A WORLD TO WIN    #24   (1998)


Unearthing The Stalin Era

Stalin’s Industrial Revolution: Politics and Workers, 1928-1932
by Hiroaki Kuromiya
(Cambridge University Press, 1990)

The Best Sons of the Fatherland: Workers in the Vanguard of Soviet Collectivization
by Lynne Viola
(Oxford University Press, 1987)

By B.W.

In the last few years, the rulers of the former Soviet Union have openly repudiated the entire period of socialism in the USSR and have adopted nakedly capitalist political and economic forms for their rule in the various republics. An important part of this evolution has been rewriting history to justify and promote these changes, to convince the oppressed there and around the world that socialism was a failure, and that they have no alternative to capitalism. The period of Tsarism is now portrayed as a golden age whose great potential was thrown away by the “aberration” of the Bolshevik Revolution which led to what is now called the “dark days” of Stalin’s rule.

These developments underscore the importance of a new trend of Western historians known in academic circles as “revisionists”, not because they “revise” Marxism-Leninism but because they revise the “totalitarian” histories of the USSR which have long dominated in the West.1 Whereas the totalitarian historians depict the USSR under Lenin and especially Stalin as being subjected to the iron will of a single despot, with the masses simply silent victims, the “revisionists” point out the role of different class forces in the USSR in the socialist period, including a number of accomplishments of the Soviet revolutionaries. One of these authors, H Kuromiya, describes this trend: “The revolution appears in these [revisionist] works not merely as a revolution from above but also as one that was to some extent politically pressed and supported ‘from below’. So uncritically have Western historians assumed that Stalin intimidated and terrorised the whole society that the question of popular support has largely escaped them.” These historians do not claim to be revolutionary, and they are not. As is implied in Kuromiya’s statement, they view the state not as dictatorship of one class or another, but as an arena where different classes have varying amounts of influence. Nor is their goal to analyse how capitalist society can be superseded; rather, they are trying to be faithful to a static view of society as an ensemble of differing and often conflicting social interests - a model that they consider to be more truthful than the dominant totalitarian school of history. Yet despite their fundamentally erroneous view, this historical school has taken a fresh look at many of the crucial events in the building of socialism in the USSR. This review will deal with two of these recent texts.

The Best Sons of the Fatherland by
L. Viola is the history of a campaign called by the Bolshevik Party in 1929 to send 25 000 workers to the countryside as a proletarian shock-force in the fight to collectivise agriculture. Viola gives a brief overview of the economic situation prevailing in the USSR at that time and shows that for those taking part in the campaign collectivisation was felt to be indispensable for continuing the Bolshevik revolution. This was especially true of those politically active workers from the historic strongholds of the October Revolution. The “25 000ers”, as they came to be called, consciously saw themselves as bringing advanced proletarian consciousness to the peasant masses in the backward countryside, to unite with the revolutionary peasants and help lead their struggle to build socialism and create a whole new world.

The 25 000ers campaign was launched following a great crisis which confronted the USSR in 1927-28 when, despite a good harvest, the amount of grain sent to the cities declined dramatically. At the same time, the urban population was growing rapidly. Moreover instead of revolution elsewhere in Europe coming to their aid, as most Bolsheviks had anticipated, there was a renewed menace of war. While some leaders of the CPSU gave up revolution and sought ways to make their peace with the old order, the dominant section, led by Stalin, resolved to push ahead and build socialism, to increase Soviet economic and military strength and to ensure the supply of grain for the Red Army in case of war.

The campaign of the 25 000ers itself grew out of the frustration of the Party centre in its initial efforts to carry the revolution to the countryside by relying on the rural officials already in place.

Though the 25 000ers had the support of the Party centre, the local situation was often difficult. In 1926 there was approximately one Bolshevik for every 400 rural inhabitants; most were new members who joined during the NEP period, and, besides the politically untested, many were often wealthier peasants whose real motive for joining the Party was to keep their privileged position in the village.

