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The Soviet experiment with Pure Communism*

The Soviet experiment with Pure Communism*

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Published by SFLD
The Soviet experiment with
Pure Communism*
The Soviet experiment with
Pure Communism*

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: SFLD on Mar 08, 2013
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6The Soviet experiment withPure Communism*
In 1957, forty years after the Russian revolution, Michael Polanyi summarizedthe state of Soviet studies by pointing out that despite, or because of the factthat
volume upon volume of excellent scholarship [was] rapidly accumulatingon the history of the Russian Revolution
The Revolution [was] about to bequietly enshrined under a pyramid of monographs.
This condition continuesto persist even after seventy years of reflection upon one of the most fatefulevents in political
economic history. Despite heroic efforts by Paul CraigRoberts
and Laszlo Szamuely
to lift the Revolution from underneath the debrisof wood pulp, confusion still permeates historical discussion of the
of the Soviet experience with Communism.
We have forgotten,
as Polyanyiwrote,
what the Russian Revolution was about: that it set out to establish amoney-less industrial system, free from the chaotic and sordid automation of the market and directed instead scientifically by one single comprehensiveplan.
The grand debate over the Soviet experience from 1918 to 1921 revolvesaround whether the Bolsheviks followed policies that were ideological in originor were forced upon them by the necessity of civil war. If Bolshevik economicswas ideological, then Marxian socialism must confront the failure of its utopiato achieve results that are even humane, let alone superior to capitalism. If itwas spawned by an emergency, then the Soviet experience from 1918 to 1921does not provide any lesson for the economic assessment of socialism. (Somerecent authors wish to argue that the policies now known as
War Communism
were produced by both ideology and emergency, and, as a result, theyfundamentally misunderstand the meaning of the Soviet experience withsocialism.)
In order to evaluate these opposing interpretations, let me first layout points of agreement and conflict among those interpreters of the Sovietexperience with socialism who have established the two poles of the granddebate.
*Originally published as Boettke, P. J. (1988)
The Soviet Experiment with Pure Communism,
Critical  Review
2(4) (Fall): 149
Calculation and Coordination
Points of agreement
Concerning the time period from 1917 to 1921, there really is no dispute overthe chronology of events or the economic conditions as they existed after threeyears of Bolshevik rule. (The famous disputes over Soviet economic statisticsdo not refer to this time period.) In particular, there exists no controversywhatsoever regarding the economic condition the Russian people foundthemselves in after only three years of Soviet rule. William Chamberlin, forexample, stated that the Russian economy of 1921 was
one of the greatestand most overwhelming failures in history.
Never in all history,
H. G. Wellsdeclared,
has there been so great a debacle before.
The industrial collapsecan be represented in statistical terms as in Table 6.1.By 1921, all areas of economic output had fallen far below pre-war levels.
Industrial life and the cities, in particular, suffered a serious setback during thistime, as is evidenced in population figures.
By 1920, the number of city dwellershad fallen from 19 percent of the population in 1917 to 15 percent. Moscowlost half its population, Petrograd two-thirds.
In 1921 the Soviet Union, asStephen Cohen has pointed out, lay
in ruins, its national income one-third of the 1913 level, industrial production a fifth (output in some branches beingvirtually zero), its transportation system shattered, and agricultural productionso meager that a majority of the population barely subsisted and millions of others failed even that.
There is no dispute over these facts. But what the facts mean is anotherstory. While for Polanyi or Roberts these facts depict the failure of Sovietsocialism, in the eyes of Maurice Dobb, E. H. Carr, or Cohen the same factsrepresent the cost of civil war. The debate over the Soviet experience withsocialism from 1918 to 1921 is one of intellectual history and political economy,not economic history. It is fundamentally a debate over which theoreticalframework provides the best background with which to interpret the facts.
Table 6.1
Russian industrial output
Gross output of all industry (index)100.0031.00Large-scale industry (index)100.0021.00Coal (million tons)29.009.00Oil (million tons)9.203.80Electricity (million kWh)2,039.00520.00Pig iron (million tons)4.200.10Steel (million tons)4.300.20Bricks (millions)2.100.01Sugar (million tons)1.300.05Railway tonnage carried (millions)132.4039.40Agricultural production (index)100.0060.00Imports (
roubles)1,374.00208.00Exports (
Source: Alec Nove (1984) (first published 1969)
 An Economic History of the USSR
, New York: PenguinBooks, p. 68.
The Soviet experiment
The standard historiography
Despite an apparent dichotomy in the ethical assessment of socialism, mostscholars agree with the following rough narrative of events surrounding theorigins of the Soviet system. In October of 1917 (November on the Westerncalendar) the Bolsheviks assumed power because the provisional governmentwas no longer able to rule. As a result of the civil war and foreign intervention,the Bolsheviks were forced to engage in emergency policies (later referred to as
War Communism
) from June 1918 to April 1921. From 1921 to 1928, afterthe detour necessitated by war, the Bolsheviks returned to the proper economicpolicies of the victorious proletariat in an economically backward country (the
New Economic Policy
). In 1928, owing to the threat of military interventionand a growing economic crisis, the Stalinist regime began its
revolution fromabove.
Policies of collectivization and industrialization were followed as theSoviet Union established the first advanced centrally planned economy.Economic historians as diverse in their appreciation of the moral ideal of socialismas Alec Nove and the late G. Warren Nutter have endorsed this view.
The standard interpretation is reiterated even by some of the most importantproponents of Marxian social theory. Tom Bottomore, for example, wrote that
it is a considerable exaggeration to argue
that the period of 
in the USSR reflected a deliberate policy to abolish the marketand the price system, rather than being in large an avoidable practical responseto the conditions produced by the war, the civil war and foreign intervention.
Bottomore defends his position by relying upon the
more balanced view
of Alec Nove.Economists and social theorists who stress the emergency interpretation of War Communism rely considerably upon the research of Maurice Dobb, E. H.Carr, and Alec Nove. In particular, it is Dobb and Carr who turned the scholarlyliterature away from the once standard view that War Communism representedan attempt to implement the Marxian project of Communism to the nowprevalent emergency interpretation.
 Maurice Dobb
Maurice Dobb argues that while there was some ideological justification forthe policies of 1918
1921, notions of establishing an immediate socialisteconomic order were
no more than flights of leftist fancy.
We must considerthe policies of War Communism within the context in which they wereintroduced, Dobb argues. If we remember that these centralization policies fallbetween the more decentralized periods of the first eight months of Bolshevikrule and the New Economic Policy (NEP), then War Communism
emergesclearly as an empirical creation, not as the a priori product of theory: as animprovisation in face of economic scarcity and military urgency in conditionsof exhausting civil war.
The Bolsheviks had to increase centralized direction and the use of coercivemeasures in order to obtain and manage the resources necessary for the war

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