The relatively liberal socio-economic policies of the early 1920s (NEP) had led to the formation of proto-capitalism in the USSR - so-called "Nepmen" in the cities and individualist kulak peasants in the countryside. But the upper echelons of the Bolshevik Party recognised that they could not build socialism on such liberal policies, for they depended on the peasantry for their food - and the peasants had no stake in the class war. Russian peasants were quite happy to live as they always had on the mir (the word means both "universe" and "peace" in Russian, and is used to designate the village commune), producing food for themselves. But the socialist state needed food for the cities, and capital accumulation to bring about industrialisation.

The system that was brought into action was Stalinism. Its chief characteristics were -

  1. Collectivisation of agriculture, against the peasants' wishes;
  2. Rapid industrialisation in the cities through the application of insanely optimistic plans and draconian labour laws;
  3. General terror directed at the Party apparatus to liquidate any possible centre of opposition.

Economic modernisation, class war, or both?

"We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must catch up this distance in ten years. Either we do it or we go under," foretold Stalin in 1931. There had been a growing feeling in the Soviet Union, especially marked since restoration to pre-war levels of output was achieved, that the country needed to modernise its economy. This was imperative not only because of national security concerns, but also a fundamental part of socialist ideology. Faced with the fickle Russian proletarian-cum-peasant, the Bolsheviks needed to build a robust industrial economy that would prevent the further deterioration of the working class. Although there was an alternative to Stalinism – implanting capitalism into agriculture to make it large-scale – this was rejected as the kulaks were rejected. The collectivisation process involved the targeting of the kulaks and Nepmen because they were seen as enemies of the socialist system who would subvert it from within and attempt to stop its triumph. To a Stalinist mind, class war was a corollary of economic modernisation. Now that the economy had passed through the 'restoration' and it was far from certain whether NEP could continue to be stable, a dramatic offensive was needed to establish agriculture on a collective scale and hence provide a stable environment for the growth of industry. A Menshevik later described this strategy as "levying tribute on the peasants". As well as this plan to try and spark off a class war in the village from above (an ideological idea of the workers' state fighting the petty bourgeois peasantry), class conflict emerged from below. This was inspired by local Party cadres who were faced with the task of achieving rapid collectivisation and tried to turn the peasants against one another to make the expropriation of the kulaks easier. Where no clear-cut socio-economic classes existed, they were ascribed so the socialist state could know its enemies from its allies.

The concept of a class war requires there to be classes. Marxist classes are determined by objective socio-economic conditions, but it is arguable whether any such certain classes existed in Russia at this time. After October, Russian society had entered a period of extreme turbulence and instability in which class consciousness had difficulty forming. The workers had fled the cities back to the countryside, depriving the Bolsheviks of their social base. But Stalin and his colleagues believed strongly that there existed a capitalist peasantry which could not be allowed to even enter the collective farms in case they re-established their grip over the rest of the peasantry there. Class therefore had to be ascribed to an individual, and became an inherent quality of that person – a kulak was still a kulak even when deprived of their property. Because the designation was essentially ascribed by the authorities it necessarily involved an arbitrary element, depending on the "Communist conscience" of the cadre making the decision. The peak of the deportations of kulaks was 1930 – 31, before individuals were issued internal passports in 1932. The arbitrary nature of the ascribed classes before 1932 meant that class discrimination was ad hoc and to some extent negotiable, which slightly blurs the claim that a class war was taking place at the lower levels. But the upper echelons of the party leadership saw things this way – Stalin declaring "the liquidation of the kulaks as a class" – and the ascribed classes had a practical usefulness in carrying out the program of collectivisation.

To the Bolsheviks, an enemy of collectivisation was a class enemy, because opposition meant a peasant had a "petty bourgeois" worldview. A multitude of methods were used to make collectivisation a reality, including outright coercion and economic penalties imposed on those who were unwilling to collectivise. The fear of being classed a kulak drove many people into the kolkhoz (collective farm). Class war was not inherent in the mir but the Bolsheviks made every effort to inculcate it there. The poor peasants could be enlisted to help expropriate the richer ones in the hope of improving their own situation, and the "middle peasants" would see that they had little hope of advancement qua individual peasants, as this would lead to expropriation and transportation. The Bolsheviks decided on this strategy for forcing collectivisation because the concept of large-scale capitalist agriculture was anathema to their ideology. Terror and coercion made it possible by turning the peasants against each other. Usually the peasants would have seen collectivisation as an "us vs. them" situation, but when faced with personal exile tough decisions would have to be made. The role of coercion is seen in the example of Smolensk. On 1 October 1929 only 2.5% of peasants were collectivised, but violence and dekulakisation increased this number to 38.8% by 1 March 1930. Then, after Stalin’s 'Dizzy with Success' article implied that the peasants can leave the farms, the number dropped to 10.5% by 15 April. The concept of class war was clearly a useful tool for persecuting the peasants and scaring them into action – the peasants knew that resistance would lead to their being labelled as kulak or "ally of the kulak", and hence exiled.

