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The New Economic Policy Was the Alternative to Stalinism

Generations of left-wing thinkers have fundamentally misunderstood the young Soviet Union’s New Economic Policy.

Joseph Stalin, November 1933. Wikimedia Commons

As the October Revolution’s centenary unfolded in 2017, a steady stream of celebratory essays appeared in left-wing publications like Jacobin, explaining the nature of and cause of this epochal event. All agreed that the first workers’ revolution was a popular movement, not a coup d’état. Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, a political organization with deep roots in the Russian proletariat, led it to victory.

“All Power to the Soviets” realized a workers’ state, grounded in Soviet democracy. Elected factory committees became the primary organ of workers’ control on the shop floor, the main institution for advancing their interests at the point of production. In the countryside, millions of peasants seized the land from the nobility and redistributed it among themselves, fulfilling an age-old dream. Such, in the briefest of terms, was the triumphant rise of the Russian Revolution.

But soon thereafter began a prolonged and agonizing descent into a monstrous despotism, a descent treated in somber postscripts appended to narratives of triumph. The outbreak of civil war in 1918 prompted the Bolsheviks to adopt a complex of policies, collectively known as War Communism, to defend the October Revolution against armed counterrevolutionaries, supported by foreign imperialist powers. But the salient features of War Communism — forced requisitioning of grain from the peasantry, the Red Terror, hostage-taking, collective punishments, labor conscription — diverted the revolution from its original democratic and egalitarian goals.

The end of the Civil War in 1921 also marked the end of Soviet democracy; single, Bolshevik-party rule was by then an accomplished fact. The New Economic Policy (NEP), adopted in 1921 to supplant War Communism, restored production but did not reverse the trend toward a Stalinist denouement. On the contrary, it only accelerated the “degeneration” of the October Revolution. The story of the fall of the October Revolution often ends with Lenin’s death in 1924. The rest is but a tragic epilogue.

In conventional, left-wing accounts identified with Trotsky’s analysis, the Bolsheviks were driven by circumstances to do what they did and could not have acted otherwise. They had no choice. War Communism was a pivotal period — and it pivoted the course of post-1921 Soviet history toward Stalinism. One left-wing critic, Samuel Farber, however, dissented sharply from this “Leninist-Trotskyist” orthodoxy classically represented in Chris Harman’s “How the Revolution Was Lost.”

In Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy, originally published in 1990 and recently reissued by Verso Books, Farber faulted that orthodoxy for presenting a woefully “deterministic” account of the rise of Stalinism. It underplayed the choices available to the Bolsheviks to impede its development in the earliest years of Soviet Power, in 1918–23, under War Communism as well as in the first years of the NEP, because it failed to examine deficiencies in Bolshevik political theory that ideologically predisposed Lenin and his partisans to make those choices and not others.

The final Stalinist outcome in 1929 could have been avoided if only the early Bolsheviks had chosen to hold democracy in general and Soviet democracy in particular in the highest regard. But, Farber argued, Lenin and “mainstream Bolsheviks” did not value much freedom of speech, press, and assembly. They considered these “bourgeois democratic” rights not essential to socialism. Nor did they much care about the right to universal suffrage and free elections, suppressing non-Bolshevik parties and tendencies under War Communism and extending their party dictatorship into the period of the New Economic Policy, 1921–29, when peace returned and the economy recovered. What Farber calls “Stalinist-Leninism” made a fetish of the one-party state. In short, the Stalinist rot had begun in Lenin’s time — and Lenin was, at least in part, responsible for it. Under his watch, the embryo of the repressive one-party state took form within the broader polity.

This essay challenges this narrative of post-1917 Soviet history, common to both Trotskyist orthodoxy and its critics, Farber included, on analytical and empirical grounds. Fundamentally, theirs is a teleological account that fails to see that War Communism could not have been, and was not, more than a temporary set of policies that would necessarily be transcended once the Civil War was won. The New Economic Policy was the alternative to Stalinism, not a transitional phase leading necessarily to it, not a New Order “unavoidably opening the road for the formation of a new type of ruling class,” as Farber contends.

Farber himself came tantalizingly close to acknowledging the NEP as the only democratic option in two isolated passages:

The classical Marxist revolutionary approach implied a projection or wager that the class and economic structure established a realistic objective for a working-class-led revolutionary movement winning a majority. However, the fact that the proletariat was far from being a majority in the Russia of 1917 obviously complicated the Marxist revolutionary approach. Nevertheless, it did not by any means fatally compromise such a perspective, if the proletarian revolution in Russia committed itself to an alliance with the peasantry through the policies of land distribution.

And:

There was perhaps no conceivable set of conditions, including that of socialist revolution in the West, that would have allowed for the short-term development of an authentic proletarian socialism in the whole of Russia. In that case one must ask whether the New Economic Policy, or something very much like it, rather than being the “retreat” that Lenin called it, was actually the only conceivable democratic policy that could have been implemented.

