How The Soviet New Economic Policy Turned Into Collectivization

In the 1920s the Soviet Union retreated from socialist values in favor of a free market. Free trade was permitted, and as War Communism ended, the Soviet government no longer forcefully requisitioned grain from the peasants. This all came crashing down after 1928 when the period of collectivization began, and the Soviet Union dived into the principals of Socialism, forcefully transforming economics, politics, and culture. While many argue that the New Economic Policy period was a betrayal of the revolution, and its side effects were numerous and oftentimes detrimental. Still, it was the only feasible route to a robust economic foundation in a weakened Soviet Union’s march towards Socialism.

After the Civil War ended, the Bolsheviks were faced with a dire economic situation. In 1922, the Russian worker population was only at sixty-four percent of what it had been on the eve of the First World War. Even worse was that industrial output was a minuscule twenty-one percent of what it had been in 1913. Employment was scarce, and with the countryside being overpopulated and the demobilization of the Red Army beginning, a swarm of migrants flowed into the cities, exacerbating an already dire situation.[1] Without new capital flowing into the country, growth was often slow. Responding to this problem, the Soviet government enacted the NEP, which instituted a certain level of free trade in order to build a strong economic foundation. This is not to say that the state stood completely apart from regulating the economy. In a sense, the NEP was a hybrid, putting together aspects of capitalism and Socialism using each to the benefit of Russia. While infuriating many, it is important to note that the NEP was always intended as a temporary retreat from revolutionary ideals, not a shift towards capitalism as some believed.[2]

Workers during the NEP period were faced with new opportunities unheard of during Tsarist Russia. Characteristic of this period was an increase in the level of social mobility, particularly for the working class. While on paper all was well, a growing rift began to develop between workers and the state. Market forces kept workers impoverished, and the growing power of management who would do whatever it took to regenerate the Russian industry created glaring class conflict. Further deteriorating the situation was a general feeling of neglect as the government’s pro-agriculture policy left many workers feeling alienated and betrayed by what they thought was a “ workers state.” As a result, a working-class collective conscious began to develop once again, threatening the state with labor unrest. In reply, the state began a variety of programs in order to win back the peasants. The largest of these programs were a string of party recruitment drives beginning in 1924 with the Lenin Levy, followed by two more in 1925 and 1927, in order to bolster the Soviet Union’s image as a “workers state” and to reconnect with the proletariat.[3] Along with the Lenin Levy, other attempts were made to co-opt workers into positions of management, and educate them to become important members of the party. Finally, the state began to consult more heavily with the workers hoping to stem their grievances off at the source.[4]

By the end of the 1920’s the NEP period had succeeded in restoring Russia’s industrial output to prewar levels. In 1927 the upper parts of the Communist Party came to an agreement that more resources needed to be shifted towards Russia’s industrial sector. As a result, in 1928 the first Five-Year Plan was drawn up, setting impossible goals for the country in industrial growth. The government began to centralize virtually every realm of the economy, and through the most vicious methods compelled an enormous level of growth in the country. Shortly after the end of the First Five-Year Plan, the state began the Second Five-Year Plan in 1932. This period saw what would in all likelihood be the most rapid industrialization of any country in world history. Still, despite its apparent success, industrial growth after the NEP period faced a series of problems. Light industry that would have provided more consumers goods was extremely neglected in favor of heavy industries such as steel manufacturing, resulting in little material improvements in the daily lives of Soviet citizens. Even worse the heavy industry that was built was oftentimes dangerous and extremely inefficient due to the reckless pace of its construction.[5]

Another negative factor of the rapid industrialization under Stalin was a deterioration of worker’s rights and wealth. Living standards, in general, dropped during the 1930s and the state began to differentiate more heavily between skilled and unskilled workers. Highly productive “shock workers,” and later Stakhanovites began to receive better wages, shifting away from the more egalitarian ideas of wages of the NEP period. More shocking blows came in 1931 when violations in labor-discipline became punishable by prison time and in 1932 when internal passports were issued greatly curbing worker’s abilities to migrate throughout the country. Reciprocally, as the position of workers in Soviet Russia declined, managers began to gain power once again. Dual management was done away with, and managers now had the ability to fire workers without approval from the factory committees and to decide wage rates.[6]

Industry was not the only sector that suffered during and after the Civil War. Russian agriculture had been ruined, and famines were common throughout the country, with agriculture output being only forty-three percent of the prewar level. Thus the NEP, along with instituting free trade, attempted to give a great deal of benefits to the peasants. These benefits were oftentimes at the expense of their indoctrination into Socialism, due to the need to raise the levels of production. This tactic was largely successful, as by 1922 agriculture began to recover in the country. Still, the state faced a new dilemma, as peasants held back their grain due to the low agricultural prices, and industrial prices remained at an extremely high level. By 1923 it was agreed that price controls should be set up, paving way for a series of extremely prosperous years for both realms.[7] and