Calling on the advanced workers to send 25 000 from their ranks to the countryside, for what was initially expected to be a campaign of a year or two, was part of an effort to go over the heads of this conservative rural officialdom and mobilise the party’s proletarian social base. The workers were chosen as the culmination of a mass campaign in the factories, with many times more volunteers than the number needed - factories sponsored the workers and tried to aid them with material and moral support. Of the factory directors, who were all members of the Communist Party, a few supported the campaign, but many resisted. They too were facing the need to industrialise rapidly, as part of the First Five Year Plan, and, according to Viola, wanted neither to lose some of their best workers and activists nor to have a major political campaign going on and “distracting” from work. Many argued openly that the quotas of workers demanded were too high; others adopted different tactics and tried to send raw, inexperienced youth with no particular political dedication to carry out this complicated and dangerous task. Articles appeared in the press stating that the workers could expect a hostile reception - hardly meant to encourage participation.

Led by Stalin, Bolshevik party forces mobilised from below to overcome this resistance, to implement the campaign and then persevere in supporting the workers once they were in the countryside. The workers who went were not motivated by personal interest: the conditions of life in the countryside were far worse than in the cities - the 25 000ers could expect an immediate, dramatic decline in their income and general conditions of life, including food, cultural activity, and so forth. They went for other reasons: most of the volunteers were veterans of the civil war against the bourgeoisie and the imperialist interventionist armies, and political activists in the years since - they were dedicated to the ideals of Marxism-Leninism and the Communist Party. Viola gives the example of a worker from Rostov, F.Z. Drozd, who declared to his fellow factory workers that it was his duty to fight for collectivisation just as he had served in the civil war: “I am an old partisan. Earlier, not even stopping to think, I cast aside my family and went to defend the party and Soviet power. Now when the slogan is ‘transform the North Caucasus to 100 percent collectivisation in one and one half years’, I, with satisfaction, go to the countryside in order again to fulfil my duty before the party and Soviet power.”

Viola notes the frustration found among many workers with the period of the New Economic Policy (NEP) - the temporary retreat in the early and mid-1920s which was called by Lenin in the face of the ravages of the imperialist intervention against the new-born revolutionary power. NEP had allowed a certain revival of capitalism in the cities and especially the countryside, where the Bolsheviks were still too weak to effectively revolutionise the society and economy. With collectivisation, the workers saw themselves as renewing the offensive and reinvigorating the revolution by taking it to the peasantry, especially the poor peasants. Veteran workers of 60 and over volunteered, recalling how they fought in the civil war at the front, and inspiring the younger workers to take their own positions on the front lines. Workers who knew the countryside spoke out too; one declared, “I am from the peasantry myself. For a long time, I not only had to observe the life of the peasant but myself tasted all of the superstitions by which all of our old pre-revolutionary peasantry was nourished. I saw that the only way for the peasantry to break out of its indigent condition was to enter the collective farm.”

The 25 000ers saw themselves as a necessary aid to the weak Party forces in the rural areas, indispensable for ensuring that collectivisation was carried out and that the cities, and the revolution itself, were not cut off and strangled by rural bourgeois forces in the countryside. But they saw themselves as far more than simply brawn added to ensure the enforcement of party policy. They also saw themselves as standard-bearers of proletarian culture and consciousness, fighting against illiteracy, drunkenness, lack of discipline, and in general taking an awareness of the Soviet revolution to hitherto unreached areas. Though many of them eventually returned to the cities, many others settled down to their new life among the peasantry.

The workers went in spite of material deprivation, hostility and danger from the kulak enemy - many were murdered, hundreds were beaten, arrested and purged from the party by rural party committees run by the rural elite and their cronies. Many went hungry and virtually all of them lived in conditions far more difficult than those they left behind in the cities. Yet the majority of the 25 000ers persevered and carried on collectivisation, rallying allies in the villages, generally the poorer peasants, schoolteachers and youth.

In part due to the efforts of self-sacrificing proletarian revolutionaries like these, for the first time in the history of mankind the toilers themselves wrenched the land out of the hands of private owners who had controlled it for countless generations. This was a truly earth-shaking victory that inspired millions of workers and peasants around the world with hope and shamefully exposed the capitulation of those leaders of the Soviet party like Trotsky and Bukharin who proclaimed such a victory impossible. It is true that, as Mao analysed later, there were serious mistakes in this campaign, and when the revisionists seized power in the 1950s, they turned the collective and state farms into factories of oppression and degradation. Mao analysed that though collectivisation in the USSR was a great victory, it had excessively squeezed the peasants, and was part of a policy that overemphasised heavy industry to the detriment of agriculture and light industry. Nonetheless, such errors on the part of Stalin and the Soviet revolutionaries do not take away from the fact that this was a first path-breaking step, and part of the basis on which Mao and the Chinese comrades learned to advance better and higher.