The NEP was all about reestablishing the worker-peasant alliance, the smychka, which had made the October Revolution possible. It was the NEP’s defining characteristic, overriding all others. Lenin had clearly stated that, without the support of the peasantry, “the political power of the proletariat is impossible, its preservation is inconceivable.” The NEP abolished grain requisitioning, replacing it with a fixed tax. It restored freedom of trade between city and country, between industry and agriculture. It revived the “classical Marxist revolutionary approach” of winning a majority of the peasantry to follow the working class. The Bolsheviks also terminated a number of War Communism’s ancillary features, notably the Red Terror, collective punishments, hostage-taking, and labor conscription.

The NEP was the signature achievement of Farber’s “Stalinist-Leninism.” Yet, paradoxically, Farber doubts the NEP was the “only conceivable democratic policy” in crucial respects. According to Farber, it was “only after the end of the Civil War” that Lenin and the Bolsheviks “firmly adopted policies that moved them towards what later became the Stalinist totalitarian model,” as Bolshevik repression under the NEP increasingly became an “alternative to persuasion and the open struggle for mass political hegemony.”

This is a huge misunderstanding. Farber assumes that the general population was against the Bolsheviks during the NEP period and thus had to be repressed. There are no grounds for this assumption. On the contrary, the NEP realized mass political hegemony for the Bolsheviks because the masses persuaded them to adopt the NEP. Workers “voted” for the NEP with a spontaneous strike wave, elections to soviets, and street demonstrations; peasants “voted” for it through uprisings in the countryside; and the Kronstadt rebels rose in arms against the War Communists — the only kind of Communist they were familiar with — in the name of free trade, with the villages allowing peasants “full freedom of action in regard to the land and also the right to keep cattle, on condition that peasants manage . . . without employing hired labor.”

Under the New Economic Policy, cities repopulated. Workers returned to the factories. Soon, the economy rebounded, leaving behind the hellscape of War Communism, when a series of urban famines in 1918–20, followed by largely rural famines in 1921–22, took millions of lives and dropped average life expectancy to just twenty years.

The daily face of the NEP meant a free peasantry, three meals a day for workers, modestly rising living standards, revived factory committees, reinvigorated trade unions, greatly relaxed work norms, literacy classes, clean diapers in orphanages, and many other things. These were the spectacular if humble fruits of the October Revolution enjoyed by millions under the policy. They justified that great uprising of the direct producers throughout society in a way that has not usually been sufficiently recognized. However, Farber and Marxists generally do not dwell on this aspect of the NEP, when the interests of the “ruling elite” seemed to coincide daily with those of the ruled, because this does not anticipate a Stalinist outcome, when such coincidence vanished for good.

Farber’s search for “something better” in the “Stalinist-Leninist” period (1918–23) — a period that encompasses both War Communism (1918–21) and the first years of the NEP (1921–23), when the Bolsheviks ostensibly closed off a “process of democratization” — indicates that he does not view the difference between the NEP and War Communism to be a decisive, dividing line. The NEP thus appears in his book more as a continuation of War Communism rather than a sharp break with it because both policies were carried under one-party rule, which trumps everything else.

A lack of a sense of proportion and historical perspective leaves Farber poorly positioned to clearly conceive of the one-party state of Lenin’s NEP as a qualitatively superior alternative to the one-party gulag-terror state of Stalin’s Five-Year Plans and forced collectivization.

According to Farber, “right” and “left” Bolsheviks under War Communism represented more democratic alternatives to Lenin and mainstream Bolshevism. Farber devotes a great many pages to them. Left Bolsheviks emphasized the importance of “institutions of participatory democracy” and “social and political equality.” Right Bolsheviks complementarily emphasized the defense of “individual freedoms” and “civil liberties” against “arbitrary state power.” Had they united to form a “tactical bloc,” they may have been able to force “democratic-type” concessions from the mainstream leadership; at the very least, as “political educators,” they would have popularized democratic criticisms of the ruling institutions, “facilitating a more effective future resistance” to the rise of Stalinism.

And yet, when all is said and done, Farber concedes that neither left nor right Bolsheviks ever “objected to, or resisted the outlawing of other political parties” in favor of political democracy and competitive elections. Above all, Farber leaves aside the fact that neither questioned the necessity of War Communism, let alone entertained replacing it with the NEP, casting doubt as to whether their positions in the War Communist period were really democratic alternatives to those held by the mainstream Bolshevik leadership, undermining — not shoring up — “resistance” to the Stalinism to come.

