Conflict and Decision-Making in Soviet Russia: A Case Study of Agricultural Policy, 1953-1963
The Soviet Economy Since Stalin
The great debate among Sovietologists is whether lust for power or divergence of policy is the main cause of the perennial quarreling in the Kremlin. Mr. Ploss’s implicit answer is “Both, equally”; and he proceeds to illustrate this with a study of Soviet agriculture, a source of contention in the USSR more intense perhaps than even defense and literature. Economic policy is an important branch of Kremlinology, but so far the economists have tended to ignore it. Mr. Ploss, although not himself an economist but a political scientist, manages to keep exactly the right balance between, say, Khrushchev’s desire to oust Malenkov and their disagreements over such matters as the grain supply. Only a political scientist, one is tempted to say, can explain Soviet agriculture.
The book’s faults, then, are of secondary importance, although they do add up to an imposing sum. First is the lack of narrative skill. This is after all a history. It covers, in spite of its title, more than eighteen years of agricultural policy. The dramatis personae are numerous, ranging all the way from A. I. to Frol Kozlov, from Pal’man to Pal’tsev, and the agricultural issues about which they choose to quarrel are equally numerous. The reader’s intelligence should not in such cases be over-estimated; he needs cross references, sub-headings, and summaries. In addition to the general chronological account there should perhaps be a detailed and connected account of what was said about each issue.
More important is the book’s bias. For when all allowances have been made, this is Khrushchev as he himself would have written it. Stalin was the ideal man to succeed: Anybody would have looked good. Each of his potential successors wanted to have all his powers but to exercise them more rationally; each was a nicer man, freer of paranoia and sadism; each faced the virtual impossibility of retaining the degree of autocratic power that Stalin exercised. The real question is, how did Khrushchev compare with his rivals?
THE pons asinorum of modern Kremlinology is that Khrushchev, the anti-Semite, the opponent of peasants’ private ownership (p. 49), the supporter of mob-rule over state law, the man who hedged on the 1954 Geneva Agreement, was less “liberal” than Malenkov who favored the system of the private plot and was the architect of the Geneva Agreement; and much less liberal than the policeman Beria, who defended the Jews in Georgia at the height of Stalin’s anti-Semitism, delayed collectivization of the newly annexed Eastern Ukraine (a point omitted by the author, though it is part of his subject), gave his prisoners amnesty when Stalin died, and nearly lost East Germany to capitalism. Beria had a very bad press during Khruschev’s rule; for history is written by the conquering party in the USSR as surely as it was in Tudor England. It is not clear to me that Mr. Ploss really knows all this.
The case for Beria as against Khrushchev is overwhelmingly strong. Khrushchev’s plan for the removal of one village to another, for example, was one of the most lunatic schemes of all time. It meant in particular that the peasants were to perform, without pay, the heavy labor involved in moving their own homes. Yet the scheme was entirely Khrushchev’s, and its defeat can only be described as a victory for sense and humanity. It was also Malenkov’s and Beria’s victory. But not a glimmer of this shines through Mr. Ploss’s text (pp. 35-37). Indeed the professional security policemen have always wanted moderation in peasant affairs; it is they, after all, who must pull the ideologists’ chestnuts out of the fire. Or to take another example, Khrushchev’s program for developing the virgin lands was a fiasco by any rational economic reckoning, as Malenkov and Kaganovich correctly prophesied. Yet here we read that “the agronomist leader [Khrushchev] knew well the climatic and other limitations of his virgin soil program” (p. 61). But these limitations are exactly what he did not know. Again, he records without critical comment (p. 109) Khrushchev’s boast that the USSR would overtake the US in per capita milk and meat production in four years. Of course nothing of the sort occured, yet the author almost makes it appear that Malenkov was to blame when he complained of the idiocy of this statement. The corn fiasco, too—Khrushchev’s foolish plan to grow corn on millions of acres too cold to support it—is passed over in silence—another strange omission.
Ploss asserts that Malenkov appealed to the upper and middle, Khrushchev to the lower, classes. But Khrushchev regularly took a more anticonsumptionist view than his rival, and even tried to sabotage the 1954 peace in Vietnam, rattling the atom bomb in Prague while Malenkov was in Geneva. Is this an appeal to the “lower classes”? Did they want to move their own houses from village to village, or to lose their private plots? The fact is, of course, that neither Khrushchev nor Malenkov cared a fig for the poor and oppressed. Malenkov supported the state bureaucracy, Khrushchev the party bureaucracy: If there was a class issue between them, which supported the lower class?
KREMLINOLOGY can claim many remarkable successes, but its practitioners often discredit it by neglecting alternative hypotheses for the evidence they present, or simply by violating this primary rule: Show all your evidence—but all your contrary evidence as well. For many of his claims, some of them important, the author neither offers proof in the text nor gives references to proof elsewhere. For instance, he says that in 1946-50 Khrushchev supported the so-called “link” system in the collective farms. The “link” was a permanent group of about seven people who were responsible for performing a particular task, say milking the cows. They received bonuses based on the performance of their group, not that of the whole farm. Family connections were strong within the link, and the system reeked of private management for private profit. It threatened to spread after the war even to the cultivation of grain, which is much more easily “socialized”—i.e., conducted in large impermanent work groups.
