According to Marxist theory, only through a modern industrialised economy could a true proletariat class be developed. Marx makes no mention of a peasant class, a distinction that struck a chord in Stalin – and even his predecessor Lenin – in his attempt to transition into a Communist State.

Therefore, he was convinced that a modernisation drive was essential in order to reach the title of a proletariat state – and therefore a fully communist state. Marxist theory aside, the need to industrialise was also a pragmatic matter of self-defence.

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 industrialise as a life or death struggle – a fact that is embodied in his famously asking, “Do you want our socialist fatherland to be beaten and to lose its independence?” in a speech in February, 1931.

The two questions, apart from whether the modernisation drive was necessary, that are important to ask are “Did the drive work?”, and “What would the alternative have been?” – two questions that are crucial to understanding the nuances and the true effects on Russia at the time, and the impacts of Stalin’s policies. Arguments for the modernisation drive’s necessity – that the “ends justified the means” include the growth it brought about in the Russian economy, his five year plans, and Russia emerging victorious in World War II.

However, factors such as the purges, the negative impact of collectivisation, and the coercion of peasantry support the argument that “Stalin’s revolution…is noteworthy only for the scale and speed of its implementation” as these all seem to be unnecessary in bringing about a modern industrialist society in Russia – and yet were methods widely employed in order to accelerate the modernisation drive.

What is important to keep in mind whenever discussing Russia was that its fundamental dilemma was that accelerated domestic development risked upheaval at home, but slower progress risked full economic dependency on the faster-advancing countries to the east and west.

Before discussing more obvious factors such as industrial growth and productivity, it is important to analyse the planning that went into the transition of Russia into a modern industrial society such as incentive, propaganda, and Stalin’s Five Year Plans. Stalin’s three Five Year Plans were the epitome of this boost.

Surprisingly, Leon Trotsky, Gregory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and other left-wing members of the Politburo had always been in favour of the rapid industrialisation of the Soviet Union, and it was Stalin who vehemently disagreed with this view initially. He accused them of going against the ideas of Lenin who had declared that it was vitally important to preserve the “democratic alliance of the proletariat and the poor peasantry,” as Source 5 quotes him as saying.

When left-wing members of the Politburo advocated the building of a hydro-electric power station on the River Druiper, Stalin accused them of being ‘super industrialisers’. However, when Stalin accepted the need for collectivisation he also had to change his mind about industrialisation. An example of the need for industrialisation was that with the modernisation of farming the Soviet Union would require 250,000 tractors – a quantity that seemed impossible to reach at the time via current methods of production, seeing as in 1927 they had only 7,000.

The overwhelming need for resources was not limited only to machinery, but raw materials as well – there was also a need to develop the oil fields to provide the necessary petrol to drive the machines, and power stations also had to be built to supply the farms with electricity.

Stalin’s sudden change of policy made it clear he would use his control over the country to modernise the economy – and further cemented his position as a dictatorial ruler, as he was able to, and did change his policies based on his own whims, rather than the collective consent of his party. The first Five Year Plan that was introduced in 1928, concentrated on the development of iron and steel, machine-tools, electric power and transport.

To this end, Stalin set the workers high targets, demanding a 111 per cent increase in coal production, 200 per cent increase in iron production and 335 per cent increase in electric power. He justified these demands by claiming that if rapid industrialisation did not take place, the Soviet Union would not be able to defend itself against an invasion from capitalist countries in the West – an idea that was a prominent one throughout Stalin’s rule and reflected his paranoia about the West.

The Stakhanovite campaign – the exemplification of certain ‘hard working’ and ‘exemplary workers who broke records (or rather were given the ideal environment in which to do so) – was an extremely crucial tactic used to boost production. The benefits the states gave these workers incentivised other workers too to increase their production, in hope that they’d receive these benefits, and the glory that the anonymity of being a citizen of a communist state takes away from an individual.

The workers were fed propaganda by the government, “convinced that [they were] accomplishing the great and necessary transformation of the countryside,” as source quotes. Idealism such as “in the days to come people who lived there would be better off” was strong at the time, and served as a strong – if unrealistic incentive too. However, having understood that the plans and course of action set out in the first Five Year Plan weren’t realistic, Stalin set out a far more realistic second Five Year Plan which led to the years most famously known as the Three Good Years.

These were years of good harvests, rapidly rising production, de rationing of consumer markets, and rising wages and farm incomes. On the other hand, however, it is possible to argue that these planning measures may have not only been unnecessary in order to achieve a modern industrialist Russia, but maybe even hindering. The collectivisation that took place between 1928 and 1932 is a prime example for this. Stalin was of the firm belief that necessary levels of agricultural output could not be reached under the current agricultural framework that was backward and not technologically advanced enough.

