Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective
by Alexander Gerschenkron
Harvard University Press, 8.75
The Real National Income of Soviet Russia Since 1928
by Abram Bergson
Harvard University Press, 8.75
Growth of Industrial Production in the Soviet Union
by G. Warren Nutter
Princeton University Press, 15.00
Dimensions of Soviet Economic Power
by Joint Economic Committee
U.S. Government Printing Office, 2.71 (paper)
“Our actions, aimed at raising the economy and at improving the people’s well-being, will exert on the minds of vacillators an influence which will be stronger than other methods. And such people will be more anxious to cooperate with us, to side with Marxist-Leninist theory, and with the working class in the struggle against capitalism. It will be a great thing, comrades.”
Nikita Khrushchev, 1957
Professor Alexander Gerschenkron is among the most thoughtful, learned and painstaking of specialists in the history of the economic development of modern Europe. Every serious student of European economic affairs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries should read some of the fifteen essays included in his book. The past century is their time span, and Russian development is their center. Indeed his essay number six (“Russia: Pattern and Problems of Economic Development, 1861-1958”) may be the one it would be the greatest pity to miss. This is perhaps the most helpful outline of its topic in our language. And, in addition to the essays on Russian economic questions, Professor Gerschenkron gives us here a number of other valuable studies. These include a learned and original contribution on Italian economic development before World War I, a six-decade survey of industrialization in Bulgaria, and three chapters on Russian literature. Of the latter, the one entitled “Reflections on Soviet Novels” should, in my judgment not be skipped, while the one on Doctor Zhivago may also be of interest, for its historical perspectives, even to those of us who do not share its enthusiastic appreciation.
Apart from these studies, Gershenkron devotes a good deal of attention to the general phenomenon of “Economic Backwardness.” He focuses particularly on the question of how varying initial degrees of economic backwardness shape the character of the economic development subsequently, when backwardness is being overcome. This part of Gerschenkron’s book, I confess, I do not find of great value. It is not an uncommon practice, in historical study, though always I think an unfortunate one, first to give a complex of interrelated things a name—Renaissance, Reformation, Economic Backwardness—and then to use that name as an explanation for particular events that come within the complex. At best, this usage involves verbal infelicity; more commonly, it evidences some muddle in thinking; at worst, it reflects downright circularity of reasoning. Professor Gerschenkron uses the concept of “Economic Backwardness” repeatedly in a manner which is, I think, not free of these shortcomings.
In the title essay on “Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective” we find Gerschenkron writing, quite characteristically, “Assuming an adequate endowment of usable resources, and assuming that the great blocks to industrialization had been removed, the opportunities inherent in industrialization may be said to vary directly with the backwardness of the country.” A taxicab driver might have said, “The poorer a country is, the more it has to gain by getting richer—if it can. “But having formulated Gerschenkron’s point in this way, would the taxi driver be able to convince us—or himself—that the point was worth making? Gerschenkron is indeed disarming in his “Postscript,” where he writes: “—the general approach as presented here can be considered as an attempt to systematize the deviations from the English paradigm by relying on the degree of backwardness as the organizing concept.” But this candor in defining Economic Backwardness in terms of deviations from the norm of English non-backwardness does not reassure when, for example, we watch Gerschenkron (page 136) using these concepts to provide a pretended explanation for what happened—or did not happen—in Russian industry during 1906-1914. Gerschenkron there says: “…industry may have been passing through a period as governed by the effects of diminished backwardness.” No; such concepts—”dynamic preparation” and “diminished backwardness”—are not, I think, helpful at all: they do not explain anything.
Even more troubling is Professor Gerschenkron’s elegantly stated rationale of the speed of the Soviet industrial advance. He does not find comparable rates of industrial growth in other countries or in the earlier history of Russia. And he sees the decisive Soviet advantage in agricultural collectivism. “The record-breaking result was achieved,” he says, “because a ruthless dictatorial government succeeded in placing the Russian peasants, then the great majority of the Russian people, into the strait jacket of collective farms.” Before collectivization was begun, he tells us, farm marketings fell off and “…higher prices of higher taxes were politically intolerable…” Also, he contends, Bolshevism then tottered on the edge of the grave: “…the growing resistance of the millions of peasants, strong in their intangible diffusion, seemed to spell the doom of the Soviet dictatorship.” And again, lest we forget: “In retrospect, the threat to the continuation in power of the Soviet regime appears blurred by the indubitable successes achieved subsequently. But it was real indeed.” The dictatorship, he says, only stumbled into full collectivization; the original intention was to create only a limited number of collectives, to provide special sources of food for the cities. However, he states: “The dogged defense by the peasants went down in defeat and a complete, or nearly complete, collectivization was the result.”
Farm collectivization, once achieved, industrialization could proceed according to Gerschenkron, without hindrance and largely at the expense of the peasants.
