It is important that when we consider the reasons for, and the results of, Stalin’s economic and political decisions we take into account what came before. Perhaps most pertinent to the issue of collectivisation is the New Economic Policy. This is for two reasons. Firstly, it is the last example of pre-Stalinist economic policy in Russian history, and as such it illustrates the background against which Collectivization came about. Secondly, with only one questionable exception (Stolypin’s “Wager On The Strong“), it was an experiment of unprecedented magnitude in Russian economics. The way in which it contradicted what came before it, and much of what came after, means that the NEP casts a shadow over a great deal of the Russian twentieth century. Being such a contentious issue made it inevitable that it would have colossal political ramifications, not least upon the rise to power of Stalin. After years of using the NEP both as a political bargaining tool with which to win allies, and a bludgeon with which to cripple his enemies, upon achieving power Stalin duly discarded it. But as we shall see, even following its demise, Stalin the consummate politician would continue to use its memory to his advantage.
As mentioned earlier, perhaps the only comparable phenomenon to the NEP would be Stolypin’s economic policy. Both, to differing extents, introduced a measure of market capitalism to the Russian peasantry. While this was by no means a laissez faire system, both served to create a class of relatively affluent, even wealthy rural people. In Stolypin’s era, they were known as Kulaks, in Lenin’s they were referred to as NEP Men. Of course, a person with even a cursory understanding of Marxist rhetoric would realise that this ran counter to the ultimate goal of social revolution and disintegration of the class system. In fact, the NEP helped strengthen the class system. Stalin was aware that any Bolshevik, even a supporter of the NEP, would have an intuitive understanding of this. As is often the case in totalitarian dictatorships, the Party needed a vulnerable group of people on which the blame for any failings could be placed. In many cases, this will be based on racial or religious grounds, or even upon utter superstition (the witch-hunts of puritan Britain and America are notable examples). However, in this case Stalin was not without justification. An enterprising, self-interested peasant class had no place in Russia’s Communist utopia of the future. This meant that in the push toward Collectivization, Stalin would have a scapegoat that was not only publicly despised, but of which he could constantly revise the parameters. After all, as the man who controlled the ideology of the nation, what could be considered Communist or Anti-Communist was largely based upon his whim. He was also deeply fortuitous that his sworn enemies represented the very opposite of the policy he was trying to promote. Kulaks provided to the common people perhaps the best explanation of why Collectivization was necessary. Had they undergone revolution, merely to have their feudal masters replaced by capitalist ones? Surely the future lay in collective farms, in which they would all take an equal share, in which they would be their own masters. This was also simply deft propaganda of course, Collectivization would curb the freedoms of the common person, not increase them. But Stalin undoubtedly made it work. Many people had a long-standing grudge against the Kulak class as a whole (although ironically this was largely based on envy, jealousy and greed, perhaps the three most unsocialist traits imaginable). Thus, many people wholeheartedly supported the policy of dekulakisation.
The issue of the NEP and the Kulaks are largely political ones (although admittedly grounded in economic principle). However, fundamentally what did the proponents of Collectivization hope to achieve in pure economic terms? It could be hardly argued that Stalin was hoping to bring about an increase in the standard of living. The issue of famine will be discussed later, but in almost every aspect of Russian life for the majority of people, the situation spiralled out of control (not an easy task in a country already rife with squalor, disease and hunger). The issue of the looming threat of external aggression is also an important one, but it is perhaps peripheral to the central issue of industrialization. While Collectivization did not have a direct effect on industrialisation, it was instrumental in Stalin’s plans for the modernisation of Russia. Not only would grain requisition help feed the urban proletariat in whom Stalin was entrusting the future of the nation, it would be exported, with the view to raising capital with which factories and machinery could be built. This theory had been attempted by Witte two decades earlier, but as is usually the case with Stalin, the differences was in the scale, not to mention brutality of the scheme. Whereas Witte had merely attempted to stimulate economic growth, the Bolshevik’s went, to all intents and purposes, to war on the rural peasantry. It could be argued however, that the sheer intensity of violence and intimidation required to maintain Stalin’s expected levels of output actually cancelled out any gains made, and that quantity of people killed or imprisoned limited the potential for future growth. In the end, all that grain requisition really achieved was a massive loss of population.
When we examine the question of Collectivization, we must consider the factor of pressure from within the party itself. Of course, when we think about the Bolshevik party, we must understand the importance of not only political, but also economic ideology. The drive towards industrialisation (as decided by the Party Congress of 1926) served two purposes: the extremity of the economic measures would help establish Stalin’s political dominance, and secondly provide Russia with a solid production base. This was at a point in time at which Stalin did not yet have the ultimate power of autocracy he would later acquire; he still had to justify his decisions and actions. Within the party, Stalin could rely upon the Bolshevik’s mistrusting and blasé view of the peasants. The central ethic of Marxism seemed to suggest a move away from agrarian serfdom to an urban proletariat, and to members of the party, this seemed to be the theoretical basis on which Collectivization was founded. However, despite Stalin orchestrating much of the process, he was able to avoid much of the political damage that it produced. “Dizzy with Success” refers to a scheme by which Stalin could appease both the peasants and the party. On the one hand, Stalin could avoid blame for the brutality that was taking place bypassing responsibility to party agents. On the other hand, the slow down of the Collectivization process, which angered many members of the party, could be blamed upon the peasants. Stalin still appropriated the successes for himself, and disassociated himself from the failures. Therefore, it could be argued that Collectivization was the responsibility of the party as a whole, not simply Stalin alone.