Minimizing its beneficial social impact, and the turnaround in popular support for the Bolsheviks, the NEP is not sufficiently understood by Farber today for what it was understood as then by the non-party masses: the mainstream Bolshevik leadership under Lenin responding — belatedly and imperfectly — to the needs of the workers and peasants by acquiescing to their demands for an immediate end to the Soviet state’s unending exactions against the peasantry, and for the implementation of a radically new economic and, therefore, political policy.

The End of the NEP

In late 1929, the eighth year of the NEP, Stalin responded to an ongoing, two-year-long crisis of underproduction in agriculture by destroying the smychka. He declared all-out war on the peasantry through forced collectivization, compelling millions to work on gigantic state farms while driving millions more into the cities to build industry, launching the Five-Year Plans in earnest. Stalin smashed more or less independent trade unions and gutted factory committees, paving the way for the unbridled exploitation of the proletariat. When the Five-Year Plans and collectivization materialized — and they materialized in the blink of an eye, as it were — Stalinism became a concrete reality, one necessarily built on the ruins of the NEP.

The peasants put up a ferocious, despairing struggle against collectivization, resorting to a scorched-earth policy. Workers, too, resisted the Five-Year Plans through strikes, sabotage, absenteeism, and producing useless or shoddy goods (brak) in enormous quantities. By 1933, Stalin’s bureaucracy had finally prevailed over the direct producers. It built the collective farm, kolkhoz, on the ruins of the peasant commune, the mir. It destroyed the remnants of the workers’ state in industry — relatively democratic factory committees at the point of production and relatively responsive trade unions — and put in place a brutal state run by an exploiting class. By then, nothing was left of Bolshevism. Stalinism, like capitalism in England, had come into the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

Full-scale collectivization and forced industrialization in 1929–33 embodied an entirely new program, an irrevocable break with the NEP, designed to pump-prime the forces of production — a “primitive accumulation” in its own right — while collaterally transforming the Stalin faction of the bureaucracy into a ruling class in the Marxist sense, a force able to systematically extract a surplus from the immediate producers, peasant and worker alike, through extra-economic coercion via its monopoly “ownership” of the state as its private property.

This blood-soaked “revolution from above,” in which millions perished, destroyed the NEP, marking the annihilation of the social order issuing from the October Revolution, the loss of everything that had been won.

Crucially, Stalin could not have established a new set of class and property relations without first overcoming opposition within the Bolshevik Party to this transformation or, at the very least, to this threatened transformation. This opposition was led by Bukharin, Tomsky, and Rykov, a trio of “Old Bolsheviks” who had worked closely with Lenin. Its defeat in 1927–29 prepared the ground for the destruction of the NEP in late 1929. Thus, the fate of the “worker-peasant revolution” became tied up with a defense of the NEP, and the fate of the NEP was decided in 1927–29.

But neither Farber nor the Trotskyist orthodoxy Farber attacks recognize Bukharin’s faction as the last line of defense against Stalin’s dictatorship, the only alternative to it. Instead, both think the Trotsky and Left Oppositions in the party under the NEP were champions of party democracy, offering viable options to the “rising Stalinist dictatorship” beginning as early as 1923, when Trotsky supported “a relatively democratic opening.”

On Farber’s reckoning, “the majority of the democratic objections” to the “Stalinist degeneration” of the Russian Revolution “came from the Left rather than the Right oppositions in the party.” Farber may be right about this; Bukharin accepted implicitly the Party’s authoritarianism and lack of internal democracy, and he could hardly have been looked to as an apostle of enlarging it. But the question of democracy did not come up with respect to the conflict between Stalin and Bukharin, and the fact is that the outcome of this conflict decided the fate of the NEP.

The unpalatable truth is that Trotsky and the Left supported Stalin’s eighteen-month-long campaign against Bukharin and his partisans, and the Left Opposition’s backing of Stalin facilitated his victory. Nor did Trotsky’s support for Stalin over Bukharin have anything to do with advocacy of party democracy. It was driven by what Trotsky believed were more important considerations.

The NEP perhaps did not measure up to Farber’s “participatory control.” Certainly, it did not measure up to the gold standard of an “authentic socialism,” a democratic socialism. That is not the standard by which to judge the NEP. And it understates the self-determination the immediate producers — workers and peasants alike — enjoyed during this period.

Forms of Property, the State, and Political Democracy

The October Revolution established a state based on soviets, vaulting over the capitalist state in all its forms, including its bourgeois-democratic form where all institutions elected on the basis of universal suffrage give equal representation to all classes of the population, reduced to the abstraction of citizenship. But the abstraction of citizenship itself can only arise on the basis of capitalist relations of property. These relations never predominated in Russia so that class always appeared under the czars, as in all non-capitalist social formations, in the form of politically constituted “estates” — peasants in communities, merchants in corporations, industrialists in associations, artisans in guilds, feudal lords in states — never of a citizenry enjoying universal suffrage with equal rights before the law. This continued to be so after the overthrow of czardom. In this instance, mir and soviet were the institutionalized forms of self-rule for peasants and workers, respectively, the directly political “form of appearance” class must take under non-capitalist socio-productive relations. They were class institutions par excellence as elections to them were not based on universal suffrage.

