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WAS STALIN REALLY NECESSARY?

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  • michael berrell
    Was it all necessary? Could the Soviet Government have built the industrial base for Socialism without the violence and coercion of Stalinism? The decisions
    Message 1 of 2 , Mar 31, 2004
      Was it all necessary? Could the Soviet Government have built the
      industrial base for Socialism without the violence and coercion of
      Stalinism?

      The decisions the Soviet leadership took in the late 1920s had such
      momentous results for Soviet society, and for the rest of the world,
      that we must take such questions seriously. They are particularly
      important for those who take seriously the Socialist vision of a
      society combining Democracy, Equality and a basic level of material
      affluence for all.

      At the height of the Cold War, it was fashionable to argue that
      Stalinism followed automatically from Marxism. Few scholars would
      now accept this view undiluted. Certainly, there are authoritarian
      tendencies in the writings of Marx and Lenin. However, there are
      also democratic, even anarchistic tendencies in their writings. It
      was Lenin, for example, who said in 1918, in a quotation from
      Ovid: 'The Golden Age is coming; people will live without laws or
      punishment, doing of their own free will what is good and just".

      Paradoxically, Marx himself had already hinted at a better
      explanation for Stalinist authoritarianism when he argued that the
      attempt to build Socialism in an environment of scarcity would
      simply revive 'all the old crap' of class struggle. As the
      Mensheviks had insisted in 1917, a premature revolution was very
      likely to result in a brutal dictatorship. Alec Nove argued a
      similar case in a famous essay entitled, "Was Stalin Really
      Necessary?" first published in 1962. Nove argued that, given the
      Party's ideology and the difficulties it faced in the 1920s, forced
      collectivisation was the only strategy that provided enough
      resources to fund rapid industrialisation. Without it, the Soviet
      Union would surely not have survived the Great Patriotic War. So,
      collectivisation was necessary once the Communists decided to try to
      build Socialism in backward Russia, as was the authoritarian
      apparatus that imposed collectivisation. However, Nove argued that
      there was no need for the purges. Far from aiding industrial growth
      they stifled it.

      In the 1970s several scholars challenged the claim that Stalinism
      was, in some sense, 'necessary'. In a polemic with Nove, first
      published in 1976, J.R. Millar argued that even collectivisation was
      unnecessary. (J.R. Millar and A Nove, 'A Debate on
      Collectivisation' in Problems of Communism, July-August, 1976, pp 49-
      62. See also the preface to S Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik
      Revolution, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1980).

      Millar offered two distinct types of argument. The first stressed
      the wastefulness of the Stalinist growth strategy. Millar pointed to
      the immense destructiveness of collectivisation. He argued that, far
      from increasing the resources available for industrial growth,
      collectivisation reduced them. For example, the government had to
      pump vast sums of money back into agriculture just to replace lost
      livestock. The expansion in tractor production, of which the
      government was so proud, merely replaced the draught horses killed
      during collectivisation. In the urban sector, the absurd pace of
      industrialisation led to breakages of complex machinery. Valuable
      plant lay unused for lack of raw materials or skilled operators,
      while highly trained experts vanished during the purges.

      Millar's second argument takes us back back to the late 1920s. It
      appeared then that both the slowdown in industrial production and
      the 1927 procurements crisis proved the failure of the New Economic
      Policy. Millar argued that this may not have been true. The
      statistical information available to the government was extremely
      unreliable, and the government may well have exaggerated the
      seriousness of both problems.

      Inadequate statistics probably exaggerated the slowdown in
      industrial production. The issue of procurements is more complex. At
      the time, the government believed it had no choice but to back down
      ( by raising the price it paid for grain deliveries), or launch an
      assault on the peasantry. Such arguments assumed that the peasants
      could afford not to sell their grain indefinitely. However, as
      Millar pointed out, this may not have been true. Certainly, many
      peasants chose not to market their surplus grain as grain prices
      declined. Yet they increased their marketing of other products, in
      particular of small livestock for meat. Faced with falling grain
      prices and stable prices for other produce, they fed surplus grain
      to their pigs and cattle, and then sold the meat. They had to sell
      something, for by now they depended more than the government
      realised on purchasing industrially produced items no longer made in
      the villages. The Russian peasantry had ceased to be as self-
      sufficient as the government believed.

      The implications of these rustic economics are profound. They
      sugggest that there may have been a third way out of the
      procurements crisis for the Soviet Government. It simply had to
      lower the price it paid for livestock produce as well as for grain.
      Peasants would have to sell their grain. They would also have to
      sell it cheaply, leaving the government sector with the profits it
      needed to finance rapid industrial growth.

