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Power and Peasantry: A Report from the Soviet Union

APRIL 01, 1987 by SVEN RYDENFELT

Dr. Rydenfelt is a professor of economics at the University’ of Lund in Sweden.

      This article is adapted from a chapter in Dr. Rydenfelt’s book, A Pattern for Failure: Socialist Economies in Crisis (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1984).

During the first few years after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Russian manufacturing production fell to a fraction of its pre-World War I level. Even worse was the steep decline in food deliveries to the cities. The Lenin government tried to support the townspeople by sending armed patrols to search the farms, confiscating everything edible they could find, including livestock, seed grain, and the peasant families’ own food.

By gradually slaughtering and eating the stock of domestic animals and by increasing the proportion of grain and vegetables in the diet, the basic needs of the population were met during the first three years. But in 1921 the oppression and exploitation of the peasants ripened into famine.

The Lenin regime blamed the famine on poor harvests in the Ukraine and other Russian gra naries caused by droughts and bad weather_ Here Lenin established a precedent for his suc cessors who have consistently blamed crop failures on natural disasters. The Lenin myth was generally believed, and the 1921 famine was interpreted as an unavoidable catastrophe.

Relief expeditions on a massive scale were sent from countries in the West, including the United States. The most important was organized by the League of Nations under the leadership of the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen (awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this and other achievements in 1922). The lives of

12 to 13 million people were saved, but several millions, most of them peasants, perished. Not only did the relief efforts save tens of millions of lives, but in all probability the Communist regime was saved as well. Without massive relief the famine would have reached such pro portions that no regime would have been able to survive.

Stalin’s Legacy

In 1929, Stalin felt sufficiently secure to start a massive offensive to socialize the peasants and their private production apparatus. The attack on the private farms, which had increased in number to 25 million as a result of the confiscation and division of the large estates, was not solely ideologically motivated. There was also an economy of scale motive: 25 million “ineffective” small family farms were to be replaced by larger, more effective state farms and collectives.

In addition, there was an administrative motive: it would be easier to manage and control a limited number of big enterprises than millions of small enterprises.

The collectivization of Russian agriculture was carried out with ruthless brutality and terrorism. A catastrophic crop reduction quickly followed. According to the best available estimates—official reports were never published—between 1929 and 1933 five million people died of starvation and five million more were liquidated by the Communists. Special targets for the terror were the owners of large farms—kulaks—accused of being leaders of the peasants’ resistance against the collectivization campaign. The number of victims in the Communist “war” against the private peasants exceeded the total number of casualties, civilian and military, in all the countries in World War I.

Eventually a socialist agriculture, with large collective and state farms, was erected on the ruins of private agriculture. After a few years of intense suffering, socialist production developed and from the mid-1930s was able to meet the subsistence needs of the population.

Due to economies of scale, new technology, and modern machinery, the road to success in socialist agriculture appeared to lie open. Annual official reports, in fact, boasted about triumphs in food production.

Eventually, however, it was demonstrated that the production of imposing statistical reports is an easier task than the production of sufficient quantities of food. Not even a totalitarian dictator can change the relentless decree of natural law—only food can satisfy hunger and prevent starvation.

Truths about Soviet Agriculture

One year after Stalin’s death in 1953, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, revealed that Russia had fewer livestock than it had had in 1913, and this in a society with 60 million more people to feed than it had before World War I.

Khrushchev blamed the failure on Stalin. Full of optimism, he started to work toward curing the grave ills of Soviet agriculture. Despite some initial success, however, he could not prevent a crop disaster in 1963, which necessitated massive imports of grain from the West. The failure was interpreted as a personal defeat for Khrushchev and strongly contributed to his fall in 1964.

During the following years both the Russians and the rest of the world believed that the troubles were temporary and that with a new and more adequate policy the situation would improve. A new agricultural policy with more chemical fertilizers, more machines, and higher wages for the underpaid agricultural workers was introduced by Khrushchev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev.

New agricultural policies had been introduced so many times in the past, however, that few people believed in them. This time, too, the doubts proved well-founded. The setback in 1963 was followed by new crop failures in 1965, 1972, 1975, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, and 1985, and substantial increases in the volume of imports became necessary.

A study of crop figures for the 17 years from 1970 to 1986 (see table) reveals not merely a stagnation of production but a decline. The disastrous grain harvest of 165 million tons in 1981 occurred simultaneously with a record harvest of 331 million tons in the United States. For the first time in history, American output was twice that of Russia.


Grain Supply of the Soviet Union

(in millions of tons)

      Amount             Amount

Years       Harvested       Goal       Imported

1970       187 (record)       185       10

1971       181       190       8

1972       150       200       21

1973       220(record)       205       22

1974       196       205       17

1975       140       215       30

1976       223 (record)       220       20

1977       194       225       12

1978       237 (record)       230       18

1979       179       230       32

1980       181       235       33

1981       165       238       37

1982       170       238       42

1983       190       238       29

1984       183       239       55

1985       192       239       37

1986       210       250       32

Sources: Harvest and goal quantities from official Russian statistics, The harvest figures from 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1984 were not published in the statistics but were indirectly confirmed in a speech on November 6, 1986 by the Politbureau member Yegor Ligachev—number two in the Kremlin hierarchy—where he revealed the figure for 1986 and the average for the five preceding years (180 million tons), The figure from 1983 from a speech by Konstantin Chernenko on March 2, 1984, The import volume has been calculated as a sum of figures from the exporting countries.