The NEP and the Mir

The NEP made Russia the freest and most democratic country in the world — if we mean freedom and self-determination for the peasantry, the majority. Farber and most Marxists don’t see it this way. Following “Leninist-Trotskyist” orthodoxy, Farber’s focus is on freedom and democracy for the working-class minority of the country, not its peasant majority. It is a gigantic “blank spot” in their accounts, to use Gorbachev’s expression.

The mir, or peasant repartitional commune, managed the political and economic affairs of the peasantry in the villages in much of Russia, and had done so for centuries. Its officers, drawn from older, more experienced peasants, were elected in peasant assemblies, where decisions required unanimity in a great majority of cases. In their own sphere, the peasants obviously had hegemony.

Repartitional tenure assured the equitable distribution of communal land among the peasants, periodically redistributing it when required, a process determined by the greater tendency of those who had large plots to subdivide and bequeath the resulting smaller plots to their male children compared to those who had smaller plots, preventing the formation of an agrarian proletariat of any significance, under the NEP as well as under czardom.

Peasant families organized diverse productive activities on household plots oriented toward meeting their subsistence needs, marketing physical surpluses only. They were not subject to competitive constraints, as they would have been had they not possessed the means of subsistence. Had they lacked the means of subsistence, they would have had to buy what they needed to survive; to be able to buy, they would have had to be able to sell; to be able to sell, they would have had to meet competitors by reducing costs in relation to prices and producing things that were demanded.

Thus, peasant “rules of reproduction” shielded the peasantry from the compulsions of a capitalist market, ruling out specialization, systematic innovation, and capital accumulation — and raising great domestic barriers to maintaining, let alone collectively developing — the forces of production. When bad harvests in the late 1920s triggered a crisis of the NEP, peasants did not allow the solution to it at their expense. When the crisis ended, they were providing grain as before.

The mir enforced customary law and order without having to organize separate bodies of armed men to do so: expulsion from the commune was the ultimate sanction. There was no state in the Marxist sense of the term. Indeed, elected officials continued to perform all kinds of peasant labor, acted under the control of public opinion, and were leaders only insofar as they advanced the common interests of the peasants — and if they didn’t, they were immediately recallable.

In short, the peasant community was truly a political economy. No economic process alone — the exogenous pressures of “capitalism” or of the “world market” — could erode it. Forced collectivization alone destroyed it — a political process initiated by Stalin in 1929.

In light of the foregoing considerations, to speak, as Farber does, of economic liberalization in the society under the NEP on the one hand, and political tightening of the regime on the other, is puzzling in the extreme. For the peasants, NEP “economic” freedom meant an expansion, not a restriction, of “political” freedom, because they were now largely free to run their affairs as they saw fit, without the political interference of a marauding state, as under War Communism. Indeed, Farber notes the “virtual absence of the Bolshevik party from rural Russia” under the NEP. The remit of the authoritarian central state did not grow, as Farber, incongruously, believes, but shrank dramatically in this period, its authority stopping at the threshold of the village, where nary a communist official was to be seen.

Under the NEP, there was still a distinction between the internal affairs and structure of the Bolshevik Party, and the society in which it operated, a distinction Farber blurs. The formation of the “totalitarian state” through collectivization and the Five-Year Plans still lay in the future, after the destruction of the NEP by Stalin.

Soviets, Trade Unions, Factory Committees, and the NEP

By 1921, the Bolshevik Party alone ran the soviets and the government.  Farber reviews non-Bolshevik parties and tendencies extant at the end of the Civil War and finds them wanting in different respects. The Mensheviks denied the legitimacy of the October Revolution, viewing it as a scandalous usurpation of the people’s will. The Left SRs blew their chance to build socialism in collaboration with the Bolsheviks by using “terroristic methods,” not the mechanism of soviet democracy, as a means to resolve disagreements with them. The anarcho-syndicalists called for a second revolution to overthrow Bolshevik “state-capitalism.” The Bolsheviks banned them.

For Farber, the political deficiencies of these non-Bolshevik parties left the Bolsheviks alone as “the best organized and politically most self-conscious party” in the soviets. The factory committees and the trade unions, and “potentially viable policy alternatives,” would “primarily although not exclusively” arise from factional “tendencies within the Bolshevik Party itself” — notwithstanding the 1921 ban on inner-party factions to maintain the “internal solidarity” of the Bolshevik regime. In short, Bolshevism was the only game in town.