This shift from egalitarianism to productivism may have been seen as injurious to the development of Socialism, but in reality, it was critical to reaching it. While all were equal during the Civil War, they were equally poor. Holding on to egalitarian ideals would, in fact, have greatly slowed industrialization, enforcing the widespread poverty would have continued for years. The NEP was the solution to this, as productivism would have increased the national wealth so that when egalitarianism returned, all would be equal, yet not impoverished.[8]

One of the side effects of this policy of appeasement in the realm of agricultural was the strengthening of one of socialisms traditional class enemies, the kulaks. Out of the various classes of peasants under the Soviet Union, the Kulaks were the smallest, yet contributed close to one-quarter of the total grain market. While their bourgeoisie nature and continued existence seemed to be the antithesis of all Marxist and Leninist theory, this is not to say the state gave them a free rein during NEP years.[9] Realizing that the Kulak’s could not be completely crushed due to their important position, but the state did attempt to curb their influence. Labeling them as “class enemies” they were restricted from voting up until 1936 and taxed heavily. The poorer peasants, on the other hand, were given special privileges, and tax breaks. This approach promoted the economic situation of poor peasants, while simultaneously eroding that of the kulaks. Still, the promotion of differences between the two spectrums of the peasantry did not break the cohesion that characterized the poor peasants and the kulaks relationship. In the countryside, the government now faced a united body that would serve as an opposition to any changes attempted from above. While this was one of the NEP’s more detrimental side effects and would help to worsen the effects that collectivization would have on agriculture, it was no means a permanent one. Signs had already began to develop in the countryside of more accepting views of the government. Young peasants that came from the army were staunch allies of the government and attempted to bring in new ideas and technology. Still, the going was slow, and by the end of the 1920s large parts of the country were isolated from the state. A heavy government hand in the countryside was not as pressing as the need to feed the cities of a rapidly industrializing state.[10]

Collectivization saw a reversal of earlier policies of appeasement towards the peasants. Beginning in 1928 the state began the forceful requisitioning of grain from the peasants on an enormous scale. In the years leading into 1928, Soviet industry saw a level of stagnation developing in both agriculture and industry, prompting Stalin to take this radical dive into Socialism. A campaign of “dekulakization” began as well, which intended to break their power in the countryside. Kulaks were divided into three groups and exiled, shot, or allowed to resettle. Beginning in 1930 Stalin took his most radical step yet and began to forcefully collectivize Soviet Russia’s farms. Resistance was strong, and the government reverted to brutal tactics, which in turn were met by stronger resistance. Peasants frequently resorted to destroying their grain and slaughtering their livestock in response. Things went so out of control that Stalin was forced to back down months later, and issued his article “Dizziness from Success” blaming the faults of collectivization on his subordinates. As a whole collectivization was a disaster that greatly weakened the Soviet government’s power. Even worse was that it resulted in a massive famine in Ukraine, which killed an estimated five million between 1932 and 1933.[11]

By appearances alone, the collectivization of agriculture appeared to follow the tenants of Socialism much more closely, but in reality, did more harm than any policy of the NEP years, and directly contradicted the beliefs of both Lenin and Engels, who believed the peasants should not be forced into collectivization.[12] Instead of taking a gradual approach such as during the NEP, this headlong rush into collectivization turned the peasants against the state and damaged the economic gains in agriculture achieved during the NEP years. This forced move into Socialism did more to betray the ideals of the revolution than any agricultural policy of the NEP years.

Nepmen were another group of “class enemies” that developed during the NEP period. The Nepmen were essentially middlemen of goods and helped to bring them to various corners of the country. By the mid-1920s, the Nepmen controlled the majority of free trade in Soviet Russia and were some of the wealthiest members of society. While offensive in many ways to the ideology of Socialism, the Nepmen, much like the Kulaks, served an important role in the development of the Soviet economy. The state did not have the ability to distribute consumer goods during the early 1920s. In the meantime, until the government became stronger, the only solution to this dilemma was the promotion of some level of free trade. It was realized that a burgeoning class of the “bourgeoisie” would be a result of this, and the state did have plans to deal with it in the future. Nepmen were not always entirely beneficial to the state, and often time exacerbated existing problems, such as during scissor crisis over the costs of industrial and agriculture goods in the early NEP years. After collectivization, as with the Kulaks, the Nepmen virtually ceased to exist as a class. As early as 1927, restrictions began to be placed on them, and from 1928 a serious crackdown on them began. Their goods were seized, and they were evicted from state housing, and their children prevented from attending state schools. By 1932 private trade had been outlawed under punishment of a long term in one of the states many labor camps.[13]

