The results of the First Five-Year plan in Russia

‘What were the results of the First Five-Year Plan? Do you consider it to have been a success?’

The five-year plans were the Bolsheviks’ way of achieving Russian industrialisation and were designed with a particular focus on heavy industries such as coal, iron and oil; this was due to the realisation by Stalin and his advisors that the industrial revolution in the west had been driven by these exact industries. In addition the Soviet leaders believed that successful execution of ambitious industrial plans would impress the western countries, whilst simultaneously proving that socialism could work just as effectively as democracy. Whilst giving a speech to a group of industrial managers Stalin himself stated, ‘We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they will crush us.’[1] Whether the first five-year plan was a success or not is an issue that has been, and still is, widely debated by historians, but a clear answer is yet to be produced. This is largely due to the necessity of considering not just the economic results but also the social and political impacts; economic historians such as Alec Nove believe that although the five-year plans were a social failure they were in fact an economic success.

The targets for the first five year plan were optimistic, however tremendous effort from the workers in the early days of the plan, such as with collectivisation, led to the adoption of a revised optimum plan. Indeed, Sheila Fitzpatrick makes the point that realism was not a priority; rather the idea of these targets being revised was to drive people on towards the perfect socialist society.[2] Some economists backed Stalin’s idea of setting high targets for the first five year plan; Stalinist economist Stanislav Strumilin argued ‘that it did not matter if the setting of economic targets was not based on the normal extrapolation of statistics’.[3] However, the majority of them knew what the party leaders were striving for, and therefore agreed to the setting of such ridiculous targets even though they did not believe it was achievable. If they had refused to set high targets they would have been seen as counter-revolutionaries. With such unrealistic goals set for the first five-year plan, it is questionable whether there was any possibility of achieving a successful result and catching up with the western countries in terms of a productive and successful economy.

The enthusiasm shown and the early successes that were achieved led to the decision to declare the plan complete after four years instead of the intended five years. These high targets initially made the Russian workers increase their work rate in order to try and accomplish what was being asked of them. It appears that this plan worked judging by some of the economic results which were achieved with the introduction of the first five-year plan. Supposedly, judging from statistics gathered by Nove, electricity production trebled by the completion of the first plan, iron ore increased by 112%, and oil by 83%.[4] Furthermore, enormous new tractor works were built in Stalingrad to meet the needs of mechanised agriculture and to help the policy of collectivisation succeed. From these statistics it appears that the first five-year plan was indeed a success. However, considering the previously abysmal state of the Russian economy, trebling electricity production does not mean an awful lot without the knowledge of how much was being produced before the five year plans were introduced.

In 1926 there were only 6.4 million people employed in industry, construction, transport and communications, but by 1939 23.7 million were employed in these sectors. This shows the success of industry and the first five year plan by the fact that they had to employ vast numbers of people.[5] The fact that the workers initially worked harder and more productively with the introduction of the plan certainly equates to some level of triumph. Moreover, Russia’s economy went from being virtually nothing in 1928, at the start of the five-year plans, to a fully fledged industrialised nation by 1941; thus proving that the plans were indeed an economic success.

However, despite these successful advances in heavy industry, there were other sections of the Russian economy which experienced setbacks with the introduction of the five-year plans. Consumer industries, in particular food processing and textiles, experienced declines since more attention had been given to heavy industries[6]. One reason for this was because Stalin felt that heavy industries were important for creating a strong army to protect Russia from future invasions. As a result, everyday commodities became extremely difficult to find, thus creating further hardships for the Russian peasants and workers. Robert Allen remarks that, ‘Most accounts of Soviet industrialization maintain that the standard of living of the working population declined, or was at best static, during the 1930s.’[7] Another outcome of the first five-year plan’s almost exclusive focus on heavy industries was to create an extremely unstable job market with very few reliable workers. There was a distinct lack of skilled workers in Russia during the period of the first five-year plan, thus the few skilled workers that existed were constantly changing jobs whenever they were presented with a better paid position since they were in such high demand.