Parallel to the decline of soviet democracy and the rise of the Bolsheviks’ monopoly on politics, Farber claims the same occurred at the level of the factory committees and trade unions. The Russian working class lost workers’ control and trade union autonomy under war communism and “were never even partially recovered” under the NEP, as if the point were obvious. But, actually, there is little basis for Farber’s exclamation. Under the NEP, a reconstituted working class quickly reestablished many democratic rights at the point of production, through their revived factory committees, while relying on reinvigorated trade unions to defend its interests against management.

The scholar Kevin Murphy has shown in detail how the institutions and practices through which workers exerted power and defended their interests on the shop floor and beyond had largely, if not fully, recovered — and remained vital throughout the NEP. Factory committees and trade unions, however bureaucratized, retained sufficient resources to resist many managerial encroachments on working-class prerogatives. Virtually all campaigns to increase production and lower costs in industry by introducing piece-rate norms, encouraging workers to participate in production-conferences, and tightening labor discipline ran aground owing, in part, to workers’ resistance.

The workers’ state, though “bureaucratically deformed,” remained, all the same, a workers’ state because the latter largely abided by the working class’s refusal to sacrifice its present, actually existing interests to an as-yet-nonexistent state-imposed program of top-down economic development.

The NEP regime was so soft that Stalin had to move discontinuously against it to begin to implement forced industrialization. He had to sack trade union chief Tomsky when he and his partisans joined the Right Opposition in 1927–29 to resist Stalin’s drive to turn the trade unions into “houses of detention,” putting paid Farber’s notion that trade unions under the NEP were supine, frictionless “transmission belts” for state directives.

On the shop floor, resistance by factory committees to intensified labor and lower wages compelled Stalin to purge them as well. By March 1930, Stalinist stalwarts had taken over 80 percent of the factory committees, sealing NEP’s destruction at the point of production.

The Structural Basis of Civil War in Russia and the Necessity of War Communism

Farber sees War Communism partly as a “response to the loss of popular support,” partly as a utopian experiment pushed by Bolshevik doctrinaires, partly as an unavoidable measure of self-defense against counterrevolution, according primacy to the first two considerations. The documentary record does not support Farber’s emphases.

It is true that working-class support for Bolsheviks dipped in the spring of 1918. By then, many workers had expected material improvement in their lives. Once civil war broke out that summer, however, working-class support for the Bolshevik Party rebounded. Without such support, the Bolsheviks would have lost the civil war.

Farber further holds that Bolshevik ideological inebriation with War Communism “negates” the Leninist-Trotskyist “claim that it was simply imposed on the government by objective necessity.” Even if some Bolsheviks held the absurd view that War Communism was instant socialism, blind to the brutal reality that the cities were depopulating, the industrial economy cratering, and factories closing down owing to White control of and access to regions of coal and oil, the elementary fact remains that the Bolsheviks “sobered up” and voted to abolish War Communism at their Tenth Party Congress held in March 1921 — a vote that preempts any thought that the Bolsheviks were really for these repressive policies, or that they held a lingering influence.

Yet Farber does not discuss the Bolsheviks’ decision to end the Red Terror, collective punishments, hostage-taking, and compulsory grain levies. This failure allows him to produce a cloudy analysis of the NEP, one focused on political institutions above at the expense of social relations below, in village communal assemblies and on the factory committees. He also fails to examine the structural basis of the Russian Civil War.

Farber and most Marxists do not clearly distinguish between economic “backwardness” that made the civil war in Russia possible, and the historical conjuncture — the “aleatory,” not-set-in-stone contingencies of the historical process — that made the possible actual. The central circumstance that, after winning the armed forces over to their side and seizing power, workers still had to fight a devastatingly destructive civil war to retain state power arose from a structural weakness of the October Revolution: the peasantry’s organic incapacity to develop more than a local political perspective, to organize nationwide, concerted, and sustained political and military activity to either effectively support the Red Army, or effectively oppose the Whites and their imperialist quartermasters. That capacity — along with motivation to use it — was reserved to the miniscule Russian working class alone. But this should not be surprising.

In an oft-quoted passage on the French peasantry, Marx noted how “small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other.” Their identity of interests “forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them.” Such national political organization as may arise must arise from outside the peasantry.

Farber and others hold that the peasantry supported the Reds against the Whites because a White victory meant a comeback of the old regime. Yet once peasants expropriated the landed aristocracy’s estates, the Bolsheviks could not induce the peasants to follow through and voluntarily defend Soviet power against the Whites. The bulk of the Red Army was made up of peasant conscripts led by worker-officers assisted by czarist-era military brass — a painful reality the Bolsheviks were never keen to advertise. Most peasants simply did not establish an immediate connection between defense of their immediate material interests — newly won possession of (more) land — and the long-term defense of the October Revolution. And because the Bolsheviks, however much they tried, could not persuade them to see that connection, they had no choice but to resort to the draft, exacerbating the antagonism between soviet power and the peasantry set in train by the Bolsheviks’ extortions under War Communism: a vicious spiral.