One realm that cultural values followed closely to Marxist ideals during the NEP were those of family and gender values.[15] Shortly after the revolution, married women achieved a remarkable level of freedom compared to what they received during Tsarist Russia. Women were granted equal rights as men and found themselves in new roles as workers rather than simply housekeepers and mothers. Divorces no longer took months or even years to obtain, and if both parties agreed upon it, they took as little as a week to obtain.[15] Women’s rights were taken even further when Soviet Russia became the first nation to legalize abortions. In theory, this sounded great, but even with opportunities like this, many women still could not break out of their traditional roles, due to the demands the family placed on them. The solution to this, of course, was for them to find support in the collective rather than depend on their family. Soviet leaders such as Alexandra Kollontai envisioned a society where a woman was free to work, with the state sharing the burden of the home life. Instead of being faced with housekeeping upon returning home from work, the state envisioned collective housekeeping, in which workers would be paid to take on these tasks. Restaurants and public kitchens would replace cooking in turn. Virtually any task would be taken on by other workers, freeing the women of Soviet Russia their domestic bondage. 

Child-rearing was an equally daunting dilemma for emancipating the women of Soviet Russia even if the abolishment of domestic chores did occur. In response to this, it was envisioned that the state would do all it could to take support parents in rearing their children, and even one day take this burden on its shoulders alone. Various Commissariats had been set up as early as 1920 to take on the tasks of providing for Soviet Russia’s children. Still, in some cases, women whose husbands could provide for them found themselves pressured by society into their traditional roles.[16] Even if gender roles were not revolutionized, it was an essential shift from the patriarchal society of tsarist Russia, and if the ideology remained, equality between men and women could have been achieved in the near future.[17]

Interestingly whereas collectivization saw a headlong rush into socializing industry and agriculture, it saw a reversion to more conservative views of the family and marriage. In 1930 the women’s section of the Communist party, Zhenotdel, was shut down, along with various women’s sections of committees in the years that followed. Poorer women were still encouraged to work, but the state no longer sought to lend a helping hand, leaving women with many of the same domestic burdens they faced in pre-revolutionary Russia. On the other hand, the wives of wealthier members of society were encouraged to refrain from working. All these policies were a part of the greater goal of strengthening the traditional family unit. A large, major peasant section of society had been opposed to the Soviet Union’s liberal family codes from the revolution up until the end of the NEP. As a result, divorce was once again made challenging to gain and abortions were outlawed by the new family codes during the mid-1930s. In the field of child upbringing, the state had an almost contradictory policy. An enormous number of nurseries were opened, and though oftentimes extremely inadequate for childcare, they did fulfill some of the promises made during the NEP period. On the other hand, women became much more responsible for their children’s actions, oftentimes being punished with fines or jail time when their children broke the law.[18]

Ideologically, while the NEP appeared to and often times did break from tenants of Marxism, this was crucial for the development of Socialism in Russia. Marx himself had laid down definite steps towards the development of Communism, which seemingly Russia had ignored during the revolution. Marx stressed that a Revolution would take hold in an industrially developed state, which in comparison to Western Europe, Russia obviously was not in 1917. Realizing this, the NEP was designed to allow for Russia to develop towards Socialism in an organic, non-violent fashion. While at the time it may have seemed too slow to many of those who had participated in the revolution, in retrospect NEP was a far more viable and humane route when compared to the alternatives. Collectivization the other hand took the exact opposite direction, brutally coercing its citizens to create a socialist society. While successful to some degree, this alternative route turned various classes against the state, forged an inefficient industrial sector, and purged some of the Soviet Union’s most valuable specialists. Even worse were the millions of casualties that resulted through famines and violence in general.

It is understandable why many felt betrayed after the introduction of the NEP, but in retrospect, it is clear that it was a stable route towards Socialism. Collectivization tragically illustrated the alternative route and the enormous tolls that were a result. The NEP may not have been the best route, but it was far better than collectivization. 

 [1]Ronald Grigor Suny, The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 173

[2] Ibid., 149.

[3] John B. Hatch, “The ‘Lenin Levy’ and the Social Origins of Stalinism: Workers and the Communist Party in Moscow, 1921-1928,” The Slavic Review, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Winter 1989), 558-560.

[4] Ibid., 174.

[5] Ibid., 251.

[6] Ibid., 241.

[7] Ibid., 149-151.

[8] Ibid.,

[9] Karl Marx and Fredriech Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, Marxists, http:// Marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm#007. 

[10] Ibid., 179.

[11] Ibid., 221-227.

[12] Ibid., 222.

[13] Ibid., 182-183.

[14] Marx and Engels.

[15] Alexandra Kollontai, Communism and the Family in Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai, ed. Alix Holt, trans. Alix Holt (London: Allison & Busby, 1977), 1.

[16]What am I to do in In the Shadow of Revolution, ed. Sheila Fitzpatrick (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 207-208.

[17] Suny,186.

Travis King
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