The Revolution Betrayed – Chapter 2 Part 2: A Sharp Turn: “Five-year Plan in Four Years” and “Complete Collectivization”

At the last meeting we discussed a key consequence of the Stalinist strategy of ‘socialism in one country’ as expressed in the early 1920s.

We recalled that the Communists in power in Russia, under Lenin and Trotsky, after the war against the Whites and imperialist intervention was won in 1921, were forced to retreat economically.

They had to abandon their crude wartime use of economic planning, known as ‘War Communism’, to maintain economic life, feed the population and supply the armed forces of the infant Soviet republic.

In its place they put the New Economic Policy – limited but significant concessions to capitalism particularly in the countryside – as a means to revive the Soviet economy.

At the end of the Civil War, the economy had undergone a massive decline of productive power and food supplies, tending towards famine. This was a result of the near-breakdown of the class alliance, of workers and peasants, that won the civil war, once the war was won.

The newly freed peasantry no longer feared the return of the big landlord class, and rebelled against requisitioning of their grain by the state.

This regime was abandoned in favour of a limited tax-in-kind on the peasants, who were allowed to sell their surplus above the tax on the market.

This did in a relatively short time produce a major economic revival, but also began to produce social and economic differentiation among the peasantry, the growth of an exploiting, wealth layer of richer peasants – the kulaks.

With the death of Lenin, whose political authority was overwhelming in the party he created, this social differentiation interacted with emerging political differentiation in the party.

 Fundamentally, this pitted those around Trotsky, who maintained the strategic goal of world revolution and the duty of the party to do everything to promote this goal, and those around the ‘Troika’: Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, who along with Bukharin retreated from this in favour a perspective of national isolation.

The idea of a gradual, evolutionary economic growth and conciliation of capitalism as a ‘partner’ is implicit in the programme of ‘socialism in one country’, first openly formulated by Stalin in 1924. The bloc with Bukharin typified the strategy. In that form it logically pointed to capitalist restoration.

We have already pointed to how the Opposition put forward a programme of measured, planned collectivisation of agriculture, coming off the discussion about the ‘scissors’ crisis of divergent prices of agricultural and industrial products.

This was beaten down by the Stalin-Bukharin bloc in the mid-to-late 1920s, with the Opposition denounced as ‘super industrialisers’ and of course ‘enemies of the peasants’.

The growth of kulak influence alarmed important sections of even the emergent bureaucratic regime.

The ‘Troika’ fractured, and Zinoviev and Kamenev came over to join with Trotsky for a while in 1926 to form the Joint Opposition.

During that period, they admitted that Trotsky had been right to condemn Socialism in One Country’ in favour of Permanent Revolution as a strategy.

Though their adherence proved to be weak and within 18 months they had effectively capitulated, and caused the core of the Opposition – the Trotskyists – considerable difficulties because of their weakness.

This differentiation under the hostile class pressure and activity of the Kulaks continued, and in 1929, the threat from the kulaks had fractured the Soviet regime, and divided Stalin and Bukharin, as the leaders of rival factions:

“The strengthened kulak carried with him the middle peasant and subjected the cities to a grain blockade. In January 1928 the working class stood face-to-face with the shadow of an advancing famine. History knows how to play spiteful jokes. In that very month, when the kulaks were taking the revolution by the throat, the representatives of the Left Opposition were thrown into prison or banished to different parts of Siberia in punishment for their “panic” before the spectre of the kulak.

“The government tried to pretend that the grain strike was caused by the naked hostility of the kulak (where did he come from?) to the socialist state – that is, by ordinary political motives. But the kulak is little inclined to that kind of “idealism.” If he hid his grain, it was because the bargain offered him was unprofitable. For the very same reason he managed to bring under his influence wide sections of the peasantry. Mere repressions against kulak sabotage were obviously inadequate. It was necessary to change the policy. Even yet, however, no little time was spent in vacillation.

