The Question of the Peasantry and Industrialisation in the Soviet Union and People’s China

Vijay Singh

In a recent discussion a comrade argued ‘that Stalin engaged in the production of surplus value through the exploitation of the peasantry, and this funded and sustained urban industrialisation. Furthermore, this exploitation was exacerbated, as Bettelheim argues, due to the poor organisation amongst the peasantry of the Bolsheviks (this predates Stalin’s ascendency as well), which results in an antagonising of contradictions amongst the people. Indeed, I do not think that Stalin was some tyrant who purposefully went around killing peasants for fun, but do think that the exigencies of developing urban industrialisation and poor relationship between the Bolsheviks and the peasantry resulted in a rather callous approach towards the difficulties that the peasantry faced. I think that this difference in approach with respect to the peasantry and industrialisation is a qualitative difference between the policies of Stalin and Mao’.

This is a not an uncommon view in progressive circles. But it has a tenuous relation with historical reality. The following response was made to this understanding.

But there is no evidence to suggest that Soviet industrialisation was financed by the ‘production of surplus value through the exploitation of the peasantry’. Preobrazhensky, an ally of Trotsky, in the 1920s had called for the peasantry to be treated as an ‘internal colony’ of the Soviet working class. He proposed that surplus extracted from the peasantry should be utilised for ‘super-industrialisation’. Stalin had rejected this view but he was charged later by Deutscher and then by many others of stealing the clothes of Preobrazhensky and implementing his policies in the First Five Year Plan. These views have also been repeated by those who were part of the marriage between Trotskyism and Maoism which was consummated in Paris in the late 1960s. Bettelheim as is known supported Trotskyism from the 1930s till the 20th Congress of the CPSU when he began to support the pro-Khrushchev Communist Party of France, and then he went on to give support to the cultural revolution of China. The ideological views of Bettelheim on Soviet history are a gallimaufry of each of the ideological trends that he had espoused from the 1930s. Many of these ideas are carried by fractions of the contemporary progressive intelligentsia. The only problem is that these notions have no basis in historical reality.

The only serious study of this question based on Soviet materials and documents is by the Soviet economic historian A.A. Barsov in his book ‘Balans stoimostnykh obmenov mezhdu gorodom i derevnei’, Moscow, 1969. While this book and related documents are only available in Russian they have been reviewed by a number of specialists. See, for example, Michael Ellman ‘Did the Agricultural Surplus Provide the Resources for the Increase in Investment in the USSR? (The Economic Journal, December 1975, pp. 844-864.) and Arvind Vyas ‘Primary accumulation in the USSR revisited’ (Cambridge Journal of Economics 1979, pp. 3, 119-130).

This is what A.A. Barsov has to say:

‘.the surplus product created by the labour of the Soviet peasantry played a big role in the establishment of a mighty socialist industry. The contribution of the Soviet peasantry to the solution of this immensely important historical task was great. Nevertheless, the majority of the accumulation, necessary for carrying out socialist industrialisation, was obtained from the non-agricultural branches of the economy and was created by the working class’.

Arvind Vyas indicates, on the basis of Barsov, in terms of Marxian values, that in the financing of Soviet industrialisation, two-thirds of the accumulation fund came from industry and one-third from the surplus product necessary for the development of industry. He also pointed out that the net agricultural surplus between the years 1928 and 1932 was negative. The evidence of Barsov negates the viewpoint of those who argued that Stalin followed the policies earlier recommended by Preobrazhensky to ensure ‘primary socialist accumulation’ at the expense of the peasantry. Vyas further points out that there was a drastic decline in the urban standard of living in the period of the First Five Year Plan, urban real wages falling by 49 %, which permitted a very high rate of accumulation. It was primarily the sacrifices of the Soviet working class which ensured Soviet industrialisation.

Michael Ellman noted that during the First Five Year Plan it was not possible for agriculture to have provided the resources for industrialisation. He argued that ‘ .during the First Five Year Plan the volume of investment more than quadrupled and rose from 14.8% of the national income in 1928 to 44.1% in 1932. Clearly, measuring in 1928 prices, agriculture could not possibly have provided the resources for industrialisation in 1928-32 because by the end of the First Five Year Plan annual investment was more than double annual agricultural output, and the increase in investment during the First Five Year Plan (i.e. the excess of investment in 1932 over investment in 1928) was substantially greater than the entire output of agriculture in any year... During the First Five Year Plan the Soviet national income rose by 60% and virtually all this income was used to increase investment.’ Ellman, who is no sympathiser of Marxism, is clear that ‘.. .there is no basis whatsoever for the view that the increase in investment during the First Five Year Plan was financed by an increase in the agricultural surplus’.