Not only did skilled workings constantly changing jobs create huge instabilities in the factories, which could never be certain of whether people would continue to show up to work, but it created a conflict in ideology. Stalin argued that it was necessary to pay higher wages to certain workers in order to encourage increased output in the factories. However, his left-wing opponents claimed this inequality between workers’ wages was an outright betrayal of socialism and would result in a new class system in the USSR where everyone was supposed to be equal. Unsurprisingly Stalin had his way and during the 1930s the wage gap between labourers and skilled workers increased, thus raising the issue of whether the first five-year plan was truly a success. If this fundamental betrayal of socialist principles had occurred how could it be? Senior members of the Bolshevik party, including Bukharin and Trotsky, felt that Stalin had abandoned the objective of European socialist revolution.[8] As historian and political scientist Robert V. Daniels put it, ‘Regardless of its labels, the Stalinist regime no longer represented the same movement that took power in 1917.’[9]

The first of the five year plans was initially intended to focus primarily on improving heavy industries throughout Russia, however in 1929 Stalin edited the plan and introduced the policy of collective farming, ultimately bringing about the idea of destroying the kulaks as a class. The idea behind collectivisation was to merge individual peasant farms into larger collective farms in the belief that this would increase the food supply for the workers in the cities as well as increasing the supply of raw materials, which was necessary in order for industrialisation to take place. However, collectivisation was not as successful as Stalin and the other Bolshevik leaders had hoped for; according to Moshe Lewin ‘The old rural structures and ways of life were shattered…with uncountable consequences for society and state alike.’[10] In 1929 Stalin introduced the policy of liquidating the kulaks as a class, a process which entailed the forcible removal of private landowners unsurprisingly leading to widespread resistance and chaos throughout the Russian countryside. “It was an economic disaster, with incalculable long-term effects and insignificant, even ridiculous, immediate gains”.[11] According to Robert Service some 4-5million people perished due to dekulakisation, in addition peasants slaughtered their livestock rather than let them be collectivised leading to even greater food shortages.[12] It was because of the grain shortage in 1928 that the belief that the kulaks were hoarding grain came about, thus allowing everybody else to starve, resulting in the introduction of this policy. The Soviet leadership essentially viewed collectivisation as the solution to the agricultural crisis which had begun to develop in 1927; however it was not met with enthusiasm from the peasants who were the main group that were affected by the changes. Maureen Thorson, a Russian researcher, states that from 1930-1931 over 600,000 families were collectivised, 225,000 abandoned their land seeking refuge in the cities and finally that by January 30th 1930 280,000 people were arrested with 19,000 of them shot.[13]

This terror led to large scale migration with 23 million peasants moving to towns and cities between 1926 and 1939 with 2 million moving to Moscow.[14] During the first five-year plan the city’s population grew by 44% which was almost as much as during the whole period from 1897-1926.[15] For those branded as kulaks there was no future in the countryside since they had been forced off their land and were forbidden by law to join the collective farms, thus the cities were the only viable option. As one migrant put it in 1933, just after the end of the first five-year plan, “I am living the life of a badly fed animal. I have been robbed of my grain…I go into town, get a job as a workman, and…am fed.”[16] Western countries could see the damage that collectivisation was doing, it was the opinion of The New York Times in November 1932 that, ‘The collectivisation campaign is of course a ghastly failure. It has brought Russia to the verge of famine.’[17]

However, there was a plausible economic argument for the introduction of collectivisation. It was agreed that it would release labour for the new factories in the cities; in addition rural unemployment also fell since people were absorbed into the collective farms. Furthermore there was an ideological argument that favoured collectivisation since before it was introduced there was an un-socialist if not bourgeois way of life and a new class of farmers was developing.[18] Having already compromised on ideological values by introducing higher wages, collectivisation was a way for Stalin to prove that he still stood for socialism. According to Service, “Stalin could draw up a balance sheet that, from his standpoint, was favourable. From collectivisation he acquired a reservoir of terrified peasants who would supply him with cheap industrial labour.”[19]