      This conclusion is not as trivial as it may appear. It implies
      that the government could have used market forces to extract more
      resources than it realised from the countryside. Peasants might have
      grumbled, but they need not have resisted actively, for such
      measures would not have affected their interests as much as
      collectivisation did. In other words, there may have been a strategy
      of growth which would have made use of market forces while retaining
      socialist control of the 'commanding heights'. This strategy would
      have combined elements of Bukharin's strategy of growth with those
      of the leftwing. It would have combined market forces with a
      considerable, but not extreme, degree of fiscal pressure from the
      government. It was a strategy that still relied on indirect
      mobilisation. The peasantry would have been taxed harder; the rate
      of industrial growth could have increased; the country would have
      avoided the wasteful excesses of Stalinism; and the basic framework
      of the New Economic Policy would have evolved gradually into
      Socialism as the socialist industrial sector expanded. As in the
      1920s, the government would have been authoritarian, but
      not 'totalitarian'. During the era of Perestroika such arguments
      were of great interest, for they seemed to point to a 'third way',
      combining elements of both Socialism and Capitalism.

      Such strategies were certainly available. However, the failure of
      perestroika suggests, as did the the failure of the NEP, that they
      were likely to be unstable. Finding a stable balance between direct
      and indirect forms of mobilisation was bound to be extremely
      difficult under conditions of great social and economic strain.
      Besides, could such a strategy have generated enough growth,
      particularly in heavy industry, to sustain a war against Nazi
      Germany by 1941? The strength of the Stalinist system was its
      ability to mobilise resources-people, money and goods- on a scale
      huge enough to compensate for it's inefficiency. Would a social
      structure closer to that of the NEP period have survived the strains
      of the war years?

      The argument presented in this book ("Power and Privilege"), is
      close to the position of the Mensheviks or of Alec Nove. Under
      conditions of backwardness, the attempt to build Socialism was bound
      to be dangerous. It required rapid growth, yet the hostility of
      Socialist ideologies to Capitalism ruled out use of the Capitalist
      engine of growth. This left two alternatives. Either a half and half
      strategy such as NEP, or a strategy of direct mobilisation. The
      first strategy required a delicacy of touch that the Bolsheviks
      lacked. Besides, the difficulties they faced allowed no time to
      learn how to manage so unstable an economic structure. Many
      Bolsheviks opposed such a strategy anyway, as an improper compromise
      with Capitalism. This left only the strategy of direct mobilisation.
      There was a certain simplicity about it. Most Party members could
      understand its logic. And its approach to economics and politics was
      familliar. Indeed it had deep roots in Russian tradition. In the
      circumstances, the emergence of an extremely authoritarian state,
      relying on Russia's traditional political culture, was extremely
      likely. Whether it need have reached the extremes of High Stalinism
      is, however, doubtful.


      Allow me to remind listeners that these are the views of Professor
      David Christian as presented in his book "Power and Privilege". And
      Bob can rest assured, Christian is no apologist for Stalinism, its
      all here the labour camps, the purges the executions. Obviously
      however I can't transcribe the entire text I am trying to summarise
      the main arguments. They are open to discussion and debate. I would
      love to hear an alternative analysis to Christian. As I read through
      the book again I am struck that perhaps its arguments are coloured
      to some extent by a certain, pessimism a disillusion that many
      Socialists myself among them felt following the fall of the Berlin
      Wall and then the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union.
    • MICHAEL BERRELL
      This is a slightly amended version of my earlier post on Was Stalin Really Necessary? I ve added a piece by David Christian on the possibility of combining
      Message 2 of 2 , Dec 30, 2004
        Dear Tom,

           This is a slightly amended version of my earlier post on ‘Was Stalin Really Necessary?’ I’ve added a piece by David Christian on the possibility of combining planning and markets.

         

         

         

        I think I may have posted this before but it’s worth posting again
        in light of the current discussion on 'Stalinism'. It may also help
        to further explain my views on this subject.

         

         

         

        The following is from pages 285-288 of "Power and Privilege" by
        David Christian.


        WAS STALIN REALLY NECESSARY?

        Was it all necessary? Could the Soviet government have built the
        industrial base for Socialism without the violence and coercion of
        Stalinism?

        The decisions the Soviet leadership took in the late 1920s had
        such momentous results for Soviet society, and for the rest of the
        world, that we must take such questions seriously. They are
        particularly important for those who take seriously the socialist
        vision of a society combining democracy, equality and a basic level
        of material affluence for all.