The change in policy was forthcoming in time, and was announced in the media thus:

“… in just a few months the official press, with its usual freedom from embarrassment, announced that the head of the government, Rykov, “had speculated on the economic difficulties of the Soviet power”; … Bukharin, was “a conducting wire of bourgeois-liberal influences”; that Tomsky, president of the all-Russian Central Council of Trade Unions, was nothing but a miserable trade-unionist. …. Whereas the whole preceding struggle against the Left Opposition had taken its weapons from the right groups, Bukharin was now able … to accuse Stalin of using in his struggle with the Right a part of the condemned Left Opposition platform.”

Which was quite true. As Trotsky remarked “The minimalist five-year plan, already confirmed in principle by a congress of the party, gave place to a new plan, the fundamental elements of which were borrowed in toto from the platform of the shattered Left Opposition.”

This about turn produced its own characteristic illusions, or as he remarked again,

“Opportunism, as has often happened in history, turned into its opposite, adventurism. Whereas from 1923 to 1928 the Politburo had been ready to accept Bukharin’s philosophy of a “tortoise tempo”, it now lightly jumped from a 20 to a 30 per cent yearly growth.”

The Opposition, it should be remembered, considered that 18 per cent growth was at the top of the range of what could be achieved by a planned industrialisation programme.

As noted above, the five-year plan was radically revised in 1929 in the spirit of the slogan of ‘liquidation of the kulaks as a class”, and “Achieve the five-year plan in four years”.

Which was an adventurist caricature of the programme of the Opposition.

The Trotskyist Left Opposition gave critical support to the Stalin regime’s left turn, and clearly supported the centrist apparatus around Stalin against the Bukharin-led Right Opposition that emerged at that time.

But that support was more and more tempered by criticism as events unfolded, of the brutal, adventurist and often irrational manner in which the collectivisation was carried out. He noted that the policy involved:

“… trying to convert every partial and temporary achievement into a norm, and losing sight of the conditioning interrelation of the different branches of industry. The financial holes in the plan were stopped up with printed paper. During the years of the first plan the number of bank notes in circulation rose from 1.7 billion to 5.5, and by the beginning of the second five-year plan had reached 8.4 billion rubles. The bureaucracy not only freed itself from the political control of the masses, upon whom this forced industrialization was laying an unbearable burden, but also from the automatic control exercised by the chervonetz. The currency system, put on a solid basis at the beginning of the NEP, was now again shaken to its roots.”

Thus, in terms of statistics proclaimed by the Stalinists:

“In the year 1929, the proportion of collective farms rose from 1.7 per cent to 3.9 per cent. In 1930 it rose to 23.6, in 1931 to 52.7, in 1932 to 61.5 per cent.”

But the adventurist character of the turn was shown by its attempt to jump over the material situation of Russia at the time:

“The real possibilities of collectivization are determined, not by the depth of the impasse in the villages and not by the administrative energy of the government, but primarily by the existing productive resources – that is, the ability of the industries to furnish large-scale agriculture with the requisite machinery. These material conditions were lacking. The collective farms were set up with an equipment suitable in the main only for small-scale farming. In these conditions an exaggeratedly swift collectivization took the character of an economic adventure.”

And then Trotsky put the economic catastrophe that resulted in terms of statistics, again:

“The total harvest of grain, which had risen in 1930 to 835 million hundredweight, fell in the next two years below 700 million. The difference does not seem catastrophic in itself, but it meant a loss of just that quantity of grain needed to keep the towns even at their customary hunger norm. In technical culture, the results were still worse. On the eve of collectivization the production of sugar had reached almost 100 million poods, and at the height of complete collectivization it had fallen, owing to a lack of beets, to 48 million poods – that is, to half what it had been. But the most devastating hurricane hit the animal kingdom. The number of horses fell 55 per cent – from 34.6 million in 1929 to 15.6 million in 1934. The number of horned cattle fell from 30.7 million to 19.5 million – that is, 40 per cent. The number of pigs, 55 per cent; sheep, 66 per cent. The destruction of people – by hunger, cold, epidemics and measures of repression – is unfortunately less accurately tabulated than the slaughter of stock, but it also mounts up to millions. “

The terrible famine which resulted indeed caused the deaths of millions, right across the USSR. It caused a fall in life-expectancy of five years in the early part of the 1930s in the USSR, a catastrophe that was only equalled in peacetime by the Yeltsin economic shock of neoliberal counterrevolution in the early 1990s.

