The Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 2, Part 1:

“Military Communism”, the “New Economic Policy” (NEP), and the Course Toward the Kulak

Chapter 2 of Trotsky’s work is divided into two parts, each dealing with two rise of Stalinism.

  • The first being the situation from October 1917 and the period immediately afterwards,
  • from the policy of ‘War Communism’ in the period of the Civil War (1918-21),
  • the change to the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921,
  • and then the period after the death of Lenin when factional conflicts broke out over the meaning of and future of NEP, beginning around 1923 and lasting until 1929-9, when the major change to forced collectivisation took place

The second part of this chapter is about the forced collectivisation policy itself, and its consequences, which were severe. The intention is to discuss this at the next educational, as it is a radically different issue.

But the issues discussed here are crucial to understanding how the situation got to the point that the Stalin regime was able to later consolidate around forced collectivisation.

The titles sums up the three topics that make up this issue.

What was ‘miilitary communism’, or ‘war communism’ as it is most commonly known?

It was the product of the desperate situation of the civil war. The Bolshevik programme of ‘Peace, Bread and Land’ meant ‘land to the tilller’ – the implementation of the agrarian programme of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries – dividing the landlords’ land among the landless peasantry.

Because of that, the Bolsheviks were in a very strong position in the Civil War against the capitalists and landlords, as the small peasantry saw the working class as their liberators, in the sense of being the force that expropriated the landlords and gave them the land. In that sense the class alliance between workers and poor peasants, symbolised by the Hammer and Sickle, was rock solid, and was basically what won the Civil War in the countryside.

But that does not mean that the alliance was a smooth and easy process. It was riven with contradictions. The question of the exchange of products between the working class in the cities, and the poor peasants in the vast countryside, given the agrarian nature of Russia at that time, was enormously significant.

In times of civil war, such exchange was very difficult to organise. There was no real chance to organise relations on a stable basis until the war was won. And the industrial production of the cities was subordinate to supplying the Red Army to fight the war, above everything else.

The production, and distribution to the peasanty, of industrial good to exchange for agricultural products, which would be a staple in peacetime, was impossible in conditions of civil war.

This gave birth to the programme of ‘War Communism’ or ‘Military Communism’ as Trotsky called it. This involved the distribution of both agricultural produce, and what limited industrial goods were available, by planned, administrative means, not the market. In conditions of great scarcity.

This was a necessity, to win the civil war. But it was not ideal from the standpoint of the alliance of the workers and peasants. The peasants resented what were in effect raids on their produce by armed detachments of red soldiers and cadres. The small amount of industrial goods they brought with them, if there were any, did not compensate. The peasants would resist such impositions by hiding produce, and if that did not work, sowing less, and thus either way less became available to the city proletariat.

Though the peasants would not push things too far in this regard, as they did not want the landlords back. But nevertheless, this was bound to come to a head once the Civil War was won

The concept of ‘war Communism’ led to illusions in its permanent nature, and its supposed utility as a shortcut to communism by pure administration, among part of the Bolsheviks. Trotsky alludes to this in the text, without going into specifics.

Some of this, as he says, was predicated on the expectation of a German revolution coming to the aid of the Russians workers with more advanced productive forces and economy.

But as is well known, this generated illusion in planning and voluntarism somewhat separate from that, epitomised in a well known, but terribly flawed book called The ABC of Communism by Bukharin and Preobrazhensky.

Be that as it may, the end of the civil war gave birth to a peasant revolt against requistitioning, and a massive decline of industrial production also, linked to that. As Trotsky pointed out in the text:

“The muzhik cut down his sowings. Industrial production of steel fell from 4.2 million tons to 183,000 tons – that is, to 1/23 of what it had been. The total harvest of grain decreased from 801 million hundredweight to 503 million in 1922. That was a year of terrible hunger. Foreign trade at the same time plunged from 2.9 billion rubles to 30 million. The collapse of the productive forces surpassed anything of the kind that history had ever seen. The country, and the government with it, were at the very edge of the abyss.”

Administrative means in the absence of productive capacity simply did not work, and Russia faced famine, and working class and peasant revolt seemingly against the proletarian dictatorship itself, epitomised by Kronstandt.

This had to be suppressed, for reasons of self-preservation, but it also led to a major change of economic policy. The New Economic Policy (NEP) was initiated in 1921, and involved the abolition of grain requisitioning in favour a defined tax in kind on the peasants.

Peasants were allowed to sell their surplus above the tax in kind for what they could get. Also the partial legalisation of capitalist relations in the countryside: small businesses were allowed to be created and to employ wage labour to a limited degree.

This was a retreat, and Lenin frankly admitted it to be so. It did, however, revive the economy to a remarkable extent, as Trotsky noted in the text:

“The market, legalized by the NEP, began, with the help of an organized currency, to do its work. As early as 1923, thanks to an initial stimulus from the rural districts, industry began to revive. And moreover it immediately hit a high tempo. It is sufficient to say that production doubled in 1922 and 1923, and by 1926 had already reached the pre-war level – that is, had grown more than five times its size in 1921. At the same time, although at a much more modest tempo, the harvests were increasing.”

The second substantial issue referred to in the text was a central issue in the crystallisation of the Left Opposition in Russia, and the beginnings of factional conflict with the Stalin and Bukharin factions, which were closely allied from around 1923 to 1929.