        At the height of the Cold War, it was fashionable to argue that
        Stalinism followed automatically from Marxism. Few scholars would
        now accept this view undiluted. Certainly, there are authoritarian
        tendencies in the writings of Marx and of Lenin. However, there are
        also democratic, even anarchistic tendencies in their writings.

        Paradoxically, Marx himself had already hinted at a better
        explanation for Stalinist authoritarianism when he argued that the
        attempt to build Socialism in an environment of scarcity would
        simply revive 'all the old crap' of class struggle. As the
        Mensheviks had insisted in 1917, a premature revolution was very
        likely to result in a brutal dictatorship. Alec Nove argued a
        similar case in a famous essay entitled, 'Was Stalin Really
        Necessary?' first published in 1962. Nove argued that, given the
        Party's ideology and the difficulties it faced in the 1920s, forced
        collectivisation was the only strategy that provided enough
        resources to fund rapid industrialisation. Without it, the Soviet
        Union would surely not have survived the Great Patriotic War. So,

        collectivisation was necessary once the Communists decided to try to
        build Socialism in backward Russia , as was the authoritarian
        apparatus that imposed collectivisation. Nove argued that there was
        no need for the purges. Far from aiding industrial growth they
        stifled it.

        In the 1970s several scholars challenged the claim that Stalinism
        was, in some sense, 'necessary'. In a polemic with Nove, first
        published in 1976, J.R. Millar argued that even collectivisation was
        unecessary. Millar offered two distinct types of argument.

        The first stressed the wastefulness of the Stalinist growth
        strategy. Millar pointed to the immense destructiveness of
        collectivisation. He argued that, far from increasing the resources
        available for industrial growth, collectivisation reduced them. For
        example, the government had to pump vast sums of money back into
        agriculture just to replace lost livestock. The expansion in tractor
        production, of which the government was so proud, merely replaced
        the draught horses killed during collectivisation. In the urban
        sector, the absurd pace of industrialisation led to breakages of of
        complex machinery. Valuable plant lay unused for lack of raw
        materials or skilled operators, while highly trained experts
        vanished during the purges.

        Millar's second argument takes us back to the late 1920s. It
        appeared then that both the slowdown in industrial production and
        the 1927 procurements crisis proved the failure of the New Economic
        Policy. Millar argued that this may not have been true. The
        statistical information available to the government was extremely
        unreliable, and the government may well have exaggerated the
        seriousness of both problems.

        Inadequate statistics probably exaggerated the slowdown in
        industrial production. The issue of procurements is more complex. At
        the time, the government believed it had no choice but to back down
        (by raising the price it paid for grain deliveries), or launch an
        assault on the peasantry. Such arguments assumed that the peasants
        could afford not to sell their grain indefinitely. However, as
        Millar pointed out, this may not have been true. Certainly, many
        peasants chose not to market their surplus grain as grain prices
        declined. Yet they increased their marketing of other products, in
        particular of small livestock for meat. Faced with falling grain
        prices and stable prices for other produce, they fed surplus grain
        to their pigs and cattle, and then sold the meat. They had to sell
        something, for by now they depended more than the government
        realised on purchasing industrially produced items no longer made in
        the villages. The Russian peasantry had ceased to be as self-
        sufficient as the government believed.

        The implications of these rustic economics are profound. They
        suggest that there may have been a third way out of the procurements
        crisis for the Soviet government. It simply had to lower the price
        it paid for livestock produce as well as for grain. Peasants would
        have had to sell their grain. They would also have had to sell it
        cheaply, leaving the government sector with the profits it needed to
        finance rapid industrial growth.

        This conclusion is not as trivial as it may appear. It implies
        that the government could have used market forces to extract more
        resources than it realised from the countryside. Peasants might have
        grumbled, but they need not have resisted actively, for such
        measures would not have affected their interests as much as
        collectivisation did. In other words, there may have been a strategy
        of growth which would have made use of market forces while
        containing socialist control of the 'commanding heights'. This
        strategy would have combined elements of Bukharin's strategy of
        growth with those of the left wing. It was a strategy that still
        relied on indirect mobilisation. The peasantry would have been taxed
        harder; the rate of industrial growth could have increased; the
        country could have avoided the wasteful excesses of Stalinism; and
        the basic framework of the New Economic Policy would have evolved
        gradually into Socialism as the socialist industrial sector
        expanded. As in the 1920s, the government would have been
        authoritarian, but not 'totalitarian'. During the era of Perestroika
        such arguments were of great interest, for they seemed to point to
        a 'third way', combining elements of Socialism and Capitalism.

