Stalin and the Drive to Industrialize the Soviet Union

By Joshua R. Keefe
2009, Vol. 1 No. 10 | pg. 1/2 |

The late twenties and early thirties were perhaps the most transformative period in Soviet history. It was during this period Stalin consolidated his grip on power and was allowed to rule with impunity, instituting his “r from above” on the Soviet people. He actively transformed the of the time, giving birth to a new Russian , rejecting the earlier Bolshevik conviction that the family was a bourgeois institution, and even forcing artists and writers to embrace “socialist .”

These cultural changes were, however, minor adjustments when compared to the vast changes his economic policies brought to the everyday lives of the Russian people. Through the brutal process of collectivization he destroyed the autonomy the Russian peasant had enjoyed since the revolution, and he led an industrialization drive that has had few historic parallels. The human costs of both these initiatives were monstrous. It was during industrialization that the became truly totalitarian.

Industrialization was the main component of Stalin’s revolution. All the leaders of the Bolshevik revolution understood the inherent problem in starting a communist revolution in Russia: the country was not sufficiently capitalist to become socialist, and subsequently, communist. The transition from the old to a truly communist state would require industrialization on a massive scale.

Soviet Poster

According to Marxist theory, only through a modern industrialized economy could a true proletariat class be developed as Marx makes no mention of a peasant class. Marxist theory aside, the need to industrialize was also a pragmatic matter of self-defense. Stalin, either as a result of paranoia or a simple distrust of the capitalist West, assumed his country would have to fight for its survival. He presented the need to industrialize as a life or death struggle. “Do you want our socialist fatherland to be beaten and to lose its independence?” he asked in a famous February, 1931 speech.

“If you do not want this you must put an end to its backwardness in the shortest possible time and develop genuine bolshevik tempo in building up the socialist system of the economy […] We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this difference in ten years. Either we do it, or we shall be crushed” (Daniels, 182).

Stalin saw increased centralization as the means to make the industrialization drive successful. “It is time to put an end to the rotten policy of noninterference in production. It is time to adopt a new policy, a policy adopted to the present times--the policy of interfering in everything” (Daniels, 182).

At the outset of the first five year plan in 1929, Stalin instituted impossibly high production figures for factories to stir up zeal. As Kenez points out, the unrealistic optimism of these goals can be seen by the fact that many of goals party leaders choose for industries 1932 were not reached until 1960 (Kenez, 90). Realistic state planning went out the window. According to Kenez, “‘planning’ was reduced to naming target figures which had little more than propaganda significance” (Kenez, 90).

The propaganda, however, was extremely successful in that it accomplished its goal: increased production. In the first five year plan, which ended in 1934, there was a fifty percent increase in industrial output with an average annual growth rate of eighteen percent, while the population of industrial workers doubled. Much of this success can be attributed to the zeal with which the workers approached their work; they were mobilized as if for war, and were willing to accept lower standards of living as sacrifice for building a modern industrial infrastructure and economy.

John Scott, an American who worked building the city and factories at Magnitogorsk in the early thirties, describes the attitude of his coworkers in his book Behind the Urals. One man complains about the lack of food, then reverses course saying “But then – if we are going to build blast furnaces we have to eat less for awhile” (Scott, 13). Shabkov, a kulak, describes how his family’s property was arbitrarily taken and his brother murdered, only to conclude: “But then, after all, look at what we’re doing. In a few years now we’ll be ahead of everybody industrially. We’ll all have automobiles and there won’t be any differentiation between kulaks and anybody else” (Scott, 18). They all seem to share an acceptance of deprivation today in exchange for the utopia of tomorrow.

In many ways they had reason for this optimism: society was fundamentally changing. In particular the industrial workforce was growing, as many peasants moved from the countryside into the cities to escape collectivization. Between 1926 and 1932 the urban population grew from 26 million to 38.7 million. Between 1928 and 1932 the number of employed jumped from 11.5 million to 24 million (Kenez, 93).

Women also joined the workforce in large numbers. During the NEP years less than a quarter of the industrial workers were female, by the end of the 1930’s they made up forty percent of the industrial workforce (Kenez 94).

The increases in production were dramatic. During the first five year plan (1929-1934) there was a fifty percent increase in overall industrial output and an average annual growth rate of eighteen percent. These statistics, however, do not take into account the poor quality of the goods produced. By emphasizing output only, and by intentionally setting the target output levels unrealistically high, the Soviet leaders created a system in which poor quality done quickly was preferable to producing quality products at a slower rate. Part of this had to do with the constant specter of the secret police hovering over the country, ready to declare “treason when economists pointed out the irrationalities in [the] plans or argued that impossible goals were bound to create crises, which in turn led to waste and inefficiency” (Kenez, 90).

There was also the problem created by an entire workforce learning the skills necessary to run the newly built factories and plants all at once. Many of the workers were from the peasantry and lacked any sort of , and as a result, heavy industry was run inefficiently. Scott describes the inability of the workers to run the machinery they had been so busy building: “Semi-trained workers were unable to operate the complicated machines which had been erected. Equipment was ruined, men were crushed, gassed and poisoned, money was spent in astronomical quantities” (Scott, 137).

The waste and inefficiency that plagued the struggle to make heavy industry work left over few resources for light industry and consumer goods. Shelves in stores were often bare. According to Scott, “the size of the pay envelope, the number of bank notes under the mattress, no longer determined living standards. Everybody had money, but what one ate or wore depended almost exclusively on what there was to buy in a particular store to which one was attached” (Scott, 42).

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