and Political Consequences of the Attempted Socialization of Agriculture in the Soviet Union

by Erwin Marquit
(Nature, Society, and Thought, All rights reserved.)


The shift from a centrally planned socialist economy to a socialist-oriented market economy by China and Vietnam is viewed by some in the Communist movement as a partial retreat, made necessary by the demise of the Soviet Union and contemporary conditions of economic globalization, from the path of socialist development. Others even regard this shift as a complete abandonment of the socialist path due to dominance of rightist forces within specific Communist parties. Those who hold the latter view tend to view the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) as a history of struggle of the Left against the Right, with Lenin and Stalin being the standard bearers of the Left. In this view, Bukharin, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev represent the rightist forces, advocating increasing use of market forces, and ultimately opening the path for the counterrevolutionary overthrow of the socialist system.

This view, with which I disagree, was clearly expressed in Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union by Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, published in 2004 by International Publishers (the publishing house associated with the Communist Party USA) in the interest of open discussion, although its views were not in line with those of the current CPUSA leadership.

The course of my own thinking on this contentious history may be instructive. Publication of Socialism Betrayed by International Publishers led me reconsider my past hesitance to delve more deeply into this period of Soviet history. I had avoided works on the Soviet Union by anti-Soviet bourgeois scholars such as Robert Conquest. I had also been reluctant to read books by Soviet scholars such as Roy Medvedev (1), characterized as dissidents in Soviet times, since the accuracy of their information could not be verified. Even Khrushchev’s memoirs seemed to me suspect, since he had publicly dissociated himself from them. (In this case, as increasing amounts of previously withheld archival material became available, Khrushchev’s authorship of the memoirs and the details of how they came to be published became part of the public record.)

The cumulative effect of these historiographic developments led me to embark on an extensive review of this period of history. I wrote a critical review of the Keeran and Kenny book for Nature, Society, and Thought (2003). Keeran and Kenny’s rejoinder to this critique, as well as my response, were published the following year. I continued my exploration and incorporated the results in an article published in German with the title Politische und ökonomische Folgen der verfrühten Vergesellschaftung der Landwirtschaft in der Sowjetunion as a contribution to a Festschrift in honor of the philosopher Robert Steigerwald, a leading ideological figure in the German Communist Party (Marquit 2005). Except for an abridged version published by the Communist Review, a journal of the Communist Party of Britain, that article has not been published in English.

For a single coherent account, I give here a slightly revised and expanded version of my article in the Steigerwald Festschrift, repeating some material from my published critique of Keeran and Kenny’s book and my subsequent exchange with them.

Initial stages of transition from capitalism to socialism

The shift to a socialist-oriented market economy (the term used by the Communist Party of Vietnam) may be considered not a retreat from socialism, but a necessary path toward the goal of a communist society. How do we explain, then, the fact that a somewhat similar, but more limited, course was attempted in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and dropped? Was this abandonment premature? What were its consequences?

Marx and Engels foresaw the transition from capitalism to the communist socioeconomic system as a relatively long process in the course of which the productive capacity of the society would grow to the point where the distribution would be on the basis of need and independent of the participation of individuals in the labor force. They made no effort to spell out the details of the transition process, apparently recognizing that such details would depend on how the revolutionary process would unfold under given levels of economic development. Marx did foresee, however, that during the initial phase of the transition from a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie to a dictatorship of the proletariat, the distribution principle would be on the basis of the current bourgeois principle of distribution (bourgeois right). In his Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx described this as follows:

The same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labour in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labour in another form.
   Hence equal right here is still in principle—bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange only exists on the average and not in the individual case. (1989, 86)

In his Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx made no attempt to outline the process by which the relations of production would be transformed from bourgeois relations of production to cooperative or collective production. He seems to assume that the first phase is characterized by cooperative or collective relations of production, which would be in line with the statement in the Communist Manifesto:

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible. (Marx and Engels 1976, 504)

It should not be surprising, therefore, that the Russian revolutionary proletariat, upon seizing state power, was eager to effect this transformation as quickly as possible. In May 1918, Lenin called for a slowdown in the process of nationalization that was in full force early in 1918. To the call of the Left Communists that “the systematic use of the remaining means of production is conceivable only if a most determined policy of socialisation is pursued,” Lenin replied:

Yesterday, the main task of the moment was, as determinedly as possible, to nationalise, confiscate, beat down and crush the bourgeoisie, and put down sabotage. Today, only a blind man could fail to see that we have nationalized, confiscated, beaten down and put down more than we have had time to count. The difference between socialisation and simple confiscations is that confiscation can be carried out by “determination” alone, without the ability to calculate and distribute properly, whereas socialisation cannot be brought about without this ability. (1974a, 333–34)

Lenin noted that the socioeconomic structures of the Russian economy at that time consisted of the following elements: patriarchal (mainly natural—that is, subsistence—peasant farming), small commodity production (which includes the majority of those peasants who sell their grain), private capitalism, state capitalism, and socialism (335–36). Lenin later (in 1921) described the essence of state capitalism as an economic relationship between the Soviet government and a capitalist under which

the latter is provided with certain things: raw materials, mines, oilfields, minerals, or . . . even a special factory (the ball-bearing project of a Swedish enterprise). The socialist state gives the capitalist its means of production such as factories, mines and materials. The capitalist operates as a contractor leasing socialist means of production, making a profit on his capital and delivering a part of his output to the socialist state. (1973b, 297)

In his 1918 argument with the Left Communists, he cited Germany as “the most concrete example of state capitalism.”

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.
   Socialism is inconceivable without large-scale capitalists engineering based on the latest discoveries of modern science. It is inconceivable without planned state organisation, which keeps tens of millions of people to the strictest observance of a unified standard in production and distribution. (1974a, 339)
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1. The draft of the first edition of Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism, in most respects a Marxist-Leninist critique of the Stalin period by Soviet historian Roy Medvedev, then a member of the CPSU, began circulating informally in the USSR in 1964. After Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev as leader of the CPSU in 1964, criticism of Stalin was limited to the phrase cult of the individual; no details about the terror of the 1930s were permitted, nor criticism of forced collectivization other than what had been allowed in Stalin’s time. Stalin was, in effect, rehabilitated. Soviet publications such as History of the USSR, written in 1974, again justified the excesses—for example, the 1928 Shakhty frame-up trials in the course of which confessions were beaten out of members of fictitious organizations of wreckers and saboteurs “in the service of Russian and foreign capitalists and foreign intelligence;” Bukharin, Rykov, and Tomsky were again referred to as leaders of the Right Opposition, who “expressed the interests of the kulaks and other well-off elements in the villages that were opposed to the socialist reconstruction of agriculture” (Kim et al. 1982, 252, 259). Medvedev was expelled from the CPSU in 1969 after his book was published in the West. His Party membership was restored in 1988.

2. The Impossible Fact

Palmstroem, old, an aimless rover,
walking in the wrong direction
at a busy intersection
is run over.

“How,” he says, his life restoring
and with pluck his death ignoring,
“can an accident like this
ever happen? What’s amiss?"

"Did the state administration
fail in motor transportation?
Did police ignore the need
for reducing driving speed?"

"Isn’t there a prohibition,
barring motorized transmission
of the living to the dead?
Was the driver right who sped . . . ?”

Tightly swathed in dampened tissues
he explores the legal issues,
and it soon is clear as air:
Cars were not permitted there!

And he comes to the conclusion:
His mishap was an illusion,
for, he reasons pointedly,
that which must not, cannot be.


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