Once the peasantry had been successfully forced into the machine of collective farms, once it became possible to extract a large share of agricultural output in the form of “compulsory deliveries” without bothering much about the quid pro quo in the form of industrial consumers’ goods, the difficulties of the late twenties were overcome. The hands of the government were united….A program of perpetual industrialization through a series of five-year plans was now on the agenda. What was originally conceived of as a brief spell became the initial stage in a new great spurt of industrialization, the greatest and the longest in the history of the country’s industrial development.
On at least one occasion, Gerschenkron’s evaluation of Soviet industrialization will not rest content with the image of the miserly compensation of an exploited peasantry; then he sees collectivization, through the eyes of Peter the Great, as a system “…to feed gratis the non-agricultural segments of the economy and at the same time provide a flow of labor for the public works of the government…” The collective farmer is the modern serf, with whose labor is reared the pyramid of Soviet industrialization.
All this is very good fun, and Professor Gerschenkron presents this thesis more persuasively than I have read it elsewhere. But it is a long way from the requirements of a sober historiography, and its economic analysis has no particular cogency. So far as the history of the matter is concerned, Gerschenkron merely sketches a suggestion. His documentation does not begin to approach what is required for the determination of a serious historical issue. Indeed, adequate documentation may not be available for decades. In the meantime, we need not all embrace the creed which expresses itself in the maxim, “I believe because it is absurd.” Professor Gerschenkron would have us believe that, on the eve of collectivization, the Soviet government was too weak politically to raise taxes or prices. But it was strong enough to kill millions of peasants and to deport millions more. And it has remained strong enough, for three subsequent decades, to enforce a collective farm system more widely hated, by the Soviet people, than any other aspect of communist society except the police terror. Pending specific historical evidence, we are also permitted some restraint in embracing Gerschenkron’s thesis that the Soviet government was forced into collectivization by political weakness. Which of the Communist leaders was free of the dogmatism of the economic efficiency of large-scale production—in farming, as elsewhere? And which was free of the Marxist romanticism of violence—not fancying himself as a gun-wielding “midwife of history”? Was not the effective layer of Communist leadership then, in fact, spoiling for a fight with the peasant “class enemy”?
Moreover, much as we recognize the charm of a mytho-poetic (Physiocratic) image of the origin of savings, we must not be entrapped by the idea that the enforced abstinence of the peasant is, in some special way, the provider of the seed-corn of industrialization. Already in 1928 the Soviet government controlled 82 per cent of industrial output and held similar dominance in basic utilities, transport, trade and finance. When he was collectivized, the peasant joined the throng of the centrally controlled. In a laborious and fundamental contribution to our knowledge of “The Real National Income of Soviet Russia from 1928 through 1955, Mr. Abram Bergson has contributed greatly to the ease with which it is now possible to puncture the fable of an exploited peasantry as the special foundation-stone of Soviet industrialization. Mr. Bergson shows that, in 1937, when collectivization was already complete, collective farm income averaged about 3,000 rubles per man-year when industrial workers (including supervisors) averaged 3,005 rubles. Mr. Bergson concludes: “…no basis is found for the familiar assumption that the Soviet government systematically discriminated against the farmer and in favor of the industrial worker.” Because Russian agriculture was so unproductive under collectivization, it could contribute relatively little to industrialization. (Even today, Soviet agriculture employs about 40 per cent of the civilian labor force, while United States agriculture employs less than 8 percent.) The Communist regime achieved light control over a meager agricultural output. Otherwise agriculture does not differ from other economic sectors—industry, mining, transport, etc.—in the nature of its contribution to Soviet industrialization.
The common service of the books by Messrs. Bergson and Nutter, and of the twenty-seven staff submissions to the Joint Economic Committee, is to remove Soviet economic development from the realm of the extraordinary economic experience. Each of these volumes is laborious and conscientious. They do honor to American scholarship.
The studies presented to the Joint Economic Committee cover the broadest range of topics, and they are correspondingly uneven in merit and presentation. But there are good things throughout these submissions, and no student of Russian affairs will wish to miss the four papers here brought together under “The Measure of Production” or what is in fact a little book, of some hundred pages on “Demographic Trends and Population Policy.” (Nothing in the perfunctory Hearings would suggest that the writing effort of the staff evoked a corresponding reading effort by the senators and representatives of the Committee.)
Mr. Bergson’s book has a narrower scope. Still, measuring the real national income of the Soviet Union takes him into most corners of the Soviet economy, and he always emerges with credit—though sometimes, as it appears to me (as in the case of military production), with his quarry still unmeasured. Mr. Bergson permits himself the sardonic observation that “…Western scholars have found many reasons to think that the measurement of Russian national income is too important a task to leave to Russian statisticians.” However, in the perspective of the afflictions he has steadfastly borne from the shortcomings of his Russian suppliers of raw materials, this sentence may be taken to be a mild and even charitable response to cruel and unusual punishment.