Overall it appears as if the first five-year plan was certainly an economic success. The soviet economy experienced large growth in areas of the economy at a time when the rest of the world was suffering economically as the great depression came into existence. Stalin was successful according to J.L. Gaddis who states, “He transformed the Soviet Union from an agrarian state into an industrial great power.”[20] However Nove, an economic historian, believes “The plan as adopted was, to say the least, over-optimistic. Miracles seldom occur in economic life”[21] and this was no exception despite some of the advances that were achieved during the first five-year plan. It would be fair to say that the plan was not a success in the social side of life, as an official at the British Embassy reported on the 21st June 1932; ‘A record of over-staffing, over planning and complete incompetence at the centre; of human misery, starvation, death and disease among the peasantry… Men, women, and children, horses and other workers are left to die in order that the Five Year Plan shall at least succeed on paper.’[22]

 

[1] Joseph Stalin, The Results of the First Five-Year Plan (New York: Prism Key Press, 2013) p. 20

[2] Sheila Fitzpatrick Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)

[3] Robert Service, A History of Modern Russia: From Tsarism to the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003) p.171

[4] Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR 1917-1991 (London: Penguin Publishers, 1993) p.145

[5] S.G. Wheatcroft, R.W. Davies and J.M. Cooper, ‘Soviet Industrialization Reconsidered: Some Preliminary Conclusions about Economic Development between 1926 and 1941’, in The Economic History Review 39 (1986) p.273

[6] J. N. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour: Russian History 1812-2001 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) p. 314

[7] Robert C. Allen, ‘The Standard of Living in the Soviet Union, 1928-1940’ in The Journal of Economic History 58 (1998) p. 1063

[8] Robert Service, A History of Modern Russia: From Tsarism to the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003)

[9] Ronald Grigor Suny, The Soviet Experiment: Russia, The USSR and the Successors (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) p.222

[10] Moshe Lewin, ‘Society and the Stalinist State in the Period of the Five Year Plans’ in Social History 1 (1976) p. 139

[11] Moshe Lewin, ‘Society, state, and ideology during the First Five-Year plan’, in The Stalinist Dictatorship, ed. by Chris Ward (London: Arnold, 1998) pp. 166-204 (p. 181).

[12] Robert Service, A History of Modern Russia: From Tsarism to the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003) p.181

[13] Nick Lee, ‘Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan: Sowing the Seeds of Hardship’ in  http://econc10.bu.edu/economic_systems/Economics/Command_Econ/planning/stalins_first_5yp.htm (accessed 9 December 2013)

[14] Ronald Grigor Suny, The Soviet Experiment: Russia, The USSR and the Successors (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) p.242

[15] Moshe Lewin, ‘Society, state, and ideology during the First Five-Year plan’, in The Stalinist Dictatorship, ed. by Chris Ward (London: Arnold, 1998) pp. 166-204 (p. 176).

[16] Ronald Grigor Suny, The Soviet Experiment: Russia, The USSR and the Successors (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) p.242

[17] Joseph Stalin, ‘The Results of the First Five-Year Plan’ in http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1933/01/07.htm (accessed 9 December 2013)

[18] J. N. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour: Russian History 1812-2001 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) p. 305

[19] Robert Service, A History of Modern Russia: From Tsarism to the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003) p.182

[20] J.L. Gaddis, ‘Grand Strategies in the Cold War’, in The Cambridge History of the Cold War 2 Ed. by Melvyn Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) p.2

[21] Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR 1917-1991 (London: Penguin Publishers, 1993) p.144

[22] John Simkin, ‘British Embassy Report June 1932’ in Stalin’s Five Year Plan http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/RUSfive.htm (accessed 9 December 2013)

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