Guest Post: The Bukharin Alternative Part One
It is a common belief in some circles that Stalinist policies were necessary for the Soviet Union to industrialize sufficiently in order to defeat the inevitable genocidal Nazi invasion. In particular is the Holodomor, in which grain was exported to the West to purchase industrial equipment and the like while millions starved to death. Ukraine was hit particularly hard, but Central Asia, the North Caucasus, and other places suffered as well.
However, my Internet cohort Scott Blair doesn't agree with this theory and wrote this essay--which I broke into two parts--to elaborate...
The Bukharin Alternative Part One: Collectivization and the Great Terror
By Scott Blair
In order to answer whether or Stalin was necessary, it is necessary to consider who could have replaced him. In order to do so, let us posit that in 1927, at the height of the debate between Josef Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin, Stalin dies from a bad batch of borscht. Thus, Bukharin, considered to be a more moderate leader, assumes control of the Soviet Union. What would the USSR, under the command of a man who said, “we have to tell the whole peasantry, all its strata: get rich, accumulate, develop your economy,” look like? Bukharin’s policies would have entailed a modification of the NEP, and its continuation. It is therefore worth asking how the USSR would have industrialized under him. Stalin’s industrialization is often held up as an example of his success, and so it is worth asking if Bukharin could have done the same.
To begin with, it is clear that collectivization, the cornerstone of Stalin’s policy, was a disaster. Gross farm output declined 20% between 1928 and 1933, and this is allowing for a recovery after the initial great famine. It has been estimated that “not until the mid 1950s did agriculture regain the level of output achieved in the last years before the Great War”. The number of livestock in the Soviet Union also fell dramatically, and it is estimated that half of the nation’s cows, pigs, and horses were killed between 1928 and 1932. This is especially tragic as the last years of the NEP witnessed increased crop diversification and access to new equipment such as horse drawn plows.
Admittedly, the NEP had problems. The Revolution, by breaking up the large estates and farms of prosperous kulaks who had produced for the market, ended up producing millions of subsistence farms which were simply less efficient. This meant that while agriculture production recovered and surpassed the 1913 Russian levels, grain sales actually declined during this period. Thus, collectivization did have some benefits, by forcing peasants to provide grain for the Soviet Union’s burgeoning cities. It has also been suggested that the famine caused approximately twelve million Soviet citizens to flee the countryside for work in the USSR’s new cities between 1928 and 1933.
In addition, the NEP years saw marked instability in pricing. 1922 witnessed high prices for grain and low prices for manufactured goods, while 1923 witnessed the “scissors crisis”, in which peasants refrained from buying industrial goods because the price of grain was low while the price of manufactures was high. Grain prices offered by the state in 1927 were low, while industrial consumer goods were in short supply. As a result, peasants simply withheld their grain from the market. As the state needed grain to industrialize, these problems have led to the belief that the NEP was essentially a dead end, and it is therefore worth asking how Bukharin could have come to terms with them.
First, by by December of 1927, even Bukharin wanted “to speed up the tempo of industrialization and put pressure on the kulaks, though [he] believed the free market had to be maintained”. Secondly, by 1927 Soviet investment in industry had already surpassed investment by Russian and foreign capital in Russian industry in 1913, and industrial output slightly exceeded prewar levels. Thus, even without any modifications, industrialization and development would have continued, albeit not at the pace of Stalin’s Soviet Union. However, a variety of mechanisms to stimulate agricultural production, and thus industrialization, present themselves. For instance, the Soviet government forced peasants to sell a certain amount of grain to state procurement agencies or to machine tractor stations for their services. The state also imposed a high sales tax on goods but not on food, ensuring that what money peasants received by selling crops would go to the government.
Thus, Soviet policy ultimately consisted of taking grain from Soviet peasants at artificially low prices, and selling them industrial goods at extremely high ones. There is no reason to assume such policies could not have been followed sans collectivization. This would have resulted in a system that squeezed the peasants, but allowed them to maintain a profit on what was left of their crop, but need not have entailed collectivization. Such a system would probably have squeezed less grain out of the peasants, meaning that industrialization would go less rapidly than historically. However, it would have provided better long term prospects for Soviet agriculture once industrialization had been achieved.
It is also worth considering Bukharin’s historical plan provide more grain for the cities. Bukharin historically proposed selling manufactured goods at low prices and buying grain at high prices to encourage peasants to market more grain, but it is unclear if this policy would have worked. However, when the People’s Republic of China began paying peasants more for agricultural products in the late 1970s and early 1980s, agricultural production and the sale of agricultural products boomed as peasants responded to the new demand. China’s economic success is well known, and this suggests that Bukharin’s policy may have let the state have its cake and eat it too. The Soviet Union may have been able to build an industrial base which, if not as large as the one it possessed historically by 1941, was not significantly smaller.
Two additional points suggest that Stalinist policies harmed industrialization. Collectivization and the ensuing slaughter of livestock also harmed the Soviet textile industry as well as exports of wool and leather. As money from exports was used to finance purchases of machinery necessary for industrialization, a more benign policy may have helped the Soviet Union purchase more foreign technology. It is also worth asking what the effect of the famines the ensued from collectivization was. Estimates put the number of deaths from famine between four and nine million, and the birth rate declined in the mid 1930s, ultimately rebounding by the end of the decade. It is therefore worth asking what the net economic effect of the loss of six million Soviet citizens was. One of the purported benefits of the famine and collectivization was that it drove peasants to the cities, where they worked in the USSR’s new factories.
Would the number of migrants from the countryside have been significantly less in a Bukharin led USSR if we assume that at least some of those peasants would have immigrated to the city? Furthermore, many of those purged were among the USSR’s intelligentsia, and it is evident that the Soviet economy would have done better if engineers, instead of chopping wood in Siberia, had been able to use their skills productively. It is unclear how much of difference fewer purges would have made, but it may have been significant.
Part Two will cover the role of Stalin in Hitler's rise to power in the first place...