Stalin 1928-1933 - Collectivization

In November 1927, Joseph Stalin launched his "revolution from above" by setting two extraordinary goals for Soviet domestic policy: rapid industrialization and collectivization of agriculture. His aims were to erase all traces of the capitalism that had entered under the New Economic Policy and to transform the Soviet Union as quickly as possible, without regard to cost, into an industrialized and completely socialist state.

The very essence of the kolkhoz (collective farm) system lay in the ease with which it facilitated extraction of heavy tribute from the land in the form of extremely cheap supplies of foodstuffs and industrial crops. Thus, the rise of the Stalinist land system was closely connected with the Party's program of break-neck industrialization, massive capital investments, and strategic projects at the expense of consumption. The ever-tightening hold of the regime over the industrial working class made possible implementation of these policies without the development of consumer goods facilities; and therefore the regime could permit a drop in the levels of consumption without jeopardizing its plan. The new agricultural program - designed primarily to redistribute agricultural produce rather than to increase it - was consistent with this aspect of the plan. Moreover, the political hold collectivization afforded over the peasants assured State control of the rural labor supply and enabled the State to channel manpower into non-agricultural occupation as it deemed necessary.

This was the general rationale behind collectivization. The immediate cause for the first collectivization drive lay, however, in the mounting economic tensions of the late 1920s. As early as 1925-26 the regime had sought to reimpose many of the agrarian controls lifted in 1921, at the time of the inauguration of NEP. To implement this policy, agricultural prices were once again restricted and production itself subjected to heavy taxes. Retaliating in kind, the peasants drove production downward, hoarded again, and consumed what they could not hide or sell. As a consequence State grain collections in 1928-29 dropped more than one-third below the level of two years before. Tension in the countryside mounted. The means by which the new monolithic party chose to meet this situation was of a magnitude equal to the challenge.

Stalin's First Five-Year Plan, adopted by the party in 1928, called for rapid industrialization of the economy, with an emphasis on heavy industry. It set goals that were unrealistic -- a 250 percent increase in overall industrial development and a 330 percent expansion in heavy industry alone. All industry and services were nationalized, managers were given predetermined output quotas by central planners, and trade unions were converted into mechanisms for increasing worker productivity. Many new industrial centers were developed, particularly in the Ural Mountains, and thousands of new plants were built throughout the country. But because Stalin insisted on unrealistic production targets, serious problems soon arose. With the greatest share of investment put into heavy industry, widespread shortages of consumer goods occurred.

The First Five-Year Plan also called for transforming Soviet agriculture from predominantly individual farms into a system of large state collective farms. The Communist regime believed that collectivization would improve agricultural productivity and would produce grain reserves sufficiently large to feed the growing urban labor force. The anticipated surplus was to pay for industrialization. Collectivization was further expected to free many peasants for industrial work in the cities and to enable the party to extend its political dominance over the remaining peasantry.

The great offensive against the peasantry was launched late in 1928, but it was not until one year later, when Stalin called for "liquidation of the kulaks as a class," that its full weight was felt. Stalin focused particular hostility on the wealthier peasants, or kulaks. Since the actual number of kulaks in post-Revolutionary Russia was not very great, this slogan made it abundantly clear that the frankly military offensive was directed against the peasantry as a whole. About one million kulak households (some five million people) were deported and never heard from again. Between 1929 and 1932 the Soviet Communist Party struck a double blow at the Russian peasantry: dekulakization, the dispossession and deportation of millions of peasant families, and collectivization, the abolition of private ownership of land and the concentration of the remaining peasants in party-controlled "collective" farms.

The story is well known: the dispatch of Communist shock cadres to the villages, the mass deportations, the herding of peasants into hastily formed collective units, the calculated famine in the Ukraine, the wholesale slaughter of livestock by the desperate peasants, the brief pause ordered by Stalin early in 1930, the renewed offensive in 1931-32, the collapse of the opposition, and the final establishment of a collective farm system in all essential respects.

Forced collectivization of the remaining peasants, which was often fiercely resisted, resulted in a disastrous disruption of agricultural productivity. This was followed in 1932-33 by a "terror-famine," inflicted by the State on the collectivized peasants of the Ukraine and certain other areas by setting impossibly high grain quotas, removing every other source of food, and preventing help from outside--even from other areas of the Soviet Union--from reaching the starving populace.

Although the First Five-Year Plan called for the collectivization of only twenty percent of peasant households, by 1940 approximately ninety-seven percent of all peasant households had been collectivized and private ownership of property almost entirely eliminated. Forced collectivization helped achieve Stalin's goal of rapid industrialization, but the human costs were incalculable. Robert Conquest concluded that as many as 14.5 million died in the years 1930-37 as a result of Stalin's terror against the peasantry : five million in the Ukraine alone.

But whatever the failure of collectivization to achieve productive efficiency, and other ostensible goals widely advertised in the propaganda of the time, the Soviet State remained completely loyal to the system, bolstering it by police action and developing its distinctive features over the years. Evidently, the regime considered that for its investment, it was receiving an adequate return. The explanation for this unswerving loyalty to the system, in the face of the massive difficulties encountered, is to be found in the striking change in the pattern of grain collection after collectivization. In 1928 the State collected no more than 18.5 per cent of the total grain crop, while in 1937 an estimated 42.4 per cent was State-collected.

In evaluating the success of the drive and the system it created, it is necessary to reiterate that the primary utility of the collective farm lay in its efficiency as an economic and political control device, by which rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union could be facilitated, and not in its efficiency of production. To the extent that it made industrialization possible, it is possible to show that Soviet collectivization "succeeded."

So far as production is concerned, the efficiency of the collective farm was, and remained, low. It has been estimated that Soviet grain production in 1939 did not exceed that of 1928 by much more than the increase of sown area over the 11 intervening years. Similarly, the gross production value of Soviet agriculture in 1940 exceeded 1928 by only a small fraction, though in the bumper year of 1937 the harvest may have been as much as 14 per cent higher. Throughout the 1930s the Soviets put forth many claims of increased agricultural productivity which were, however, discounted by most Western experts. Western scepticism was vindicated by the 1953 acknowledgement of agricultural deterioration by N. S. Khrushchev, one of the chief architects of later Soviet agricultural policy.

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