- Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution
In this collection of concisely argued essays, Robert C. Allen reexamines several important questions familiar to anyone interested in Soviet history: the hypothetical development of Russia in the [End Page 514] absence of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution; the standing of Russia's and the Soviet Union's economic and demographic development in relation to other countries; the controversy surrounding the strategy for economic development after the revolution; the reasons for Stalin's rapid industrialization and the role of the agricultural sector in it; and the economic slowdown in the 1970s and 1980s. As an economic historian, Allen relies mostly on formulas and numbers, and he draws bold conclusions from them.
One of Allen's most significant conclusions is that the Soviet Union did well economically in comparison with some other countries. In the late nineteenth century some Latin American countries (Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay), which were integrated into the world economy, were as rich as advanced European countries, but a century later they found themselves in the ranks of the Third World countries. Russia (the Russian empire and its somewhat smaller successor, the Soviet Union), on the other hand, managed to climb from a poor country to a country of middle-level wealth in the same period. This in itself is not particularly new: decades ago the modernization school, for example, emphasized this fact. Nor is Allen's discussion of Russia's state initiatives for industrial development very different from the classic model of English industrialization. Yet Allen is bolder than many of his predecessors in contending that "in the absence of the communist revolution and the Five-Year Plans, Russia would have remained as backward as much of Latin America or, indeed, South Asia" (p. 17). Of course, no one can prove counterfactual contentions like this, but his assertion, like similar ones made by other scholars, is based on too many assumptions that may not be right. Finland (formerly a part of the Russian empire but attained independence in 1917) did far better, without communism, than did the Soviet Union. So did Japan, without a communist revolution—hence, the comparative studies of Russia and Japan promoted by the modernization school.
Allen does not always place his work within a proper historiographical context, leaving the reader somewhat frustrated over his contentions of originality. Important publications by Theodore von Laue, for instance, are completely ignored in the present book.
What is striking in Allen's book is his assertion that the living standard of the Soviet population rose significantly during the years of Stalin's first two Five-Year Plans: per capita consumption increased 22 percent from 1928 to 1938. The real wages of urban workers generally are known to have declined in the decade (particularly during 1928–1932). Yet Stalin's industrialization eliminated unemployment and induced larger numbers of family members (particularly women) than before into the workforce. This significantly [End Page 515] reduced the number of dependents per wage earner in the urban Soviet family and thereby prevented the living standards of the urban population from declining as much as their real wages. Given other benefits, such as the vastly expanded education that the urban population came to enjoy, it is conceivable that urban consumption did rise from 1928 to 1938.
Yet Allen almost certainly exaggerates the rise, even contending that the Soviet population as a whole (including the rural population) came to enjoy a higher living standard at the end of the Stalinist 1930s than in the late 1920s, when Stalin's rapid industrialization began. Probably Allen is mistaken here. First, production figures he has used need to be verified for accuracy. Second, he uses production data to infer consumption levels, leaving out the infamous problem of the enormous losses in the process from production to consumption, so characteristic of the Soviet trade system. While some segments of the population surely enjoyed a higher living standard in the late 1930s than in the...