Indeed, whenever the fortunes of war went against the Red Army, threatening a return of the landlords, desertion rates skyrocketed among the peasant conscripts, entire units joining the (apparently) winning, White side. Once the tide turned permanently in favor of the Reds, desertion ceased to be a problem as peasants prepared to get along with the new authorities, many getting ahead by joining the new ruling party and taking office in the new state.

Peasants who were not dragooned into service fought against another evil: requisitioning of grain, livestock, horses, carts, and more to supply the warring armies. Peasants resisted these holdups, whether carried out by the Whites or the Reds. For the peasantry and, therefore, the overwhelming majority of the Russian people, the daily face of War Communism was involuntary service and expropriation of the fruits of their labor without compensation. Such, for them, was the essence of War Communism. In light of the foregoing, Farber’s economistic focus on the “anti-market” aspects of War Communism as an excessively voluntaristic, ideologically driven social experiment gone terribly awry “totally incompatible with the objective realities of the Russian economy and society” is doubly misleading.

First, War Communism was not about implementing “anti-market policies” in any immediate or direct sense. It was chiefly about taking political measures to defend the October Revolution, measures whose secondary effects were indeed “anti-market” because they relied on extra-economic or political compulsion to extract grain from the peasantry.

The market could not have spurred industry to provide manufactured goods to the peasantry in exchange for grain to feed the army, as Farber thinks, following Lars Lih, because industrial production was grinding to a halt owing to White control of and access to regions of coal and oil-fueling industry. Second, War Communism was not only totally compatible with the “objective realities of the Russian economy and society” — these realities mandated it. The reality of peasant possession of the means of production and subsistence — land and tools — made them economically self-sufficient so that appropriation of a surplus (and much more) to feed the Red Army through the “market” was an objective impossibility.

The peasants’ ambivalence, at best, to serve militarily on the Bolshevik side in the civil war had been overdetermined by the Bolsheviks’ coercive extractions from them under War Communism, which could only be justified in terms of the Bolsheviks’ extreme need to secure supplies for the army and their lack of any alternative to seizing them from the peasants.

The Soviet state undoubtedly developed a capacity to coerce in the civil war period. Farber writes many pages detailing that capacity, its various features and modalities, and how the ostensible indifference of mainstream Bolsheviks to mass violations of rights helped clear the way for Stalinism and the mass destruction of human lives. Nevertheless, the Soviet state’s repressive capacity under Stalin must not be viewed quantitatively — Stalinism as War Communism raised to the tenth power, as it were — but qualitatively.

One must take into account the following: first, the motivation to use that capacity on a hitherto unconscionably massive scale in 1929–33 was unique to that period and cannot be causally traced back to the period 1918–21; second, the targets against which that capacity was used were entirely different — against peasants and workers in 1929–33 and not against armed counterrevolutionaries, along with their unarmed sympathizers, whether avowed or concealed, in 1918–21; third, Stalin’s counterrevolution reversed the October Revolution, whereas the Bolsheviks in the Civil War strove mightily, if not entirely successfully, to preserve it. The repressive dimensions of these two episodes, while historically linked, must be viewed as predicates of two objectively different realities.

The fact is that those repressive instruments pretty much went into disuse during the NEP, and understandably so, since the Bolsheviks had no need to use force to implement an NEP regime in the interests of most producers, both peasants and workers. By the same token, they were not resorted to again until Stalin adopted policies designed to destroy the NEP against the interests of peasants above all, but also of the workers.

The Fall of Multi-Party Soviet Democracy

From February to October 1917, there was no multi-party call for Soviet power. All parties rejected the call — except the Bolshevik Party. Soviet democracy formally began with one party in power — the Bolshevik Party. During the Civil War, no other party formally joined the Bolsheviks to defend the October Revolution. At the end of the Civil War, Farber acknowledges that only the Bolshevik Party was in a position to lead the country. Effectively, the Bolshevik Party had by then acquired a monopoly on political leadership.

Farber makes Lenin and his partisans chiefly responsible for this unfortunate state of affairs. But there is reason to spread the blame beyond the Bolsheviks, to the Socialist Revolutionaries (SR) especially. Other than the ruling Bolsheviks, only the SRs had significant electoral support among workers and peasants; only they had the potential to compete with the Bolsheviks on the basis of Soviet democracy and socialist legality. But they never realized this potential.

In December 1917, the Socialist Revolutionary Party split between a left-wing minority that supported the October Revolution and a right-wing majority that was fiercely hostile to it. The latter group eventually even joined the counterrevolutionary Whites, while the Left SRs joined the Bolsheviks in the Soviet government, taking up commissarial posts in the Council of People’s Commissars — the Sovnarkom.