We might attribute the huge famines that swept Russia following Collectivization and grain requisition as either economic necessity or mismanagement. There is, however, the rather more sinister possibility that the disaster held political benefits for the Bolsheviks. The explanations for this are manifold. Firstly, it is unlikely that a population existing on the brink of starvation would possess the capacity for an armed revolutionary insurrection. Indeed, when a government controls a limited supply of food, a measure of subservience is all but assured. Secondly, the famine could be manipulated in such a way to remove political opponents in a bloodless way. The government could use the justification of grain requisition to deprive those who were politically suspect. It is no accident that many Kulaks were not only relieved of their excess produce, but indeed all that they needed to live. Thirdly, a concentrated famine, particularly in an area as fertile and bountiful the Ukraine, showed to other Russian’s the fate that awaited political dissidents. The people were gaining an insight into the utter inhumanity that Stalin and his colleagues were capable of, and it hardly acted as encouragement for budding counter-revolutionaries. Fourthly, one of the obvious, if often ignored, benefits of a sudden genocide is the reduction in economic demand. One could refute this by saying that by equal measure it reduces economic output, but this is not necessarily true. This was a period in which agriculture was undergoing significant changes, in attempt to induce greater efficiency. Therefore, the agricultural workers would be split into two main groups, those enjoying the benefits of modern agrarian practices, and those still mired in the medieval techniques of traditional Russian farming. Now it is hardly surprising that the former were significantly better fed than the latter. Therefore, by reducing the proportion of inefficient manual labourers, the average output of individual workers should, theoretically, rise. Of course, not only is this monstrous beyond comprehension, but in practice is did have this exact effect. The difficulty with persecuting the successful strata of the populace is that one loses the most able and efficient members of one’s workforce. While Stalin was probably shrewd enough to realise this, he undoubtedly valued his own political survival above the lives of millions of his citizens.
Perhaps Stalin’s most admirable quality was his ability to foresee the changing nature of the world, and to realise that Russia had to be fully prepared for war on a gigantic scale. In the eyes of some historians, this serves to redeem him of his many failures. While others may not be so forgiving, they would agree that Stalin would eventually be vindicated. Industrialisation was not only economically desirable, but would ultimately prove the saviour of not only Russia, but arguably much of the world. Of course, a statement such as this highly contentious, and therefore a matter of interpretation. In spite of this, had industrialisation not been underway by 1941, it seems entirely probable that Russia would have been quickly overrun by Nazi forces. In the 1930’s, Stalin used the rising forced of fascism as a political weapon. To him, and many others, the ever increasing likelihood of war meant that industrialisation had to be achieved no matter the human cost.
In the light of all this, it seems only reasonable for us to ask, was this really Marxism? Stalin had gained great political capital within the Politburo for is seeming opposition to the NEP, but were his own policies really any closer to Marx’s original vision? It scarcely seems likely that the great thinker would have approved of Stalin’s brutality, nor his political repression. The workers were not being united, but rather divided by fear and paranoia. And what of the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”? A personality such as Stalin was hardly what Marx had in mind when he penned this immortal phrase. Perhaps most crucially, Marx had written of the “withering away of the state”. Under Stalin’s rule, the state had not only expanded with unbridled ferocity, but also dominated all aspects of life in a way in which even the Tsars could not achieve. While all this might present Stalin as more of a fascist than a communist, he did engineer some profoundly socialist policies. Collectivization, for all of its failings, did embody the spirit of communism, with the people working together towards a common goal, and his emphasis on the urban industrial proletariat is also in line with Marxist doctrine. Perhaps it is better to view Stalin’s ideology as an amalgam of ideas, part Marx, part Lenin and with the underlying attitudes of Tsarist autocracy. From these disparate sources, we arrive finally at Stalinism.
In conclusion, it would seem that Collectivization remains a paradox. In the face of huge economic failures, undeniably Stalin was politically successful. Not only did he remain leader, he emerged with his position strengthened, and his opponents weakened. The Second World War provided the justification for the sacrifices he enforced upon his nation. If one wishes to measure the success of a totalitarian leader, we can often look to their ultimate fate as a guide. While Hitler and Mussolini both fell, Stalin continued to rule into his old age, with only the onset of infirmity diminishing his ability to lead. Therefore, I argue that despite the economic failures and crimes against humanity, one could never brand Stalin a political failure.