To what extent were the First and Second five year plans an economic and political success
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Industrialisation was a process that Stalin believed necessary in order to initiate Russia’s transformation into a modern society, capable of defending itself against foreign threats. He hoped to commence this process with the Five year plans, which he imposed for a number of reasons. Economically, Stalin hoped to catch up with and potentially overtake the already vastly industrialised west. He knew a flourishing economy was essential for the survival of the Soviet regime, and claimed that to do this he would wage war on the failings of Russia’s past.
Stalin regarded iron, steel, and oil as the sinews of war, and knew that their successful production would prepare the country for battle, whilst simultaneously enriching the deflated Soviet economy. Stalin also had personal reasons for initiating industrialisation through the Five Year Plans. He knew that he must establish himself as the unrivalled leader of the Bolshevik party and of the USSR itself, and, in stabilising the economy; he would gain respect and admiration from the public.
However Stalin’s reasons were not all selfish and he did not intend the sole function of the plan to be to consolidate his own power, although this was an advantage. Stalin sought to remove any remnants of Capitalism left in the NEP in order to ensure that Russia became a fully socialist, and perhaps later fully communist, society with full employment, material advancement and personal achievement of the working class. Lastly, and as I have previously mentioned, Stalin believed it important to guarantee that the USSR would be in a position to defend itself from potential enemies.
He knew that the infant regime would flounder in the event of an attack from the west, and wanted to create a militarily strong country to rival the other powers. The success of the First and Second Five year plans can be judged on these criteria. During 1929 Stalin abandoned the New Economic Policy, which had been introduced by Lenin in 1921. It had been an attempt to stimulate the market by creating an economy where certain features of capitalism existed alongside socialism.
The NEP was relatively successful, as by the time of Lenin’s death in 1924, the Soviet economy had begun to make a marked recovery. However the NEP was not without its problems. It was seen as a retreat in ideological terms, as it was in many ways a betrayal of the natural inclinations of the party. There was still high unemployment in urban districts and it had also led to cut backs on spending in areas such as national health care and benefits, which fuelled working class dissatisfaction.
Although the NEP was clearly an economic success, shown by the fact that it remained official soviet policy right up until 1929, the communist party could not ignore the discontent expressed by its own members and the public. The desire was for the return of the Russian economy back to the original socialist structure it had operated under before the introduction of the NEP. The government were being pushed towards a process of rapid industrialisation.
It could be argued that if the NEP had continued, Russia would have successfully industrialised, but I would argue that this would have led to widespread discontent and perhaps a forced discontinuation of the policy. With the continuance of the NEP, industrialisation may have occurred, but not at the rapid pace needed to meet Stalin’s economic objectives. Stalin introduced Collectivisation as a means of financing a massive industrialisation programme. Its results were mixed.
It did achieve its financial aim, but its success should not be exaggerated, as the rate of grain production was greatly depleted, and the productivity on collective farms was poor. Living standards for the peasantry were not improved, and neither was the rate of food production. Collectivisation condemned the soviet agriculture to decades of stagnation. However, it did achieve the economic aims of creating more urban workers which could be adequately fed, providing labour for industrial growth and most importantly, raising some grain exports to fund industrialisation.
It also achieved the underlying political aim of destroying the peasantry as a political force. Looking at collectivisation as a whole, it is clear that it was a process hastily introduced which uprooted the peasantry and left them bewildered, whilst still not producing the surplus grain Stalin demanded. However, this policy did force a large number of peasants to go into the factories, where they provided the basis of the workforce which was to begin the process of industrialisation. The First Five year plan was, from the outset, unhelpful.
It created targets but did not outline any means of achieving them. These targets were optimistic to begin with, and this lead to managers falsifying their production figures in order to meet expectations. Impressed, Stalin upped the quotas in his ‘Optimal’ plan, the figures of which were hopelessly unrealistic. However, despite this, the first plan was a great achievement overall. Coal, iron and electrical power supply all increased in huge proportions (if not to the scale first imagined), which was a great achievement for the regime and the country itself.
The manufacture of other materials, however, was less impressive. The production of steel and chemicals did not increase, while the output of finished textiles actually declined. There was also an extraordinary deterioration in living standards during this period, and no effort was made to reward the workers with reasonably priced consumer goods. Working conditions were not improved either, and it is somewhat surprising that the plan gained as much support as it did considering that its workers were presently not gaining much in return. There was some resistance to the plan, branded by Stalin as ‘sabotage’.
If factory managers did not meet their production quotas, they could easily have found themselves on trial as enemies of the state and it is therefore unsurprising that doctoring official figures became normal practice. This could be seen as a failure of the plan, as even though it was an achievement on the whole, it was also a constant disappointment to those who know the true production figures. While the Second Five year plan was modelled on the First, its targets were much more realistic and it continued along the trend of increasing production.