He saw the small scale of these farms as the prime reason for their lack of productivity, and ordered all farms to be handed over to the state to create one, unified farmland for the whole country. The rural population, not too happy about having to give their farmland to the state slaughtered more than half of their private livestock and destroyed much of their agricultural land. It is well known from many “non-statistical” sources (including memories and witnesses) that the main driver of this drop was their strong unwillingness to turn over private livestock to “collective farmers”, while another serious reason was a deficit of feed for horses and cattle.

The boost of industrial growth was, naturally, a key feature in the Stalin’s modernisation drive. The almost unrealistically high targets set in the course of planning the industrialisation of Russia proved to be fruitful as the coal, steel, and iron industries saw rapid, unprecedented, and never before seen levels of growth.

Spectacular achievements such as the Moscow Underground, Magnitogorsk, the Turkestan-Siberian Railroad, and the Dneiper Dam that facilitated transport and increased energy production, and therefore the overall productivity of the country were essential in converting Russia to a modern industrialist society. While it could be argued that these couldn’t have been built without the dehumanisation of workers and stripping of their rights, it would have been impossible to achieve any sort of industrialisation in the short timeframe Stalin wished to without extreme measures.

As source 4 states it could be argued that, “the ends justified the means” – the ends being industrialisation within a short enough time period so as not to be vulnerable to the West, and the means ambitious output targets and the resultant suspension of worker rights. Not only were existing industries improved upon, but production in new industries also increased exponentially – chemical production increased by more than 200 per cent during the second Five Year Plan, and metals such as copper by more than 250 per cent during the second and third Five Year Plans. In addition to this, over 1500 new enterprises in the first Five Year Plan and 4500 in the second were created, this expanding the sophistication and extent of the Russian working class and market.

However, the results of this artificial growth included – most notably – the economic crises of 1932-3 and 1937-8. By 1932, Stalin’s policies had, quite objectively, brought the Soviet Union to the verge of catastrophe. Forcible collectivisation had been a disaster, and the rushed industrialisation of the Five Year Plan had led to chaos in the ‘planned’ economy.

In real terms, in 1932, workers’ wages were 49 percent of their 1928 level, and more than half their wages went on food, a problem that was only worsened by the fact that the Five Year Plan was geared heavily towards heavy industry and construction causing shops to have few consumer goods, and therefore extreme inflation. The regime was rocked by a wave of workers’ strikes and demonstrations starting in the spring of 1932.

The general unpopularity of many of Stalin’s economic policies give important insight into the efficacy of them – if the people so integral to fulfilling his ambitious economic goals were – the workers and peasants – were so opposed to said policies, their productivity would inevitably be lower than if they had approved. This is reflected in the fact that the unrealistic targets for production quantities were not even close to being reached – let alone reached, and even if they were, the overwhelmingly common likelihood was that officials had fabricated or exaggerated their production reports in order to not be executed or punished.

Furthermore, the limited consumer goods and textiles also went against the fundamental principles of a “modern industrialised society” – if citizens were unable to own basic personal necessities, had an economy truly reached modern industrialisation, despite all their technological advancements? In light of these facts, therefore, it is possible to argue that industrialisation could have been reached equally fast at a lower human and monetary cost under the NEP, or even, in the same manner, Russia developed in the 1890s.

Although unsteady in the 1890s, and in absolute terms not extensive, industrial growth was significant. By 1890, under a relatively unremarkable – even subpar – system, Russia had about 32,000 kilometres of railroads and 1.4 million factory workers, most of whom worked in the textile industry.

Between 1860 and 1890, annual coal production had grown about 1,200 per cent to over 6.6 million tonnes, and iron and steel production had more than doubled to 2 million tonnes per year. The implications of this development is that Russia could have potentially industrialised to the extent Stalin wished under a more efficient model based off of Bismarck’s developmental policies of the 19th century. An alternative would have been to continue the NEP that saw growth in productivity and efficiency as a result of economic incentives.

However, contextually, both these alternatives would not have fulfilled Stalin’s goals – the 19th century would have been far too slow (taking nearly three decades to come to fruition in the 1890s) and leave Russia susceptible to the Western, capitalistic influences Stalin was so afraid of, and the NEP far too capitalistic for his liking, and principles. Therefore, in the case of bringing about industrial growth and therefore a modern, industrialised country, Stalin’s industrial measures were necessary, despite being extreme.

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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