Undoubtedly, one of the most defining features of Stalinism was the decision to collectivise the farms of the Soviet Union. In 1929, the order was given to aggregate all of the farmlands of the state, in order to form larger communal holdings. However, what this brief description fails to do is reveal the darker truth of this agricultural policy…
By 1929, Soviet leaders had become convinced of the pressing need to industrialise the nation. The war scare in the late 1920s, triggered by Britain’s discovery of Soviet espionage activity and severed diplomatic relations, together with the launch of Stalin’s first five-year plan, highlighted the need to rapidly transform heavy industry. To be able to fund this, the city’s workers needed to be fed and large-scale exports needed to be made.
The Bolsheviks believed that these new collective farms would generate a more efficient means for securing this output, offering an easier way for the state to extract a stable supply of grain.
This was further pushed to the forefront of official minds by the alarming shortages experienced during the grain procurement crisis across the Soviet Union in 1928. Indeed, in the following year, Stalin asserted that ‘thanks to the growth of the collective-farm… we are definitively emerging…from the grain crisis’. Soviet leadership seemed to perceive (or at least publicised) that collectivisation was vital for bolstering the economy and used it to justify their escalation towards a comprehensive policy.
Farming had to change… and change quickly.
However, although these practical considerations may have prompted the timing of this decision in 1929, this alone would be a gross oversimplification. Throughout Soviet history there has always been a remarkably intricate interplay between ideology and circumstance.
Now, here’s where it gets more complicated. How does one disentangle whether a policy was simply “economic”, when, naturally, any of these policies are still implicitly driven by the overarching vision of the party in power? Since the Bolsheviks’ primary goal was to achieve a genuine socialist state, free from the ruling classes, any agricultural strategy that aided this simultaneously became “political”.
Politics and economics are, by nature, inextricably linked. For this reason, it is perhaps most constructive to assess the approach of comprehensive collectivisation in terms of its main prong of attack. Was it, first and foremost, an economic overhaul, or a cultural onslaught?
Lynne Viola has famously proposed the idea that comprehensive collectivisation was inherently ‘a war against the peasantry’. The policy was attacking soviet farmers’ thinking and way of life, deep beneath the surface.
Indeed, one can see this Bolshevik view of the peasantry in Pravda articles, where they openly proclaim the peasants to be a people who were ‘subject to petty-bourgeoise tendencies’. The party hoped that the shared mindset that was required for collectivisation would eradicate this mentality, in turn creating a citizen that smoothly slotted into a communist society. A so-called ‘new person’.
The relevance of collectivisation for cultural transformation can be neatly exemplified by the state’s use of the Twenty-five-thousanders. This voluntary group was formed by gathering frontline workers from the major industrial cities of the USSR, before mobilising them to the countryside, to head these collective farms. Although this faction provided the rural corners of the Union with thousands of loyal comrades, the decision to do this undermined any practical arguments for collectivisation. The group, simply, did not make economic sense.
These industrial loyalists who were sent out to lead these farms were inexperienced when it came to agricultural processes. It will probably come as no surprise to hear that this move resulted in them actually reducing the productivity of the very farms that they were sent out there to improve.
So, why did the Soviets do it?
Chairman Vyacheslav Molotov’s speech on 15th November 1929, specifically addressed the need for these 25,000 workers to be ‘politically literate people’. Molotov’s emphasis on their politically-attuned nature highlights exactly why the collectivisation process still made ideological sense, even if it was misguided from a purely profit-orientated standpoint. The twenty-five-thousanders would be facilitating the cultural revolution out in the countryside, helping people to diverge from the traditional peasant attitude. They were priming the countryside for a full-scale socialist state.
The ideological battles did not end here.
The religious persecutions that accompanied collectivisation further signalled that this policy was, fundamentally, a cultural assault. Shelia Fitzpatrick has outlined the concurrent sanctions for the closing of churches, burning of icons and arrests of priests. Religion was more prevalent in the countryside (and therefore was something that was more pertinent to peasant culture) but, crucially, the Bolsheviks associated the Orthodox Church with collaboration with the previous tsarist regime. Allowing religon to thrive in rural communities would risk the USSR reverting to a time of pre-1917.
The religious oppression during collectivisation showed that there were deeper ideological roots to the policy, targeting the underlying composition of the peasantry. If collecitivsation had simply been about agriculture and funding industrialisation, then the attacks on the church were needless. This fact, alongside the widespread resistance that the peasants demonstrated towards the persecutions, certainly support Lynne Viola’s claim for the Bolsheviks waging an cultural ‘war’.
One which the peasants were losing.
Perhaps the easiest way to dismiss the centrality of economic motivations behind collectivisation is to look at a key “complementary” policy: Dekulakisation.
The kulaks were never consistently, nor formally, defined in Soviet society at this time (arguably, a deliberate ambiguity). However, generally, this group was understood as the wealthier, more successful peasants in rural communities. The ‘petty bourgeoisie’.
Now, in theory, Marxist Orthodoxy suggested that anyone could be culturally reformed. Even a small-scale capitalist kulak could become a ‘new person’ — one that worked towards benefitting a communist state. The authorisation of comprehensive collectivisation in November 1929 prompted the question of whether these kulaks would be able to join the merging farms and reform themselves. However, by 30th January 1930, ‘measures to liquidate’ the kulaks were called for.
For many this decision was fatal. Within the first year 19,000 supposed kulaks were sentenced to death. The elimination of this peasant class, to assist collectivisation, likewise discredited the weight of any purely practical arguments. The kulaks only tended to be wealthier because they were more productive; they were the superior farmers. It fundamentally did not make economic sense to remove them.
Historian Moshe Lewin only added to this in his discussion around the lack of clarity about the real social character of the kulaks. The state’s ambiguity around kulaks’ defining qualities suggested that dekulakisation (as a tool for implementing collectivisation) was just part of a cultural onslaught against the peasants as a whole, since they failed to properly distinguish them from the general peasantry. If one takes dekulakisation as indicative of collectivsation’s brutal nature, then the ideological undercurrents of this violent class war starts to become much clearer.
Clearly, this shift in 1929 represented more than just farming reform. Comprehensive collectivisation’s motivations went far beyond this. Although there were circumstantial triggers that prompted the pursuit of change, ultimately it was the Bolshevik’s long-standing ideological ambitions that took precedence in underpinning this policy. Collectivisation, at its heart, was primarily about transforming the individual ‘petty bourgeoisie’ peasant life to one that was compatible with a socialist society, which was facilitated by the accompanying processes of dekulakisation and religious persecution. These cultural attacks and their flawed economic logic, coupled with the party’s own ambiguity, formed destructive weapons that helped the state to wage a “war against the peasantry”.
To suggest that this choice was simply an economic one would not only be wildly reductionist but, also, a disguise. A dark lie, masking the reality of planting red flags in black earth…