Though evidently this was not a counterrevolution – it was an example of bureaucratic socialisation carried out from above.

In a very brutal manner constituting (ultimately, and in an irrational manner) an advance and deepening of the social revolution.

But dialectically, it can be said to have been carried out by methods that could only facilitate the victory of counterrevolution in the future.

This indeed is what happened – Stalin’s famine, for instance, is branded by Ukrainian nationalists as an intentional act of genocide,

It led to a growth of a popular sentiment in Ukraine, of national grievance, that fed into support for pro-Nazi opposition to perceived national oppression in the 1930s.

It has had a huge impact to this day. It has come to be equated, long after the event, with the Nazi holocaust.

Today Ukrainian nationalists call it the ‘Holodomor’, echoing the holocaust, though many of those who support such a false characterisation have no problem with supporting people who were involved in the actual Nazi holocaust.

It was to undercut this sentiment, that Trotsky very much feared would become a counterrevolutionary weapon, that Trotsky in the late 1930s advocated an Independent Soviet Ukraine.

But this was an all-USSR disaster; it was not specifically directed at the Ukraine, that is a lie.

Though it may have appeared excessively severe and important in the Ukraine simply because Ukraine was really the breadbasket of the USSR – the most productive and important agricultural area.

In any case, Trotsky did not condemn collectivisation itself, but rather its misapplication:

“The blame for these sacrifices lies not upon collectivization, but upon the blind, violent, gambling methods with which it was carried through. The bureaucracy foresaw nothing. Even the constitutions of the collectives, which made an attempt to bind up the personal interests of the peasants with the welfare of the farm, were not published until after the unhappy villages had been thus cruelly laid waste.

“The forced character of this new course arose from the necessity of finding some salvation from the consequences of the policy of 1923-28. But even so, collectivization could and should have assumed a more reasonable tempo and more deliberated forms. Having in its hands both the power and the industries, the bureaucracy could have regulated the process without carrying the nation to the edge of disaster. They could have, and should have, adopted tempos better corresponding to the material and moral resources of the country.”


“The supply to the factories of food and raw materials grew worse from season to season. Unbearable working conditions caused a migration of labor power, malingering, careless work, breakdown of machines, a high percentage of trashy products and general low quality. The average productivity of labor declined 11.7 per cent in 1931. According to an incidental acknowledgement of Molotov, printed in the whole Soviet press, industrial production in 1932 rose only 8.5 per cent, instead of the 36 per cent indicated by the year’s plan. To be sure, the world was informed soon after this that the five-year plan had been fulfilled in four years and three months. But that means only that the cynicism of the bureaucracy in its manipulations of statistics and public opinion is without limit. That, however, is not the chief thing. Not the fate of the five-year plan, but the fate of the regime was at stake.

“The regime survived.”

The regime survived, not least because it had deep roots in a profound popular revolution.

But it was also fortunate to escape, in that in the period when this disaster happened, the capitalist world was also in a different disaster – the economic collapse of the Wall St crash and the Great Depression.

If this had not been the case then perhaps some capitalist opponent would have exploited this disaster to overthrow the regime from without.

The final points that Trotsky makes in this chapter lays the basis for further discussions:

“It remains of course incomprehensible – at least with a rational approach to history – how and why a faction the least rich of all in ideas, and the most burdened with mistakes, should have gained the upper hand over all other groups, and concentrated an unlimited power in its hands. Our further analysis will give us a key to this problem too. We shall see, at the same time, how the bureaucratic methods of autocratic leadership are coming into sharper and sharper conflict with the demands of economy and culture, and with what inevitable necessity new crises and disturbances arise in the development of the Soviet Union.

However, before taking up the dual role of the “socialist” bureaucracy, we must answer the question: What is the net result of the preceding successes? Is socialism really achieved in the Soviet Union? Or, more cautiously: Do the present economic and cultural achievements constitute a guarantee against the danger of capitalist restoration – just as bourgeois society at a certain stage of its development became insured by its own successes against a restoration of serfdom and feudalism?

These questions are addressed in subsequent chapters