However the Second plan also inherited the same flaws as its forebear, and displayed the chaotic unorganised nature that had been previously been present. There was over production and under production occurring in various factories all over the country, with particular areas having vast supplies of a certain material whilst others (who desperately needed it) had none. The lack of sharing was due to the desire of all the individual factories to meet their targets, at the expense of anyone else.
The unwillingness to criticise the plans meant that faults went unchecked and this seriously slowed genuine industrial growth. As with the first plan, the living and working conditions of the workers failed to rise. The justification given by the government and the reason there was no significant protest was that without industrialisation, and the enhancement of the military, the existence of the USSR was at risk. Industrialisation was accepted as necessary by the population, and as a result the conditions remained poor. Along with their basic standards of human comfort, workers rights also disappeared.
Continuing with the idea of industrialisation as ‘necessary’, any demands for better pay or conditions were viewed as selfish at a time of ‘crucial’ development for the infant USSR, and the penalties for disruptive action such as strikes were severe. Figures suggest that wages increased during the second five year plan, but in reality food rationing and high prices of living meant that the raise was not significant enough to improve living conditions at all, and in fact it is probable that living standards were actually lower than what they had been at the outset of the plans.
However, the official impression was that the plans were working, and the workers were content. This idea is exemplified by the Stakhanovite movement of 1935, which was exploited by the government in the hope that it would encourage or shame workers into raising their standards, and there was some support shown for this movement. The great benefits workers such as Stakhanov were given inspired jealousy in the other workers, giving them the incentive to raise their industrial output in order to gain the same rewards, but it seemed that after examples had been made, few others were given privileges to the same extent.
The fact that large scale projects were used in such abundance over smaller ones has often been viewed as a mistake by historians such as Fitzpatrick, who argues that as a result of Stalin’s ‘gigantomania’ the soviet economy was disrupted at a critical time. I am inclined to agree with this view as it is clear that at such a crucial time, the USSR would clearly have gained more from a stable program of comprehensive planning and investment rather than impressive large scale projects which neglected certain aspects of the country.
Attention to detail was what was needed at this stage, and Stalin’s large scale projects directly avoided this, thus leading to waste of vital financial and material goods through the use old fashioned techniques. The bad economic policies of the government during this time meant that the Soviet Union was slowed in its attempt to compete with the modernising economies of Europe, a precise aim which the plans had set out to achieve.
It could be argued that in giving equally detailed attention to all aspects of the economy through smaller scale projects, the soviet government could have improved social conditions and modernised techniques which would have led to greater worker satisfaction and as a result sped up the process of industrialisation itself. Through the Five Year Plans, Stalin achieved his personal aim of becoming unrivalled leader of the USSR by defeating Bukharin and the Right. He also successfully established a socialist system, but this came with its costs to the workers.
Socialism at the expense of the workers caused members of the party to state that Lenin’s principles had been betrayed, as the workers were underprivileged, but with Stalin in power it was risky even to suggest this notion, so it was largely insignificant. It is clear that although Stalin’s policies were not fair on the workers, did not wholly coincide with Leninist ideology, and were certainly not beneficial to all aspects of the country, they did begin to bring some stability to the USSR, and this is shown by the fact that Russia did survive the German invasion of 1941.
It is doubtful whether without the plans the Soviet Union would have been capable of survival. This is reinforced by the view of Peter Gattrell who explains that industrialisation meant Russia was capable of surviving the 1941-45 war and that perhaps without Stalin’s plans the USSR could not have been successfully modernised. It is fair to say that the plans could have been carried out in a more succinct way, but with Stalin in power they were the only option for Russia, and although crude, the facts show they did bring about an increase in production.
The targets of the first and second Five Year Plans were unrealistic, and it could be argued that in the falsification of their figures they were unsuccessful. However it could also be argued that without the over optimistic figures, workers would not have been motivated to work as hard and as a result the production figures would not have increased as much as they did under the pressure from Stalin and the Stakhanovite movement. Stalin’s methods of modernising the country were crude, but clearly effective as Russia did industrialise, and by the end of the 1930’s it was ranked third in production only to Germany and the USA.
Although he damaged some parts of soviet life, such as workers conditions, he sufficiently stimulated the economy in order to ensure it could withstand the Second World War. However, Stalin’s achievements must not be exaggerated. Although industrial output did increase, the quality was often poor, and propaganda concealed the true extent of the failures of the plans. The great projects Stalin undertook had great cost-effort capital, and it is clear that smaller projects would have been more effective. Some historians, such as Robert Conquest, have sharply criticised Stalin’s tactics, and rightly so.
It is true that he did cause upheaval on the land and on the peasants, and his policies were too severe and destructive. However I would argue that perhaps this is part of Russian history under the Socialist regime which was unavoidable. Stalin was not a master of economics, he was a fierce tyrant driven by an ideologically inspired vision of an economically and militarily strong USSR. His policies were harsh but it was clearly necessary to modernise the country in order for its survival, and if the Tsars had been left in power it is possible that they would have followed a similar course of industrialisation themselves.