It is correct to say that the Bolsheviks as a party of the industrial working class had a weak base amongst the Soviet peasantry just as it can be said that the CPC had a weak base in the Chinese working class. Lenin and the Bolsheviks considered that the industrial proletariat was the only class which could lead a socialist revolution and take it to communism. For this reason they privileged organisation of the industrial working class. They did not accept Narodism. The Bolsheviks were concerned to ally with the whole peasantry in the struggle for revolutionary democracy and with the working peasantry in the fight for socialism. The October revolution and collectivisation (and the Great Patriotic war) showed that the working peasantry were important allies of the working class. There was no general antagonism, as you argue, between the working class and the peasantry as a whole in the Soviet Union during collectivisation. They were allies but it was not an objective of the Bolsheviks to create a party in which the working peasantry would be quantitatively important. Antagonistic relations existed only between the working class and the working peasantry on one side and the rich peasant class, the kulaks, whom Lenin had dubbed as the last capitalist class, on the other side. Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not consider that the kulaks were a part of the ‘people’; they were a part of the bourgeoisie. It is highly problematic to talk just in terms of the relationship of the Bolsheviks and the peasantry in general as a whole. The Bolsheviks followed Marx and Engels in excluding the rich peasantry from the collective farms and communes. Engels pointed out in The Peasant Question in France and Germany that collectives should be formed of the small peasantry. He also argued that: ‘Marx and I never doubted that in the transition to the full communist economy we will have to use the cooperative system as an intermediate stage on a large scale. It must only be so organised that society, initially the state, retains the ownership of the means of production so that the private interests of the cooperative vis-a-vis society as a whole cannot establish themselves.’ In the Soviet Union after collectivisation the means of production whether land or agricultural machinery was owned by the state sector which was under the control of the working class.

After 1927 the Communist Party of China (CPC) had a marginal membership from the working class for obvious reasons. It was not something wanted by the CPC; it was forced upon them by the massacres of the communists and workers instigated by the Kuomintang. The communists were driven out of the urban areas so that the work of the CPC in the towns was driven underground. The CPC consequently became in terms of its social composition a peasant party. Only after 1949 did the CPC attempt to rebuild a new industrial proletarian basis for itself though it did not in any way become a major part of its membership – despite its being the leading party holding state power. The CPC during the revolutionary wars, despite its almost non-existent industrial working class base, did have the benefit of real proletarian guidance and not just ideologically. It had the unmitigated support of the Soviet working class and the CPSU (b).

Soviet industrialisation under the Five Year Plans not only created the material basis for the defeat of Hitlerism in the west; it also enabled Soviet (and Mongolian) troops to enter Manchuria and destroy the Japanese 4th Army. Had the CPSU (b) followed the policies of Bukharin of the late 1920s or of Mao after 1956 i.e. placing stress on the development of light industry and agriculture, there would not have been a strong metallurgical and engineering base in the Soviet Union and it would have been difficult if not impossible to confront Nazi Germany and Tojo’s Japan. The stunning Soviet victory in Manchuria over the Japanese had the consequence of enabling the Chinese People’s LiberationArmy to take shelter from the Kuomintang, saved it from physical destruction, and enabled it to receive from the Soviet Union Japanese armaments which could be used in the march south to defeat the Kuomintang. The Soviet army (and the Bulgarian) entry into eastern Yugoslavia and Manchuria ensured people’s democratic victories in both Yugoslavia and China. Nationalist elements in both countries were to say (rather screech from the housetops) that their victory was based on the internal armed forces.

The ratio of forces between the Communist Party, the proletariat and the peasantry as well as the social composition of the party was determined by historical circumstances and it changed over time both in the Soviet Russia and China.

You argue that in comparison to Stalin, Mao had a qualitatively different approach on industrialisation and the attitude towards the peasantry. We pointed out that the arguments that Stalin had exploited the peasantry are unfounded. What you prefer in the Chinese exemplar it seems are the policies in China which were in consonance with the views of the Soviet leadership after Stalin. In both countries industrialisation (production of the means of production) was downgraded to the benefit of agriculture and light industry after 1957. Centralised directive planning was ended in both the countries and replaced by a decentralised ‘co-ordinated planning’. In both states the socialised means of production in agriculture, the Machine Tractor Stations, were handed over to the collective farms/people’s communes, thereby expanding the sphere of commodity-money relations in the economy. (It must be recognised though that in People’s China collectivisation and the establishment of the people’s communes had greatly reduced the area of operation of commodity-money relations in the economy). The collective farms in People’s China after 1955 had a different social class basis from the Soviet and early Chinese collective farms. Whilst Marx and Engels had urged that the social class basis of the collective farms were the small peasantry the CPC leadership incorporated the kulaks and former landlords into the collective farms after 1955 as had earlier been done, to the horror of Cominform, by Tito in Yugoslavia in 1948. These relations of production were carried over to the people’s communes which at the time of their being set up were a multi-class formation of the national bourgeoisie, the landlords, the kulaks and the working peasantry. The people’s communes incorporated all kinds of rural industries including fertiliser factories as well as steel plants and steamship companies which meant that a ‘gigantic’ quantity of the means of production was outside the sector of state property which constituted the property of the whole people. The CPC in its policies not only distanced itself from the founders of Marxism in terms of the social class composition of the collective farms/people’s communes but also from their views on the property relations in means of production in the collective farms/communes. Engels had stated in his letter to Bebel dated 20th January 1886: ‘And Marx and I never doubted that in the transition to the full communist economy we will have to use the cooperative system as an intermediate stage on a large scale. It must only be so organised that society, initially the state, retains the ownership of the means of production so that the private interests of the cooperative vis-a- vis society as a whole cannot establish themselves.’

All this suggests that questions of the peasantry and industrialisation in the Soviet Union and People’s China under Stalin, Khrushchev and Mao Zedong need to be looked at afresh with great care stripped of the rightist theories which have been spread since the 20th Congress of the CPSU.

Click here to return to the April 2017 index.