Five Cheers for Five Year Plans?

When collectivization started, it opened a new chapter in Soviet economics, while closing another.  With the ending of the NEP that attempted to use the private sector to bring Russia away from its perceived ‘backwardness’, the Five Year Plans were implemented to achieve the same goal.  However, as Lewin in On Soviet Industrialization describes, it was at great cost.

Lewin begins by establishing that he declares the NEP to be too weak and did not encompass enough of the economy to be successful.  He states that the “NEP showed signs of not coping”, which could eventually lead to an economic crisis (273).  Unfortately, as Lewin continues, it is clear that the Five Year Plans were not better, possibly even worse.  Beginning with the first plan that ended a year early which plunged the entire economy into chaos, it was unclear what the future of the system was going to be.  Since there was no incentive for workers to be productive, unlike in the NEP, the end of quarters always became mad dashes for quotas and manipulation of books became rampant.  Lewin attributes this to the command system, where there were simply too many superiors making too many demands causing resources to be stretched too thin or not to be created at all.    Lewin concludes that this ruined “initiative from below” (283), with too many bureaucratic layers and leaders with self-interests.

The Five Year Plans quickly enveloped the entire economic system, where so many citizens had to sacrifice so little.  This is an economic system that should not be celebrated.

Soviet Industrialization and Magnitostroi

“It is a grandiose factory for remaking people. Yesterday’s peasant…becomes a genuine proletarian…fighting for the quickest possible completion of the laying of socialism’s foundation. You are an unfortunate person, my dear reader, if you have not been to Magnitostroi.” ((Stephen Kotkin, “Peopling Magnitostroi: The Politics of Demography, in Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. ((Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1993: 63))) These are the compelling opening lines of Kotkin’s chapter, “Peopling Magnitostroi: The Politics of Demography.” The unknown correspondent’s words were persuasive; however, was this the true story of Magnitostroi. A steel plant situated miles from cultured society, populated by a handful of people, deficient in basic commodities and resources, and extreme housing shortages. Notwithstanding the extreme working conditions of -20 to -40 degrees made it a truly modern industrial paradise!

The recruitment strategies of extra pay and free transportation worked to a certain extent, but workers would quickly leave as soon as their contracts were exhausted. As time continued, the recruitment results plummeted. In the opening days of this project, the population was to consist of volunteer workers, however, just as in the collectivization of farms it quickly turned to mandates of forced workers populating the official state needs. The young, unskilled, male populaces were typically former villagers with little or no education. ((Stephen Kotkin, “Peopling Magnitostroi: The Politics of Demography,” in Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. ((Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1993: 75))) A workforce made up of mere peasants and the goal was to establish a strong nationwide proletariat, which these uneducated peasants could not fulfill hence the need to remake people. Training initiatives done in true “new” Bolshevik style sometimes the training was for a skill for which the material was not available for use by the workers. This did not seem to matter because the goal was only to attempt to train workers to work more efficiently and as a team.

Russia was behind in the global industrialization movement. Stalin desired to catch up to the western world as quickly as possible. Unfortunately as the Magnitostroi highlights the speed of changes without thinking of what complications these decrees would initiate did not launch Russia forward, but could have actually hindered their long term achievement of modernization. Stalin’s regime with an exorbitant amount of power centralized at the top was as Lewin notes, “allowed to operate independently of economic criteria and results.” ((Moshe Lewin, “On Soviet Industrialization,” in William G. Rosenberg and Lewis H. Sieglebaum (ed.) Social Dimensions of Soviet Industrialization. ((Indian University Press, 1993: 277)))Thereby allowing massive amounts of materials to be wasted which included workers time. Without the NEP there was no incentive for workers to work harder, basically, they needed to appear busy. The bureaucracy grew beyond control allowing bureaucratic drift to expunge more resources than needed and ensure that they kept their positions. Let us not forget that most of these workers were in relatively newly acquired positions and incapable of completely understanding or dealing with these responsibilities. The nation was in turmoil and the constant demand for continued changes only exasperated this state. Could Stalin have had more success if he had not eliminated all of the intellectuals? Those men would have taken time to consider the full implications of their actions before decreeing every sector of the nation to change. Lenin showed incite before his death when writing that, “he was not sure whether Stalin could be always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution.” ((“Lenin’s Testament.” New York Times. 18 October, 1926.))) What would the history of Russia be today if the party had listened?