- Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution
Economists, historians, and political scientists have long debated the relative successes of the Soviet industrial revolution. Did Soviet officials succeed in raising industrial production more rapidly by means of central planning mechanisms than the nations of Western Europe and the United States? Most scholars argue that the Soviet growth rate was not very high compared with capitalist nations, that output in such sectors as steel, machine building, and military equipment—for which leaders proclaimed stunning increases—were much lower than claimed, and that the quality of life of Soviet citizens remained rather poor. Further, they argue that collectivization of agriculture to finance industrialization was cruel at best, leading to the starvation of millions of peasants in Ukraine.
In Farm to Factory Robert Allen considers these and other contentions about the costs and achievements of industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture in the USSR. He does so in a new vein, in part by reevaluating data, in part through more precise analytical economic tools. Dozens of graphs and tables help in this reevaluation of various measures of output, labor supply, economic and population growth, and urban and rural differences, as well as the place of the tsarist empire and the USSR in world markets.
Comparisons with the North American Great Plains are instructive in evaluating the problems facing agronomists and planners in the USSR. Allen indicates that the weakness of Russian agriculture was not labor; rather, it was insufficient capitalization and mechanization and poor organization that kept productivity down. Rural unemployment was high during the 1920s, and forced collectivization—the rapid conversion of peasants into workers—may have been an effective tool for dealing with this problem. Collectivization maximized internal migration and accelerated industrialization by driving people into cities. But there were numerous and persistent problems in agriculture—for example, lower productivity of livestock because of poor breeding practices and inadequate feed. Further, collectivization was more than an economic tool. It was political, ensuring that the Bolsheviks established control over the countryside and ensuring the supply of food to the cities. The USSR grew rapidly from 1927 until 1970 by accumulating capital and creating industrial jobs for people otherwise inefficiently employed in agriculture.
Allen notes that the industrialization drive under Stalin was marked by the substitution of output targets for profits and that this marked the end of cost controls. Though targets were rarely met, they served as a motivational [End Page 837] tool, and that strategy in the short run may have worked. Planning was not aimed at raising living standards, Allen writes, but in fact consumption did rise. In an interesting chapter on consumption, he argues that pessimistic assessments of the low standard of living in the USSR, especially during the Stalin period, are misplaced. Although there was little gain in consumer goods, per-capita consumption was significantly higher than in the 1920s, especially with respect to foodstuffs.
It is interesting to compare Allen's conclusion here with that of economists such as Abram Bergson. Using modern theory of index numbers, Allen shows that consumption rose rapidly after the disasters of collectivization, and claims that not only elites and Stakhanovites, but urban residents generally, industrial workers, teachers, and bureaucrats had reasons to support the state. There is something to this, although memoirs from the 1930s portray a bleak life even for the elite, and certainly the atmosphere of the Great Terror gave no one comfort. Even though the economic situation had changed significantly by the 1970s, Soviet leaders were slow to develop appropriate responses.
Many scholars have judged the Soviet economic experiment a failure, and it is hard to argue with them given the economic evidence that Allen himself presents (not to mention the reality that the USSR is no longer with us). Allen gives more credit to the USSR's economic revolution than other scholars do, and historians of technology may find his approach narrow for their tastes. But those interested in economic issues will find probing questions...