The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was the first nation ever to declare itself a socialist state, dedicated to the building of communism. Over the seven decades of its existence, the USSR went through many stages and phases of development, from a semi-capitalist feudal society, to a state capitalist nation during the NEP years, to a developed socialist country, and finally to a revisionist state regressing towards capitalism. The purpose of this post is to examine the achievements of socialism in the USSR up to the early 1960’s, at which point market reforms and capitalist restoration began to take effect. We will also be examining the disastrous effects that these reforms had on the health and well-being of the Soviet people.
This post will consist of three parts. This first part is a discussion of the achievements of Soviet socialism in terms of economic development, living standards, and healthcare. The question of Stalin and the Ukrainian famine will also be discussed. The second part will be a discussion of Soviet advances in women’s rights, as well as opposition to racism (both internally, and in its global manifestation of imperialism). We will also discuss the nature of Soviet democracy. The third part will discuss the eventual fall of the USSR, and the disastrous effects of capitalist restoration and revisionism in the USSR.
All sources are listed at the end of the post. I will indicate which source I am using each time I quote from one. Now, let us begin.
- Economic Development and Living Standards -
When the 1917 revolution took place, Russia was a backwards, semi-capitalist feudal society. The manor system had only recently been abolished, and replaced by the most brutal and primitive form of capitalism. The nation was dreadfully under-developed, with no sign of improving in the future. Not only that, but what little growth did occur led to massive inequalities. According to Robert C. Allen, Professor of Economic History at Oxford University:
Not only were the bases of Imperial advance narrow, but the process of growth gave rise to such inequitable changes in income distribution that revolution was hardly a surprise. Real wages for urban workers were static in the late Imperial period despite a significant increase in output per worker… The revolution was also a peasant revolt, and the interests of the peasants were different… As in the cities, there was no gain in real wages.
The University of Warwick supports these claims:
Agriculture had reached North American levels of productivity by 1913 and wheat prices collapsed after 1914. The expansion of the railroads had run its course and there was no prospect of protected light industry becoming internationally competitive. The appropriate comparators for the prospects for Russian capitalism in the twentieth century are not Japan but Argentina or even India. Moreover, Russian capitalist development had brought little if any benefit to the urban and rural working class, intensifying the class conflicts that erupted in Revolution.
With the 1917 revolution (and after the bloody civil war, with its policy of war communism), the Soviet economy began to grow rapidly. The New Economic Policy (which nationalized large-scale industry and redistributed land, while allowing for the private sale of agricultural surplus) succeeded in transforming Russia from a semi-capitalist society into a developing state capitalist society, laying the groundwork for socialism. The University of Warwick states:
Following War Communism, the New Economic Policy (NEP) sought to develop the Russian economy within a quasi-capitalist framework.
However, economic circumstances came to require the transition to a planned socialist economy:
However, the institutional and structural barriers to Russian economic development were now compounded by the unfavorable circumstances of the world economy, so that there was no prospect of export-led development, while low domestic incomes provided only a limited market for domestic industry. Without a state coordinated investment program, the Soviet economy would be caught in the low-income trap typical of the underdeveloped world.
In 1928 (after Stalin came to power as head of the Communist Party), Soviet Russia instituted a fully planned economy, and the first Five Year Plan was enacted. This resulted in rapid economic growth. According to Professor Allen:
Soviet GDP increased rapidly with the start of the first Five Year Plan in 1928… The expansion of heavy industry and the use of output targets and soft-budgets to direct firms were appropriate to the conditions of the 1930’s, they were adopted quickly, and they led to rapid growth of investment and consumption.
Bourgeois economists often alleged that this rapid growth came at the cost of per-capita consumption and living standards. However, more recent research has shown this to be false. Professor Allen states:
There has been no debate that ‘collective consumption’ (principally education and health services) rose sharply, but the standard view was that private consumption declined. Recent research, however, calls that conclusion into question… While investment certainly increased rapidly, recent research shows that the standard of living also increased briskly.
Calorie consumption rose rapidly during this period:
Calories are the most basic dimension of the standard of living, and their consumption was higher in the late 1930’s than in the 1920’s… In 1895-1910, calorie availability was only 2100 per day, which is very low by modern standards. By the late 1920’s, calorie availability advanced to 2500… By the late 1930’s, the recovery of agriculture increased calorie availability to 2900 per day, a significant increase over the late 1920’s. The food situation during the Second World War was severe, but by 1970 calorie consumption rose to 3400, which was on a par with western Europe.
Overall, the development of the Soviet economy during the socialist period was extremely impressive. According to Professor Allen:
The Soviet economy performed well… Planning led to high rates of capital accumulation, rapid GDP growth, and rising per capita consumption even in the 1930’s.
The USSR’s growth during the socialist period exceeded that of the capitalist nations:
The USSR led the non-OECD countries and, indeed, achieved a growth rate in this period that exceeded the OECD catch-up regression as well as the OECD average.
This success is also attributed specifically to the revolution and the socialist system. As Professor Allen states:
This success would not have occurred without the 1917 revolution or the planned development of state owned industry.
The benefits of the socialist system are obvious upon closer study. As the University of Warwick puts it:
…a capitalist economy would not have created the industrial jobs required to employ the surplus labour, since capitalists would only employ labour so long as the marginal product of labour exceeded the wage. State-sponsored industrialization faced no such constraints, since enterprises were encouraged to expand employment in line with the demands of the plan.
Economic growth was also aided by the liberation of women, and the resulting control over the birth rate, as well as women’s participation in the workforce. Allen states:
The rapid growth in per capita income was contingent not just on the rapid expansion of GDP but also on the slow growth of the population. This was primarily due to a rapid fertility transition rather than a rise in mortality from collectivization, political repression, or the Second World War. Falling birth rates were primarily due to the education and employment of women outside the home. These policies, in turn, were the results of enlightenment ideology in its communist variant.
Reviews of Allen’s work have backed up his statements. According to the University of Warwick:
Allen shows that the Stalinist strategy worked, in strictly economic terms, until around 1970… Allen’s book convincingly establishes the superiority of a planned over a capitalist economy in conditions of labour surplus (which is the condition of most of the world most of the time).
Other studies have backed-up the findings that the USSR’s living standards rose rapidly. According to a study from Williams College:
Remarkably large and rapid improvements in child height, adult stature and infant mortality were recorded from approximately 1945 to 1970… Both Western and Soviet estimates of GNP growth in the Soviet Union indicate that GNP per capita grew in every decade in the postwar era, at times far surpassing the growth rates of the developed western economies… The conventional measures of GNP growth and household consumption indicate a long, uninterrupted upward climb in the Soviet standard of living from 1928 to 1985; even Western estimates of these measures support this view, albeit at a slower rate of growth than the Soviet measures.
Unfortunately, after the introduction of market reforms and other revisionist policies, living standards began to deteriorate (although some measures continued to increase, albeit more slowly). According to Williams College:
Three different measures of population health show a consistent and large improvement between approximately 1945 and 1969: child height, adult height and infant mortality all improved significantly during this period. These three biological measures of the standard of living also corroborate the evidence of some deterioration in living conditions beginning around 1970, when infant and adult mortality were rising and child and adult height stopped increasing and in some regions began to decline.