The Sovnarkom was an institution of the Soviet state, not of the Bolshevik Party. The Left SR was the only major political party willing to exercise Soviet power together with the Bolshevik Party. So began multi-party Soviet democracy in the government at the national level. At the high point of their collaboration, Bolsheviks and Left SRs jointly dispersed the Constituent Assembly when it met in January 1918. But this governmental coalition ended that March, before the outbreak of civil war, when the Left SRs abruptly withdrew from the Sovnarkom to protest the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with the Central Powers.

From then on, the Bolshevik Party was once again the only party wielding Soviet power nationwide. The Bolsheviks tolerated the Left SRs’ opposition to Brest-Litovsk so long as it stayed within legal bounds.

But seeking to overturn the treaty of Brest-Litovsk at all costs, the Left SRs engaged in scattered guerrilla actions against the kaiser’s troops for weeks — they even assassinated the German ambassador. When their brazen provocations failed to trigger a renewal of hostilities, they targeted leading Bolsheviks for arrest or assassination in a disorganized terrorist rampage. Prominent Bolsheviks were murdered. Lenin suffered two bullet wounds. One bullet lodged in his collarbone after puncturing his lung. Another got caught in the base of his neck. Both remained in place for the rest of his life.

In short, the Left SRs did not want to wait for the next All-Russian Congress of Soviets to press their case for the abrogation of the Brest-Litovsk treaty in open debate. They tried to bypass it, short-circuiting Soviet democracy and violating “socialist legality.”  Farber perfunctorily notes this without assessing its larger significance.

There was an opposition prepared to remain within legal limits and observe socialist law and order — but it was inside the Bolshevik Party. In this instance, it was the organized opposition to the treaty of Brest-Litovsk by the “Left” Bolsheviks, led by Bukharin. Exercising freedom of speech, press, and assembly, the Left Bolsheviks published a journal, Kommunist, to present their views before the public through reasoned argument.

The foregoing simply bolsters the point that the Bolshevik Party, by and large, was the only party to make a good-faith effort to rule according to the norms of Soviet democracy under War Communism. And the Bolsheviks did tolerate the Left SRs’ opposition on Brest-Litovsk as long as it stayed within legal bounds and was not pursued by terrorism. And therein lies a paradox: it takes at least two parties to have multi-party Soviet democracy — but there was no non-Bolshevik party prepared to seriously compete with the Bolsheviks on the basis of “soviet legality” — only in violation of it. For Farber to place the onus of responsibility on the Bolsheviks for the fall of multi-party Soviet democracy in this period by attributing to Lenin’s partisans a uniquely “Jacobin” propensity for authoritarian rule and disregard for democracy and democratic procedure does not carry conviction.

There were deeper structural considerations that made the Socialist Revolutionary Party, both its majority right and minority left wings, poor material for competitive socialist politics. These are largely ignored by Farber, and by most Marxists.

The Peasantry’s Self-movement Destroyed the Socio-Institutional Basis of the Socialist Revolutionary Party

Founded in 1902, the Socialist Revolutionary Party drew its core supporters, activists, and organizers from the zemstvo intelligentsia, not from the peasantry. After the abolition of serfdom in 1861, the czarist state set up zemstva to take over many administrative and judicial functions in the countryside formerly exercised by serf-owners. Over the years, provincial, county, and township zemtsva employed growing numbers of doctors, statisticians, agronomists, lawyers, journalists, veterinarians, surveyors, teachers, and others. The czarist state imposed a substantial tax on the mir to pay these employees’ salaries.

Representation in the zemstva was determined according to estate, soslovie, assuring the permanent dominance of the landed nobility. Though constituting little more than 1 percent of the population, 75 percent of zemstvo personnel “elected” to office were nobles.

The zemstvo was not an organ of the peasantry, as it never operated at the village level, where the mir reigned supreme. As scholar Sarah Badcock notes:

Pre-revolutionary village organizations . . . continued to operate in 1917, making specifically revolutionary organizations rather superfluous.  Community and village councils in their original pre-revolutionary forms provided participation for ordinary people in community decisions and representations. Though they were modified in the course of 1917, allowing, for example, an equal voice for women, or the participation of soldiers on leave, they proved to be durable organizations that functioned as effectively in 1917 as they had before.

The mir regulated the self-movement of the peasantry to expropriate the landed aristocracy in 1917, entailing the destruction of the zemstva. By summer 1918, the peasants had consigned this relic of czardom to the dustbin of history — along with much of the very socio-institutional basis of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The material interests of the bulk of non-peasant SR party activists therefore stood in sharp opposition to those of their peasant electors busy scouring the countryside of zemstvo — a source of livelihood, indeed, a way of life for many SR militants.