Now all that we know from documents is that it was A. A. Andreyev, not Khrushchev, who in 1950 did public penance when this policy was abandoned; in that same year Khrushchev pushed through the very anti-individualistic scheme of amalgamating the collective farms in proportions of three to one, a plan which carried with it a reduction of the peasants’ private plots. Common sense, then, tells us that in 1950 Andreyev, the proponent of small-scale farming, was defeated by Khrushchev, the proponent of largerscale farming. On the other hand, as Ploss suggests, Khrushchev might just possibly have saved his own neck by a rapid reversal. There is, of course, no technical contradiction in having many “links” in very large collective farms, but surely it is bold, to say the least, to make the assertion that Khrushchev favored the “link” in the face of what other writers have argued.
Ploss’s argument runs as follows. A minor character, P. I. Doronin, supported the “link” in print (pp. 32-3), and urged its extension from the care of livestock to the cultivation of grain. In 1938 he had been made party boss in Khrushchev’s Ukrainian birthplace shortly after Khrushchev himself became party boss in the Ukraine; and in 1954 Doronin re-emerged from political obscurity, during a period of Khrushchev’s dominance, to replace an alleged protégé of Malenkov as party boss in Smolensk (p. 46). Good Kremlinology, but what has really been proved? Only that Khrushchev liked Doronin, not that he liked “links.” After all, many others were propagandizing the “link” when he was. (Let it be added, in fairness, however, that in August 1964 Khrushchev did, having tried everything else, come out in favor of something very much like the “link”—a remarkable reverse for “socialism” in agriculture.) It is not that Mr. Ploss is necessarily wrong, it is that he jumps too quickly to conclusions.
OR AGAIN how should we interpret the fact that the ideologist Stepanyan supported Khrushchev in 1950 when the latter demanded not only the amalgamation of collective farms into larger ones but also the physical removal of some villages to others (p. 47)? At the original moment of collectivization Stalin’s policy was that of one farm per village. As the collectives were amalgamated Khrushchev proposed that the villages actually be moved together, to form “agro-towns.” An ideologist like Stepanyan, whose work was mainly on the future Communist Utopia, would naturally support the scheme. That Stepanyan did so is in my view only partial evidence of a permanent allegiance to Khrushchev, or a protégé-patron relationship between them. Now in early 1953 Stalin was building up the Doctors’ Plot—the high mark of his anti-Semitism, in which certain Jewish doctors were accused of medical murder. The alleged victims comprised a carefully selected list, mainly friends of Beria and enemies of Khrushchev. Ergo, all other Kremlinologists agree, Khrushchev was a prime beneficiary of the Doctors’ Plot and his arch-enemy Beria a pre-destined victim. But Mr. Ploss tells us that at this moment Stepanyan “was hazed during the reactionary press campaign” (p. 77). Now if Stepanyan was threatened during the period of the Doctors’ Plot either (a) he was not a protégé of Khrushchev, or (b) the orthodox view of Khrushchev’s position in that imbroglio is wrong. Well, on what grounds and by whom was Stepanyan “hazed” at that time? We search text and footnotes in vain. Furthermore the author does not question the orthodox view that Khrushchev stood to gain by the Doctors’ Plot.
Nevertheless, this is altogether the right kind of book. For we need a specialist who can relate seemingly disparate matters, who can say with authority, “Benediktov has become ambassador in New Delhi again; so fewer collective farms will be converted into state farms.” Furthermore the author is equipped with an excellent mixture of discipline and interests. But I have less confidence in his particular judgments, especially about the early Fifties.
MR. SCHWARTZ is even better qualified than Mr. Ploss to write about the Soviet economy since for all his political sense he is also a professional economist. Furthermore, his position on The New York Times exposes him painlessly to the flow of news about the Soviet Union. The result is a book which has as much immediacy and general coverage as we could wish. Every reviewer will have of course his list of faults. On my list is that Khrushchev’s anti-intellectual school reform, and its subsequent defeat, are underplayed, as are those issues of agricultural organization which are Mr. Ploss’s specialty. On the other hand the debate on the rate of interest and foreign trade are admirably handled. The quotations from Communist leaders are particularly apt.
But a popular work is bound to have scholarly deficiencies. I have one more serious objection: It is almost useless to present solutions to basic issues without presenting the issues themselves. If, for example, the much publicized views of the economists, Liberman and Kantorovich, can be summarized for a popular audience, then the issues of incentives and resource allocation under socialism that they are trying to solve can, and ought to be, made available to non-specialists. We may add that Khrushchev showed no interest in either incentives or resource allocation; if any Soviet leader played a constructive role here, until Kosygin came along, it was Bulganin. Khrushchev on the contrary was notorious for monkeying about with the details of the central planning and management hierarchy. In particular he substituted territorially defined units for units defined by the productive branch as the intermediate links in the command chain. And behind this move there lurked vital questions of industrial location and, above all, the role of the Party in the economy, on which Khrushchev held very extreme views. He wanted the Party to do the job of the State, and that was why he took no interest in Bulganin’s reforms. It is no mere academic deficiency that the latter issue is not properly discussed.