As Trotsky explained in the text:

“Beginning with the critical year 1923, the disagreements observed earlier in the ruling party on the relation between industry and agriculture began to grow sharp. In a country which had completely exhausted its stores and reserves, industry could not develop except by borrowing grain and raw material from the peasants. Too heavy “forced loans” of products, however, would destroy the stimulus to labour. Not believing in the future prosperity, the peasant would answer the grain expeditions from the city by a sowing strike. Too light collections, on the other hand, threatened a standstill. Not receiving industrial products, the peasants would turn to industrial labour to satisfy their own needs, and revive the old home crafts. The disagreements in the party began about the question how much to take from the villages for industry, in order to hasten the period of dynamic equilibrium between them.”

The so-called “scissors crisis” was a sharp indicator of this. This referred to two graphs, one of the prices of industrial goods, the other of the price of agricultural produce, grain, bread, meat etc.

The problem was the mismatch of the prices of industrial goods, which were rising due to shortages caused by the incapacity in the economy to produce them. The other being the falling price of agricultural goods, which were much more readily available. The problem, again, was that because of this divergence the peasants would feel that they were getting too little return for their goods, and not enough from the industrial economy in exchange. So they would cut back on their output, exchange would be stifled, and the class alliance between the workers and peasants would risk being broken and threaten the existence of the workers state itself.

As Trotsky explained:

“The peasants made a sharp distinction between the democratic and agrarian revolution which the Bolshevik party had carried through, and its policy directed toward laying the foundations of socialism. The expropriation of the landlords and the state lands brought the peasants upwards of half a billion gold rubles a year. In prices of state products, however, the peasants were paying out a much larger sum. So long as the net result of the two revolutions, democratic and socialistic, bound together by the firm snow of October, reduced itself for the peasantry to a loss of hundreds of millions, a union of the two classes remained dubious.”

A lack of agricultural products to exchange with the cities was thus one of the problems that bedevilled the Soviet economy in the 1920s. Again Trotsky:

“The scattered character of the peasant economy, inherited from the past, was aggravated by the results of the October Revolution. The number of independent farms rose during the subsequent decade from 16 to 25 million, which naturally strengthened the purely consummatory character of the majority of peasant enterprises. That was one of the causes of the lack of agricultural products.”

Two possible responses to this resulted from two differing perspectives: one, from both Bukharin and Stalin through much of the 1920s, was to conciliate the capitalistic elements of the peasantry more and more, and encourage them to produce more on a capitalist basis. This grew out of the theory of ‘socialism in one country’, a perspective in which the world revolution played no role.

“A small commodity economy inevitably produces exploiters. In proportion as the villages recovered, the differentiation within the peasant mass began to grow. This development fell into the old well-trodden ruts. The growth of the kulak far outstripped the general growth of agriculture. The policy of the government under the slogan ‘face to the country’ was actually a turning of its face to the kulak. Agricultural taxes fell upon the poor far more heavily than upon the well-to-do, who moreover skimmed the cream of the state credits. The surplus grain, chiefly in possession of the upper strata of the village, was used to enslave the poor and for speculative selling to the bourgeois elements of the cities. Bukharin, the theoretician of the ruling faction at that time, tossed to the peasantry his famous slogan, ‘Get rich!’ In the language of theory that was supposed to mean a gradual growing of the kulaks into socialism. In practice it meant the enrichment of the minority at the expense of the overwhelming majority.”

Here was the basis of Bukharin’s perspective of “building socialism at a snail’s pace” through trying to harness the kulaks as some kind of engine of building this ‘socialism’.

The alternative perspective of the Left Opposition was planned collectivisation of agriculture and the investment of the surpluses gained in industrial development, to in a planned way increase the productivity of labour in both industry and agriculture, in order to strengthen the Soviet state as much as was reasonably possible while seeking to promote the political conditions for spreading of the revolution.

The dispute about nationalisation vs denationalisation of the land was a key index of this. The proposal to denationalise the land, endorsed by Stalin, was one of the issues that led to the split in the original Troika, with Zinoviev and Kamenev, presidents of the Soviets in Leningrad and Moscow, going over to the Left Opposition, and forming the Joint Opposition in 1926.

The Left Opposition in that period were denounced as ‘super industrialisers’ in that period. Though in fact compared to the extremes of forced collectivisation that happened after 1929, their demands were quite modest and measured.

As narrated by Trotsky:

“Stalin thundered against the ‘fantastic plans’ of the Opposition. Industry must not ‘rush ahead, breaking away from agriculture and abandoning the tempo of accumulation in our country.’ The party decisions continued to repeat these maxims of passive accommodation to the well-off upper circles of the peasantry. The 15th Party Congress, meeting in December 1927 for the final smashing of the ‘super-industrializers’, gave warning of the ‘danger of a too great involvement of state capital in big construction.’ The ruling faction at that time still refused to see any other dangers.”

And the perspective of the ‘super-industrialisers’ prefigured some of what was achieved in the 1930s:

“The hypothetic possibilities of socialist industrialization had been analyzed by the Opposition as early as 1923-25. their general conclusion was that, after exhausting the equipment inherited from the bourgeoisie, the Soviet industries might, on the basis of socialist accumulation, achieve a rhythm of growth wholly impossible under capitalism. The leaders of the ruling faction openly ridiculed our cautious coefficients in the vicinity of 15 to 18 per cent as the fantastic music of an unknown future. This constituted at that time the essence of the struggle against ‘Trotskyism.’”

 But that, of course, is another discussion, that would pre-empt what we are to discuss next time, the about turn of Stalin, the break with Bukharin, etc.