        Such strategies were certainly available. However, the failure of
        Perestroika suggests, as did the failure of the NEP, that they were
        likely to be unstable. Finding a stable balance between direct and
        indirect forms of mobilisation was bound to be extremely difficult
        under conditions of great social and economic strain. Besides, could
        such a strategy have generated enough growth, particularly in heavy
        industry, to sustain a war against Nazi Germany by 1941? The
        strength of the Stalinist system was its ability to mobilise
        resources - people, money and goods-on a scale huge enough to
        compensate for its inefficiency. Would a social structure closer to
        that of the NEP period have survived the strains of the war years?
        It would have wasted fewer human and material resources than the
        Stalinist system. However, it could have never generated the full
        power of the capitalist engine of growth, for it would have entailed
        many restrictions on the activities of entrepreneurs.

        The argument presented in this book is close to the position of
        the Mensheviks or of Alec Nove. Under conditions of backwardness,
        the attempt to build Socialism was bound to be dangerous. It
        required rapid growth, yet the hostility of socialist ideologies to
        Capitalism ruled out use of the capitalist strategy of growth. This
        left two alternatives. Either a half and half strategy such as NEP,
        or a strategy of direct mobilisation. The first strategy required a
        delicacy of touch that the Bolsheviks lacked. Besides, the
        difficulties they faced allowed no time to learn how to manage so
        unstable an economic structure. Many Bolsheviks opposed such a
        strategy anyway, as an improper compromise with Capitalism. This
        left only the strategy of direct mobilisation. There was a certain
        simplicity
        about it. Most Party members could understand its logic.

        And its approach to economics and politics was familiar. Indeed, it
        had deep roots in Russian tradition. In the circumstances, the
        emergence of an extremely authoritarian state, relying on Russia 's
        traditional political culture was extremely likely. Whether it need
        have reached the extremes of High Stalinism is, however, doubtful.


        From the conclusion pages 385-6

        WHY DID THE SOCIALIST EXPERIMENT FAIL?

        The Socialist experiment ran into trouble in Russia for reasons
        that Marx himself had predicted. Marx had insisted that Socialism
        could be built only under conditions of abundance and high
        productivity. Without a high level of abundance, the attempt to
        create a more egalitarian society would impoverish as many as it
        would enrich. This would ensure the persistence of social and
        political conflict. In launching a socialist revolution in backward
        Russia, the Bolsheviks were aware of flouting this basic principle.
        They did so in the conviction that the revolution would be world-
        wide, and that the high levels of productivity necessary for
        building Socialism did exist in the advanced capitalist countries.
        The failure of the world-wide revolution (to eventuate) left them
        high and dry. They now had to build Socialism in an environment in
        which even Marx had insisted the project was impossible. This is
        the 'Menshevik' explanation for the failure of the Soviet
        experiment. As early as 1917, Mensheviks argued that the October
        Revolution was premature. In this view, Stalinism fulfilled Marx'
        gloomy prediction that the attempt to build Socialism under
        conditions of scarcity would generate violent social conflict.


        THE STALINIST ENGINE OF GROWTH

        However, once embarked on the experiment, the Bolsheviks persisted
        despite the failure of the world revolution (to eventuate). (What
        other choice did they have it may be asked MB). If the Bolsheviks
        were to prove the Mensheviks wrong and justify the October
        Revolution, they had to use their own resources to build up the
        productive forces of Soviet society. They had to do this both to
        defend the Soviet Union and to lay a foundation for Socialism. Could
        they do it? Was there a strategy of growth as successful as the
        capitalist strategy, but compatible with the egalitarian goals of
        Socialism? This was the challenge Stalin took on.

        By the end of his life, he almost certainly believed that he had
        found this alternative engine of growth. The Soviet command economy
        had generated spectacular rates of growth. Though Stalin's strategy
        exacted a high cost from Soviet Citizens, it offered in return the
        promise of national strength and a better life in the future. These
        successes convinced many within the Soviet Union and elsewhere that
        the Bolsheviks had indeed found a non-capitalist route to modernity.
        This route was particularly attractive to the governments of many
        Third World countries. ( North Korea, Vietnam , Cuba ? MB)

        The trouble is that the successes proved to be more temporary than
        the failures. Like a piece of pre-industrial machinery, the
        Stalinist engine of growth could maintain modern rates of production
        only at great cost or in selected areas, such as defence. This posed
        moral as well as economic problems. If the Stalinist strategy could
        not compete with Capitalism, it could hardly justify the immense
        costs it had imposed on the Soviet people. As early as the 1950s,
        Soviet economists and politicians began to suspect that the
        Stalinist strategy could generate extensive growth much better than
        intensive growth. Yet sustained growth clearly demanded intensive
        growth. From the 1950s until the late 1980s, successive Soviet
        governments sought a strategy that would generate intensive as well
        as extensive growth within the Soviet planned economy. They never
        found such a strategy.