Stalin’s Industrial Revolution, by Hiroaki Kuromiya, is a work of economic history, not easily accessible, which focuses on the First Five Year Plan in the USSR, from 1928 to 1932, and especially on the role of the workers in carrying out industrialisation. Kuromiya briefly goes over the objective conditions at the time of the decision to end NEP and launch the drives for industrialisation and collectivisation. International tension was mounting and the Soviet leaders were growing concerned at the possibility of renewed imperialist intervention. The grain crisis that erupted in 1926-27, mentioned above, posed an acute challenge to the line of Stalin and those determined to go ahead and build socialism in the USSR. These factors gave rise to a crisis of confidence in the revolutionary regime.

Kuromiya is not concerned with attempting an overall summary of the period of the First Five Year plan, but limits the book to describing the role of the workers in carrying out industrialisation. In doing so, his account of this period brings welcome relief from the mountains of garbage churned out by the “totalitarian” school of history which interests itself almost exclusively in the suppression of reactionary intellectuals and kulaks. Kuromiya shows vividly not only that Stalin’s policies had significant popular support but that they answered deeply felt frustrations of broad strata in Soviet society, particularly the young proletarians, with the NEP period. Mao, looking at this period from the point of view of the acute class struggle in Soviet society, summed up that this campaign was urgent and necessary.

Yet who was the party to count on in carrying out the drive? Revolutionaries had never faced such a problem before and the revolution’s very success now posed new dilemmas: veteran workers often had moved up in the factory into the better-paying, skilled jobs and enjoyed a certain status as acknowledged leaders of the workers. Almost all the factory administrators were themselves higher-ranking members of the Communist Party. Would they lead the mass movements that would be required to build

Huge industrial projects were launched which drew in hundreds of thousands of unemployed youth from the cities and young migrants from the countryside. In the vanguard of these giant projects for socialist construction were the shock movements, often spearheaded by the youth. At the time, this was not so evident a policy as it might seem to revolutionaries today: the shock movements meant constantly increasing production norms, and this often met reluctance from sections of the workers themselves, especially the older, more highly skilled workers and including many of the veterans of the revolution and civil war.

Some in the CPSU leadership had to be in the forefront of this movement, but most youth in the factories were fresh from the countryside and unschooled in class struggle and industrial life, and were looked on with suspicion by workers on whom the party relied. One party leader, for example, argued that, “For them [younger workers from the countryside], the factory is neither the property of the working class that was taken by the working class from the capitalists, nor the creation of the proletariat that has been erected by Soviet power, but rather a place in which they can earn a little extra to strengthen their own farms.”

Yet the party leadership put great confidence in these youth, especially from the working class itself. Stalin called on the Komsomol youth “to put themselves in the front ranks” of the movement to industrialise. And they did. An American engineer in the USSR, who was not sympathetic to the Soviet regime, nonetheless recorded in his diary at the time that, “a present-day observer can easily overlook... the genuine upsurge of messianic hopes and revolutionary self-sacrifice... and the welcome release from the psychological doldrums of NEP, with its undramatic goals and its petit-bourgeois comfort.... The force of this emotion was great among a part of the first post-revolutionary generation, especially among many sons and daughters of the previously underprivileged peasants and factory workers.” For them, the purpose of the new challenge “was not merely to advance their own careers, but to create a new society, never known before, in which injustice and inherited social inequities would dissolve in a brotherhood of the proletariat and eventually all people”.

The shock movements and workers’ planning sessions saw party cadres on the shop floors mobilise the workers to surpass the plan norms set in the centre. The factory managers, though nearly always members of the party, not infrequently resisted, for movements of the masses inevitably posed new challenges to them: when workers insisted on doubling output, where were they to obtain the new raw materials, and how would they pay for them? What was the role of the trade unions, who were supposed to defend the conditions of the workers? Many managers vehemently complained about the time lost to the constant meetings held by the workers: an average of half an hour every day.