As well as their attempts to inculcate concepts of class, and then class war, into the villages, a larger conflict was in play. This was the conflict between the workers’ state and the peasantry as a whole. Stalin later compared his war against the peasantry to his war against the Germans, and he imposed a similar level of discipline on the kolkhozniks as he did on the Red Army. In 1932 a decree declared that the pilfering of kolkhoz property, including food stocks, was to be punished by shooting or transportation. This was in response to the general inefficiency of the collective farms and the low level of peasant morale, which was leading to hoarding, pilfering and low output. The procurement plan was later relaxed in the face of growing chaos, but even this was not fulfilled. Strict state counter-measures were imposed, which led to the man-made famine of 1933. Thousands of peasants were shot under the 1932 law for refusing to deliver grain for procurements, and thousands more were deported for being kulaks or "individualist". Among the dead and exiled there numbered many Communist officials who had "ceased to come under the organising influence of the Party and state". The famine of 1933 came about because of huge procurements and coercive measures which sought to make sure the workers were fed at the expense of the peasantry, and no relief measures were taken in the countryside. This is estimated to have led to ten million deaths, and in 1934 the offensive against the nine million peasants still left out of collective farms was stepped up again as the tax screw was tightened. The proletarian state had sacrificed the interests of the peasants to make sure industrialisation continued.

Industrialisation was possible in the cities because of the collectivisation of agriculture, and the class conflict this involved. The Bolsheviks were supposedly building the socialist state for the benefit of the working class, but in doing so needed to force it to act in certain ways. Absenteeism, alcoholism and pilfering were rife – it seemed many workers did not share the 'pathos' of building socialism. Many were rootless peasants who wandered around looking for the best conditions and pay. Once a worker became a Communist he essentially lost his identity as a proletarian, as he was now part of a bureaucracy which afforded him benefits over the condition of a normal worker. It was this 'class' of officials that was driving the revolution in the countryside, not the proletariat per se. The proletariat were the engine of industrialisation in the cities. The characteristics of Stalinism in the cities were strict labour discipline and economic modernisation. Although growth figures are disputed, heavy industry expanded enormously, with the consumer goods industries performing less well. This modernisation was achieved with intense repression, in which the concept of class was again an ascribed one.

The first to suffer, around 1930, were 'former people' and bourgeois specialists. After these classes had been liquidated along with the kulaks, fear of the individuals who used to be members of these classes continued. Stalin said that when a class was liquidated, the individuals within it ceased to be a class enemy and became an "actual" enemy. It was feared people of impure class background had entered the socialist system and sought to subvert it from within. Just as enemies of collectivisation were accused of being kulaks regardless of their actual socio-economic position, proletarians who refused to put up with the draconian labour laws were declared "socially undesirable" and believed to hold negative class characteristics – they were not true proletarians. This was especially true at the grassroots level. Although the Constitution of 1936 declared all citizens to be equal, the people likely to be denounced and deported by the NKVD were those with suspicious class backgrounds. As in the countryside, once the obvious 'class enemies' had been liquidated, class became an ascribed concept to stigmatise individuals. Even if someone appeared poor and to hold a weak economic position, they could be accused of been a former kulak or Nepman, or in some other way not a pure proletarian. Bolsheviks, whether of a proletarian background or not, were "proletarians by conviction" and hence not class enemies. This shows what was more important to the state – obedience and loyalty above objective socio-economic background.

In conclusion, the goals of Stalinism were economic modernisation and class war, which could not be separated. Marxists believed that exploitive elements existed in the population that had to be combated before socialism could be built, and anyone who stood in the way of the workers' state was an enemy of "the people", i.e. the 'true' proletariat. Class was central to their worldview, and where classes didn’t exist they found it necessary to invent them. Class discrimination was encouraged by the upper echelons of the regime in the years around 1930, but then died down slightly as the decade wore on. But at grassroots level the issuing of internal passports with a "social status" on them encouraged the stigmatisation to continue – either by Communist officials seeking to use coercion to meet their production quotas, or by opportunists denouncing others for their own gain. Even though the Great Purges of 1937 – 38 were largely directed down channels other than class, the NKVD still deported 200,000 "social undesirables" during this period. If production quotas were not filled or parts of the industrialisation plan went awry, then the familiar concept of class was a useful one in finding scapegoats. The fact Marxist classes did not account for the existence of a totalitarian dictatorship did not matter – in the presence of such an overwhelmingly powerful state which was determined on achieving its goal of modernisation, you were whatever class you were told you were.

Complete bibliography

S. Fitzpatrick (ed.), Stalinism: New Directions (2000)
A. Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R (1990)
C. Ward, Stalin's Russia (1993)
M. Lewin, The Making of the Soviet System (1985)
M. Fasinod, Smolensk Under Soviet Rule (1958)
S. Fitzpatrick, Stalin's Peasants (1994)

See also:

Josef Stalin
Vladimir Lenin
Union of Socialist Sovet Republics
The Soviet Economy Before Stalin

The foremost expert on Stalinism is Sheila Fitzpatrick. See her Stalin's Peasants (1994), Everyday Stalinism (1999) and Stalinism: New Directions (2000). Her analysis of the Revolution as a whole is given in The Russian Revolution (1994). As a singular and lucidly written case study, see Smolensk Under Soviet Rule (1958) by Merle Fasinod. Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (1956) remains a penetrating comparitive study.

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