This was reflected in the Constituent Assembly when it met in January 1918. Elected on the basis of universal and equal suffrage, the Right SRs were the largest party. Though the bulk of the peasantry voted for the Right SRs, the party refused to ratify the Soviet Decree on Land and Peace, which sanctioned and encouraged the wholesale expropriation of the landed gentry, together with the destruction of secondary attributes of gentry domination, the zemstva. It also authorized the Bolsheviks to open negotiations, on behalf of Soviet Power, for an immediate end to the imperialist slaughter. When the Civil War broke out, the SR majority rallied to the counterrevolutionary Whites.*

The Russian Revolution gave an enormous victory, under the NEP, to the direct producers in town and country by giving them de facto rights to their means of reproduction. In the countryside, the peasants secured, through the mir, direct, politically constituted rights to their means of subsistence. In the towns, the workers secured the same — though less clearly and definitively than did the peasants. Factory committees and, to some extent, the trade unions guaranteed workers’ jobs and limitations on their exploitation by managers. The workers’ protection against exploitation was enhanced by the fact that managers found it extremely difficult to fire them. This limited the degree to which managers could challenge workers’ rights in their jobs, income, and controlled pace of work. So long as the NEP was reproduced, the unprecedented power of the direct producers at the point of production would also be reproduced along relatively egalitarian lines.

Beyond this, Russia’s class structure was incompatible with developing the forces of production collectively, building socialism. The NEP was rooted in that structure and could not ultimately transcend it, as the Bolsheviks hoped.

Back to the Basics

Can socialists learn lessons from the post-October experience? They certainly can. But they are not at all what Farber proposes to teach, namely, the importance of “democracy” in theorizing the politics of the post-revolutionary transition to socialism — nothing so abstract, so self-evident. Rather, it is something far more concrete and historically specific: the failure of the Bolsheviks in general, and of the Left Opposition in particular, to understand the political economy of smallholding peasant property.

Analysis of Russia’s non-capitalist class structure that the October Revolution inherited from czarism must be the starting point — though by no means the end point — for understanding the conditions that made possible, though did not determine, the October Revolution’s Stalinist outcome: the structural difficulties to socialist advance in Russia, the basic social reality that there were only 3 million workers in the country, as opposed to 100 million peasants.

To make passing and nebulous references, as Farber and so many left-wing accounts do, to “economic backwardness,” “material scarcity,” and “socio-economic underdevelopment” without clearly telling the reader how these presented historically specific constraints, as well as historically specific opportunities for collective political action, is hard to credit: it leads, as with Farber, to superficial, hyper-politicized reconstructions of post-October Soviet history, unmoored in political economy.

“The proletarian movement is the self-conscious independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority,” Marx memorably declared in the Communist Manifesto. And that is exactly what the October Revolution was. But if the Russian working-class movement did act in the interests of the immense majority in overthrowing czardom in February 1917 and seizing power eight months later, in October, it was not itself a movement of the immense majority — for that majority was an immense landholding peasantry with patterns of economic development and material interests of its own.

When a crisis of underproduction built into peasant socio-property relations broke out in the late NEP, this divergence of interests between workers and peasants became manifest, and Stalin responded with repression against the peasants, threatening the smychka, the linchpin of the NEP. At this juncture, a “united front” between the left and right oppositions in favor of a policy to halt the Five-Year Plans and collectivization, placate the peasants, ride out the crisis as best as possible, and preserve the NEP would have been a chance to stop Stalin in his tracks. Why did this anti-Stalin alliance not materialize?

As noted, the Bolsheviks did not understand how the patterns of economic development of small peasant property raised insuperable obstacles to a socialist transition. But such understanding was not a prerequisite to oppose Stalin’s policies. Bukharin and the Right Opposition were just as much in the dark about the political economy of small peasant property as everyone else. Yet they moved to resist Stalin while the Left Opposition did not, moving instead to support Stalin against Bukharin.

What drove Bukharin and his partisans to adopt an oppositional stance was not correct theory, but a garden-variety empiricism: Stalin was a “madman” who had to be stopped at all costs, lest his policies trigger mass peasant uprisings that would destroy the Soviet Republic. The Left Opposition disagreed.

Trotsky reasoned that the incorrect policies of the Stalin-Bukharin leadership alone had triggered the agricultural crisis of late NEP. Consequently, correct policies — those of the Left Opposition — would put an end to the crisis, allowing accelerated socialist construction to resume. A “primitive accumulation” that was socialist, free, and voluntary, not a coerced, capitalist one, was feasible. It never occurred to Trotsky or, to repeat, anybody else, that this crisis was the aggregate result of peasants across Russia pursuing their “rules of reproduction,” making all-around democratic political representation and planned economic advance in the interests of the immediate producers — socialism as classically conceived — not “complicated,” as Farber imagines, but impossible.

Trotsky insisting that he understood the real causes of the impasse facing the NEP when, in fact, he did not, proved disastrous for the Left Opposition. His doctrinairism barred the way to an alliance with Bukharin and the Right, paving the way for Stalin’s victory.