According to Kuromiya, the renewed upsurge of revolutionary elan in the USSR brought along with it a growth in egalitarian trends. Mutual aid teams and other collective work forms were set up by the workers, including, for a certain period, a “brigade system”, where large groups with varying skill categories joined together and pooled their efforts and wages, which they then split up equally. For a while, differentials in wages were reduced throughout Soviet society, and in many factories skilled workers came to be paid no more than unskilled ones. Kuromiya notes that this development “was incomprehensible from a market point of view”, for it was taking place amidst dramatic shortages of skilled labour. The “wage-levelling trends”, he notes, “had a heroic tone of fighting against the spontaneity of the market”. One source of support for these wage-levelling policies was, according to Kuromiya, Stalin’s view that such egalitarianism would insulate the core of the working class from the dangers of labour aristocratic viewpoints.

Nonetheless, the egalitarian trends gave rise to new problems. Many of the skilled workers simply moved on to factories where the revolutionary movement among the workers was less powerful and thus egalitarianism weaker, so that they could command better wages and working conditions. This seriously disrupted production. Ultimately, the party leadership concluded that it was impossible to sustain the “brigade system”.

In summing up socialist construction in the USSR, Mao Tsetung pointed out that as time went on Stalin tended to rely less and less on the masses. Kuromiya is not a Marxist. His analysis is certainly not informed by the experience of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution when the Chinese revolutionaries were able to rectify many of the Soviet revolutionaries’ errors. Yet the details he provides about what the Soviet leaders and masses actually did do and why support Mao’s analysis. One case of this is Kuromiya’s account of the Soviet policy of one-man management.

It is doubtless that in unleashing the drives for industrialisation and collectivisation, Stalin knew of and was prepared to do battle with powerful bureaucratic interests in Soviet society. An example of this can be seen in his fierce rebuke of the managers and others who resisted the planning initiatives of the workers and the shock movement, particularly the method of socialist competition: “Socialist competition is a manifestation of a practical revolutionary self-criticism by the masses, springing from the creative initiative of millions of workers.... The bureaucratic danger manifests itself concretely above all in that it shackles the energy, initiative and independent activity of workers, keeps concealed the colossal reserves latent in the depths of our system, deep down in the working class and peasantry, and prevents these resources from being utilised in the struggle against our class enemies. It is the task of socialist competition to smash these bureaucratic shackles, to afford broad scope for the unfolding of the energy and creative initiative of workers, to bring to light the colossal reserves latent in the depths of our system and to throw them into the scale in the struggle against our class enemies both inside and outside our country.”

Yet even as Stalin led the Soviet people into uncharted waters, in transforming the economy of the country in a way unprecedented in history, he increasingly came to rely on methods that were in contradiction with the cause for which he fought. Not the least of these was the policy of one-man management. It seems that Stalin saw this policy as an inherent part of increased centralisation, which in turn he considered essential to industrialise and collectivise rapidly in order to put the Soviet Union on a war footing. Centralisation was supposed to counteract the chaos that would inevitably arise in this process.

But the method of one-man management, which walled workers off from the management of the factories, was not the only possible solution to such a problem. It is true that the CPSU tried to counterbalance one-man management with a system of “workers’ control”, which was effective enough to provoke frequent howls of protest from administrators - often because the workers upset routine with “storming sessions” in which they raised plans for production and the like. Kuromiya gathers evidence that there was immediate, widespread protest among the workers themselves at adopting one-man management. Mao Tsetung considered this policy an error, and argued that “there should be a basic distinction between the principles governing socialist and capitalist enterprises”. In fact, the Chinese went on in the Cultural Revolution to develop revolutionary committees, which were combinations that included representatives chosen “from below”. Sometimes they were made up of representatives of the party, military and masses; sometimes old, middle-aged and young; and especially “red and expert”, with red being the determining factor. Such combinations made use of various experiences to guide factories, schools, and other institutions; they also helped break down the division of labour inherited from class society and mobilised the enthusiasm of the masses.

Stalin’s support for one-man management formed part of a tendency that grew within the ranks of the Soviet leadership to become less fully reliant on the masses - a tendency which later had serious adverse results. And even within the great moments of the First Year Plan and the drive to collectivise, these tendencies expressed themselves - Kuromiya records not only the adoption of one-man management, despite resistance from many workers, but also the growing use of piece rates, material incentives and other such policies.