         

         

         

         

        MISSED OPPORTUNITIES? ALTERNATIVE ‘ENGINES OF GROWTH?

         

         

          Did Soviet governments miss something? Was there a ‘third’ way to modernity which avoided the inequalities of Capitalism but generated equally rapid growth? Or was the socialist project itself unrealistic?

         

          Those who have argued that the Soviet government missed the right strategy have focused on two turning points: NEP and Perestroika. In each case, it appeared that there might be chances to exploit the dynamism of the market within the structures of a socialist society. In each case, governments made mistakes. However, the failure of the experiment with market Socialism on both occasions also shows how difficult the project was. Markets and planning always threatened to destabilize each other. Market forces undermined planning mechanisms, while plans imposed from above stifled business activity. A restricted market could only generate slow growth, while an unrestricted market economy was bound to create new forms of inequality. There was a clear trade off between equity and growth.

         

          Does this mean that it is impossible to combine markets and planning? Not at all.  Most modern economies do precisely that. Most communist economies incorporated elements of the market. And most capitalist societies planned, for most accepted some of the social justice goals of Socialism and used planning mechanisms to redistribute wealth to the unemployed or the poor. However, in all modern economies one element is dominant. Either the planners dominate the market (as in the socialist economies of Eastern Europe and China ), or market forces dominate, and all too often undermine, attempts to plan. Markets and plans can coexist. Yet a society in which they are equal forces is likely to be unstable, like Soviet society in the late 1920s or the late 1980s. In such a society, it is also likely that neither planning nor markets will operate with maximum potency. Markets cannot generate intensive growth if planners harass entrepreneurs and distort pricing mechanisms. Within a planning system, the capitalist engine of growth could only work at half throttle. On the other hand, the experience of modern capitalist societies shows that attempts to redistribute wealth more equally tend to be undermined by market forces unless they are so determined that they begin to throttle growth.

         

          This suggests that there is, indeed, no ‘third way’ in the modern world. There is no stable balance of planning and markets. Instead, there is a wide range of systems in which one of these elements dominates the other. And, looking back from the end of the Twentieth Century, it would appear that systems in which the market dominates are best at generating sustained growth.

         

          These conclusions suggest that in the modern world the goals of growth and social equity may be incompatible. Marx had hinted at the possibility already. This is why he concluded that the creation of a society free of oppression required the overthrow of Capitalism. Further, of the two goals, it is growth that generates the most power in the modern world. The rapid economic growth of capitalist societies threatened traditional societies because it generated both wealth and military power. To choose equity over growth was, therefore, to choose weakness. Even Stalin understood in the 1930s that excessive egalitarianism inhibited economic growth and threatened to undermine Soviet power. So he abandoned the goal of egalitarianism. This is why Stalinism appeared so successful while less coercive strategies for the building of Socialism failed. For a time, Stalinism delivered growth in the crucial heavy industrial and defence sectors. And it delivered growth fast.



        Additional comment MB


        Obviously Christian's critique of why Socialism failed in the
        former Soviet Union can be just as suitably applied to the
        other 'deformed workers states'. Even more so in the cases of China,
        Vietnam and North Korea where the level of material abundance was
        even lower than was the case in Russia in 1917. North Korea in
        particular almost exactly mirrors the Soviet Unions rate of economic
        development. The rapid industrialisation of a backward, impoverished
        essentially feudal society, the initial burst of economic growth
        which saw it out pace the South and then the dramatic slowing of the
        economy.

        In 1978, Deng Xiaoping argued that China would have to undergo a
        period of Capitalist development before the material conditions for
        Socialism would develop in that country. In doing so he abandoned
        the Stalinist engine of growth and opted instead for out and out
        Capitalism. A similar, if less dramatic decision was taken in Vietnam
        in 1986. While politically a Stalinist it would be more accurate to
        describe Deng ideologically as a Menshevik.

        Bob Gould asks whether Pol Pot's Cambodia should have been
        considered a 'deformed workers state'. My reply to him would be
        considering its level of social and economic development it is
        pointless to talk of Socialism in such a society in any meaningful
        way.

        I guess the difference between Bob and I on 'Stalinism'is this; I
        would argue that it doesn't matter whether this or that faction lost
        out in an internal power struggle. Given the level of social and
        economic development and the general lack of material abundance in
        these societies, all Socialists would sooner or later have been
        confronted with similar choices.



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