The imports have been so massive that as early as 1975 the capacity of the Russian ports was exceeded, with ships backed up in long waiting lines. Although the ports were greatly expanded, new difficulties arose in 1984 as a result of the record imports of 55 million tons.

Agriculture is one of the few industries in which clear comparisons of productivity between different countries can be made. The percentage of the total labor force allocated to agriculture by each country is a good indicator.

The structure of Soviet agriculture reflects the Soviet leaders’ obsession with size. In 1985 the Soviet Union contained 22,000 state farms with an average area of 19,000 hectares—6,500 under cultivation—and 26,000 collective farms with an average area of 6,400 hectares—3,400 under cultivation. From all evidence these areas are far above the optimal size.

At the same time the United States contained 2,200,000 farms with an average area of 190 hectares—75 under cultivation.

In the beginning, agriculture in the Soviet Union was treated as a stepchild, deprived of investments and resources. But since the Stalin era, Soviet governments have tried to cure the chronic ills of socialist agriculture with massive investments—more fertilizers, more machines, and so on. Despite these efforts, agriculture has remained a stagnating industry. During the 1980s more than 30 per cent of total Soviet investment has been allocated to agriculture, a share unsurpassed among industrial countries. The only logical conclusion is that the roots of the trouble must lie deeper, in the socialist system itself.

The gigantic Soviet farms up to now have been able to provide only two-thirds of the nation’s needs. The remainder has been made up by production on 35 million private plots and by imports. To fully meet domestic needs, the Soviets would have to allocate at least 30 per cent of their labor force to socialist agriculture rather than the 20 per cent now employed.

Throughout the world it has been demonstrated that small private family farms, once so despised by the founders of socialism, are vastly more productive than gigantic socialist farms.

In the United States, for example, three per cent of the labor force on private farms is pro ducing enough food to satisfy domestic needs and to generate substantial surpluses for export. Before similar performances in the Soviet Union could be achieved, at least 30 per cent of the labor force would have to be allocated to socialist agriculture. By this measure, private agriculture in the United States is approximately ten times more efficient than socialist agriculture in the Soviet Union.

Soviet Peasants—Modern Serfs

For many years, Soviet farmers were drawn to urban areas by higher incomes, better housing, and better working conditions. But since food was chronically in short supply, such migration had to be stopped. So in 1932 Stalin introduced a system of domestic passports. No one was to leave his place of residence for more than 48 hours without a written permit from the police. To get a permit, one needed a passport, but the peasants were denied passports and thus deprived of any legal right to leave their home areas. Serfdom, which had been abolished in 1861 by Czar Alexander II, in effect was reintroduced by Stalin in 1932.

Since Khrushchev’s revelations concerning Stalin at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, the serfdom of the peasants under Stalin has been known to the outside world. Less known is the fact that the serfdom system was retained for decades by his successors. Not until the mid-1970s was a decision taken gradually to issue passports to peasants in the period 1976-1981.

Czar Alexander’s reform liberated 23 million serfs from their bonds, while Brezhnev’s reform granted—not liberation—but greater freedom to 32 million Russian serfs. The freedom of all Russians is limited by the system of domestic passports still in effect—a system similar to that in South Africa.

The roots of the inefficiency of Soviet agriculture lie in the oppression and exploitation of the serfs. Serfs are very seldom inventive. All important productive advances, either in machinery or in the arrangement and distribution of work, have been the discoveries of free men. Despite Soviet promises to redeem the world from oppression and exploitation and to give the weakest and poorest members of society special assistance, their people remain in chains.

In all socialist countries the peasants constitute the poorest and weakest group. Study of agricultural policies in a large number of socialist countries proves that a gulf exists between theory and practice, between promise and fulfillment.

Socialists in power systematically have favored the strong, well-situated urban groups—industrial workers, police, soldiers, and bureaucrats, the political supporters of the regime—while just as systematically they have oppressed and plundered the weakest and poorest—the peasants.

The Serifs Secret Weapon

When the founders of the Soviet Union set out in 1917 to build a socialist state, they started with an unlimited belief in the powers of force and terror. The state coercive apparatus was their primary instrument of policy, and they assumed that the multitude of peasants could be frightened and forced to work as feudal serfs in the service of the socialist state.

Experience soon proved, however, that their faith in force was unjustified. The story of Soviet agricultural policy is not only the story of numerous assaults by the regime on the peasants, but also the story of as many retreats.

The struggle between the peasant masses and the socialist rulers has been going on since 1917. On the one side are the Red masters, armed with the power to set low prices on agricultural products and the power to compel deliveries. They also are armed with a frightening terror apparatus: well-equipped police forces and soldiers, prisons, slave camps, execution platoons.

On the other side are the peasant serfs, poor and seemingly unarmed: In reality, however, they possess a secret weapon. If the peasants do not produce enough food, if shortages and famines arise, the existence of the regime is at stake.

The men in power can oppress, exploit, mistreat, terrorize, and murder the peasants. But always, when pursuing such coercive policies, they have to take into account severe reprisals from the peasants, reprisals in the form of bad harvests, reprisals threatening their own regime.

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April 1987

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