Moreover, the upsurge of the workers in the First Five Year Plan, though genuinely revolutionary in both its spirit and achievements, was constrained even from the beginning by a too narrow focus on production. Truly millions of workers, for example, were brought into the ranks of the management and scientific and technical personnel of the new society. This astonished many observers at the time, yet the way it was carried out did not strike as deeply as possible at the roots of the established division of labour in society. So while it could be said that for this generation, there was truth in the statement that the workers were stepping onto the stage in nearly every sphere of society, they were doing so in large part by moving out of the working class; in other words, by moving higher up in the social division of labour. The notion that the division of labour could be overcome by more and more workers becoming administrators, scientists and the like went hand in hand with Stalin’s ever more pronounced view that building socialism meant developing the productive forces. The more awesome challenge of gradually digging up the very roots of the social division of labour characteristic of class society by mobilising the masses to seize and transform the superstructure had to await Mao Tsetung and the Cultural Revolution. There, for example, the educated youth were called on to go to the countryside where they not only took their book knowledge to the peasants, but more importantly, learned from the peasants such things as what knowledge was needed and for whom and to do what.

Parting ways with the dominant “totalitarian” school of historians, Kuromiya considers that important struggles continued in the top ranks of the CPSU well into the 1930s and that the success of what he calls “the Stalin group” was far from certain. He points to the strength of opponents of Stalin who gathered first around Trotsky and later Bukharin in the mid- and late-1920s, including within the trade unions and other important institutions, and takes seriously the possibility that they were prepared even in the early 1930s to seize on any major setback to “the Stalin group” in order to grab power. K.B. Radek, for example, who was a member of the Politburo, stated in regards to the industrialisation drive that, “If this general offensive were not slowed down it would, as we defined it by a catch-phrase, ‘end like the march on Warsaw’” (referring to a campaign involving Stalin during the revolutionary civil war in which the Red Army suffered a serious defeat). Others thought that the failure of Stalin’s policy and the rise of the Right were virtually “a foregone conclusion”. Kuromiya shows that there was support for these rightist lines broadly throughout the party hierarchy. For example, a meeting of “shock workers on the financial front” in 1932 saw significant open support for a proposal that the profit motive should be restored to a determining position in the financial affairs of the Soviet state - and these were supposedly the politically advanced finance workers!

Kuromiya sums up the period of the First Year Plan by observing that, by seriously underestimating the actual role of ideology and politics in CPSU policy, Western historians tend to overstate the monolithic character of Soviet society: “Stalin, far from rallying the entire nation, even split it. Unlike Witte [a reformer in the pre-World War 1 period], who had merely dreamed of a strong autocracy that would not have had to rely on any particular class, but stand above all classes, Stalin deliberately sought the support of particular political constituencies, the Communists, Komsomols and industrial workers, by pitting them against the alleged class enemy.”

A later generation of revolutionaries led by Mao Tsetung have, while upholding Stalin’s contributions, made serious criticisms of the line guiding both these great campaigns2. They were nonetheless tremendous achievements by the Soviet people in building socialism. The very many observers such as Anna Louise Strong, Maurice Hindus, the Durants, Dr. Norman Bethune and others who travelled the length and breadth of the USSR in this period took back countless stories of the miracles worked by the previously downtrodden workers and peasants of backward Russia - in books that today are, of course, all out of print. Indeed, while the advanced imperialist powers of Germany, Great Britain, France and the US floundered in the Great Depression, with millions living in the streets and begging for food in these richest countries on earth, in the formerly backward area of the USSR the most rapid economic development witnessed in the 20th century was taking place and the old way of life was being overturned. The Chinese masses led by Mao advanced further along the path to communism than Stalin and the Soviet people were able, in no small part by correcting their errors - indeed, their progress was only possible by standing on the shoulders of those generations of Soviet people who truly set out to build the earth on new foundations.


1In Chapter 6 of Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Then That? (Chicago: Banner Press, 1986), Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP,USA, analyses the theory of the “totalitarian state” and the way in which Western, and especially social-democratic, theorists have used it as “one of the main weapons in the ideological arsenal of Western imperialism in its conflict with the Soviet bloc” following World War 2. In fact, no such thing as the “totalitarian state” has ever existed. Avakian dissects the main tenets of this theory: that the “totalitarian state” rests on all-pervasive terror, that its goal is world domination, that it seeks to control every sphere of life, etc., and shows in what ways this theory served imperialism. This thesis especially hides the division of society into classes and the role the state plays as the organ of rule of a class.

2In particular, Mao criticised Stalin’s one-sided emphasis on industrialisation and modernisation. He discusses this at length in A Critique of Soviet Economics (Monthly Review Press, 1977). The Maoist position is summarised briefly in the Declaration of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement.