An essay on the NEP
Louis N Proyect
lnp3 at columbia.edu
Sun Apr 30 07:55:05 MDT 1995
I want to offer the customary apology for the length of this reply to Jim
Lawler. If you bear with me, however, you'll see that I have done
painstaking research to show that the NEP was a ticking time-bomb
rather than a model for socialist development. It is, of course, up to
you, dear reader, to decide whether or not this evidence is convincing.
THE STATE OF THE WORKING CLASS IN 1921
After the civil war, the Soviet working-class had nearly disappeared. It
was even under the best of times a small minority of the population,
never constituting more than 3 million in large-scale industry. In
1921, less than half that number were employed. The nominally
employed were often without work because the plants were idle. Most
of these workers were paupers who eked out a living doing odd jobs or
trading on the black market. All this added up to relative economic
and political weakness for parties based on the working-class such as
HOW COULD THE WORKERS RULE?
Even if civil war had not decimated the working-class, there were still
special problems that confronted socialist revolution in backward
countries like Russia. Nikolai Bukharin was very clear about the
differences between the bourgeois revolution and proletarian
revolutions. Marxists traditionally had believed that just as capitalism
emerged out of the old feudal order, so would socialism emerge out of
However, as Bukharin pointed out, the bourgeoisie was not an
exploited class and therefore was able to rule society long before its
political revolution was effected. The workers are in a completely
different position, however. They lack an independent economic base
and suffer economic and cultural exploitation. Prior to its revolution,
the working-class remains backward and therefore, unlike the
bourgeoisie, is unable to prepare itself in advance for ruling all of
society. It was only through the seizure of power and rule through a
vanguard party that the workers could build socialism.
BUKHARIN AND THE PEASANTRY
Confronted by the decline of the working-class and the collapse of the
Soviet economy during the wane of War Communism, Bukharin as
well as the overwhelming majority of the Bolsheviks embraced the
NEP. The NEP was unavoidable. The only way goods could begin to
be circulated once again was through the marketplace. Bukharin, who
had a realistic understanding of the relative weakness of the
proletariat, surveyed Soviet society in this period and started to
speculate about other social and economic forces that could propel
He came to the conclusion that the peasants would be such a force.
Bukharin theorized that growth in private agriculture would eventually
fuel industrial growth in the state sector. The peasant would first have
a need for consumer goods and simple agricultural implements. As
accumulation in the peasant economy progressed, he would begin to
demand more capital-intensive goods such as tractors, fertilizer and
machinery. Demand for such products would cause the state-owned
heavy industries to grow as well.
The NEP, which was originally a tactic to lift the USSR out of the
doldrums of War Communism, was now seen by Bukharin as a central
component to the development of socialism.
Therefore, according to Bukharin, it was a mistake to attack the
peasants, especially the wealthier peasants who could supply produce
to the workers in the cities. The poorer farmers relied on subsistence
farming and lacked the capacity to fill the breadbaskets in the urban
marketplace. So Bukharin thought it made sense for the wealthy
peasants to "enrich" themselves in order to ultimately build the
socialist economy. Opposition to the wealthy peasants--the kulaks--
was an ultraleft and dangerous mistake.
Bukharin's major ally in the ruling party was Joseph Stalin.
PREOBRAZHENSKY'S DEBATE WITH BUKHARIN
Evgeny Preobrazhensky was a close political ally of Bukharin. They
were left-Bolsheviks during the period of War Communism. They co-
authored "The ABC's of Communism" and were leading theorists in
the party. Preobrazhensky, who despite lacking a college education,
was an accomplished economist. In his "New Economics", he
attempted to apply the method of "Capital" to the Soviet economy. He
was an organizer in the Urals who was constantly on the run from the
Tsarist police and was one of the early supporters of Lenin's April
Preobrazhensky challenged Bukharin's pro-kulak policy. He saw a
basic flaw in its logic: as long as heavy industry remained
undercapitalized, it could not produce consumer goods to satisfy the
peasants. The longer the Soviet Union waited to carry out
modernization of its plants and equipment, the worse the shortage of
industrial products would be. Preobrazhensky saw heavy taxation of
the kulaks as the way to accomplish such an upgrade. In an article,
Preobrazhensky used the term "exploitation" to describe this
relationship of the socialist state to the peasants. This term caused a
scandal among Bukharin and Stalin's supporters in the same manner
as Bukharin's use of the term "enrich yourselves" caused a scandal in
the left opposition.
HOW THE NEP UNRAVELED
>From the very beginning, the so-called "scissors" phenomenon
characterized the NEP. Trotsky first drew attention to this
phenomenon of rising industrial prices and declining agricultural
prices, which appeared graphically as an opened scissors, in the first
few years of the NEP. It was attributable to the discrepancy between a
shattered state-owned industrial infrastructure and a relatively thriving
capitalist agricultural economy. The effect of the "scissors" was to
cause the kulak to hoard farm products in an attempt to blackmail the
state into cutting the prices of consumer goods. When the kulak
hoarded crops, the workers went hungry and misery increased in the
towns. This, in brief, was the pattern that would repeat itself until
Stalin declared war on the kulaks.
The peasants had discovered that holding grain was more prudent than
holding money. The state authorities could not make the peasants
budge. At Rostov in the Ukraine the authorities issued an order to have
the peasants deliver 25% of all flour delivered to state mills at a fixed
price in 1924. The state was able to collect only 1/3 of the grain. The
peasants withheld the rest.
In addition to the growing tensions between private growers and
public authorities, tensions also arose in the countryside between the
wealthy peasant and the overwhelming majority of poor peasants. The
1917 revolution distributed millions of small lots to the tiller, but their
prospects were uncertain. In these mini-farms, horses were often
nonexistent let alone tractors. Peasants used their own muscles to plow
the land. Many of these mini-farms failed and the peasants became
wage laborers on the kulak's farms.
A table in a Soviet academic journal from the period documents the
trend. It shows the percentage of peasants in the Ukraine who lacked
draft horses and machinery:
% Without % Without
draft horses Machinery
1921 19 24
1922 34 30
1923 45 34
1924 46 42
The conditions noted above began to prevail throughout the USSR.
The peasantry began subdividing into 2 groups: those who had
animals and machinery loaned them to those who did not; and those,
who while not landless, lacked the means to improve their lot. It was
to the first group that Bukharin and Stalin made their appeal.
Some 20 to 30% of the poorer peasants ate nothing but potatoes in the
Ukraine in 1924. Those peasants who lost their land and descended
into wage labor were superexploited. Typically, the farmworker
worked unlimited hours, and child-labor was not unusual. In the
Ukraine, 80% of the farmworkers were illiterate and their bosses often
beat them. These workers probably did not share Bukharin's beliefs in
the wonders of the NEP.
Bukharin, like Jim Lawler, was fond of citing Lenin's "On
Cooperation" in support of the NEP. For Bukharin, this speech of the
dead leader had implicitly endorsed his vision of the unhampered
development of a wealthy peasantry.
The "actually existing" cooperatives as opposed to Bukharin's theory
soon became part of the controversy with the left opposition. If the
cooperatives were to have any merit as incipient socialist institutions,
they would have to serve the interests of the middle and lower
peasantry. In reality, the coop's consisted mainly of well-off peasants
who used them as marketing instruments. Peasants engaged in
subsistence farming had no role. When coop's allowed joint ownership
of farm machinery, the poor peasant could usually not afford to hire
them. A party investigator reported in 1925 that "capitalist principles
have secured most favorable conditions for themselves under the
cooperative flag". He added that the Bukharin-Stalin party leadership
had taken as "an example of a movement towards socialism" what was
really a movement towards capitalism.
While social differentiation in the countryside continued apace, the
conflict with the socialist state authorities showed no signs of
amelioration. There was little the state could do to placate the peasant.
Soviet industry had not improved and therefore there were little or no
consumer goods at an affordable price. The scissors remained open.
The state increasingly relied on grain exports to raise capital, but the
kulaks stood in the way. In 1925, there was a goal to export 200
million bushels of grain but grain collection for the year 1925-26 fell
short of a 780 million goal by exactly 200 million because of hoarding.
The politburo suspended grain exports. Bukharin's vision of industrial
expansion financed by the proceeds of grain surpluses began to fade.
The kulak was the master of the situation, not the working-class.
Mao's dictum that political power grew out of the gun barrel should
read in this case that political power grows out of the grain barrel.
STALIN'S WAR ON THE KULAKS
By the late 1920's, fissures began to appear between Bukharin and
Stalin over the NEP. Stalin began to sound the alarm against the kulak
in terms reminiscent of Trotsky, Preobrazhensky and the left
opposition, whose members were mostly jailed or exiled by then.
Stalin's militancy disoriented many in the left opposition who
questioned their role now that Stalin appeared to shift to the left.
Trotsky had even given critical support to Stalin, a "centrist" in his
view, against the "rightist" Bukharin who backed the kulaks.
The problem with this type of analysis is that lacked sufficient
historical perspective to see how far Stalin had distanced himself from
the working-class roots of Bolshevism. Stalin had emerged as an
advocate for powerful elements of the Soviet bureaucracy, police and
army who derived their privileges from collectivized property
Bukharin gave political expression to the class interests of the wealthy
peasantry while retaining some roots in the Bolshevik intelligentsia.
The left opposition had ties to the working-class of traditional urban
centers such as St. Petersburg, but with the decline of the working-
class the opposition's political power ebbed. Furthermore, many of the
workers who had taken up residence in the cities in the mid-20's were
basically transplanted peasants. These workers had little of the Marxist
consciousness typical of the Russian working-class at the turn of the
century. The workers who had entered the Communist Party during
the "Lenin levy" came from this stratum.
When Stalin began to attack the kulaks, he borrowed much from
Preobrazhensky's theoretical arsenal. Stalin, above all interested in
maintaining his political supremacy, had no qualms about shifting
from Bukharin's neo-SR peasant ideology to Preobrazhensky's
industrializing model albeit in a heavily distorted form.
When Stalin unleashed the full power of the Soviet state against the
peasant in order to collectivize agriculture, he did so in a manner that
served neither the working-class nor the peasantry in the long run. He
attacked in a manner that was typical of his administrative approach to
political problems. This was no accident. It would be virtually
impossible for the consummate bureaucrat to act in any other fashion.
Trotsky and his followers put up a gallant fight but they were basically
generals without an army. They lacked the social weight to assemble a
counterforce to Stalin. The left opposition was an alternative to
Bukharin's pro-kulak policy and Stalin's anti-kulak extremism.
Soundness of ideas, however, is no guarantee of their acceptance in
society as we all know. Perhaps a timely application of some of
Trotsky and Preobrazhensky's economic ideas could have forestalled
the debacle of the 1930's, but history followed another path.
Bukharin remained a supporter of NEP-styled socialism to the very
end. His break with Stalin was primarily over Stalin's cruelty and
misleadership rather than his economic ultraleft turn. He eventually
made peace with Stalin as did Preobrazhensky. This did not prevent
Stalin from having the 2 old Bolsheviks tried and executed as
"enemies of the state".
Stephen F. Cohen, the left-liberal historian from Princeton University,
has authored an important political biography of Bukharin called
"Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution".
Cohen views the NEP period as something of a golden age in Soviet
history. He emphasizes, as Lawler does, the positive aspects of this
period, but fails to truly come to grips with its passing. He tends to
view the NEP as an experiment in social policy rather than a product
of class relations at a given moment in history.
Cohen sees Bukharin's failure as something of a tragedy rather than as
the inevitable byproduct of a clash between the interests of a peasant
bourgeoisie and a bureaucratic caste.
Cohen's incomplete understanding of the NEP's role in Soviet history
is reminiscent of his failure to comprehend Gorbachev's downfall.
Cohen appeared on TV frequently to defend the moderate, NEP-like
mixed-economy model of Perestroika. He never seemed to grasp that
the demands of global capitalism were uppermost in US policy-
maker's minds rather than the welfare of the Russian people.
THE NEP AS A MODEL
I do not believe the NEP should serve as model for developing
countries attempting to build socialism.
Since the fall of the Berlin wall, many on the left seem to have fallen
in love with market socialism and the mixed economy. Some
accommodation with capitalism might be unavoidable, but it appears
to me that there is a difference between accommodation under duress
and a theoretical model based on a dissolution of the class-struggle.
Basically, I regard recent infatuations with the mixed economy,
market socialism or any other recycled versions of the NEP as
abandonment of the class-struggle. I also think the left has to redefine
and reclaim the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The
planned economy did not fail in the Soviet Union. What failed was an
economy based on fiat.
The left has to come to grips with these issues in order to prepare for
the 21st century. The only possible use we can make of the disasters of
the 20th century is to strengthen our theoretical understanding of what
is necessary for the next century.
I will have more to say on these matters in the weeks to come.
E.H. Carr, "Socialism in One Country"
S. Cohen, "Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution"
I. Deutscher, "The Prophet Outcast"
E.A. Preobrazhensky, "The Crisis of Soviet Industrialization"
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