Rapid or moderate pace of industrialization in the Soviet Union – what was at stake? (A brief overview)

This is a modified excerpt from a recent discussion I’ve had concerning the nature and role of the industrialization process in the early years of the Soviet Union.


True, industrialization did start under the Tsarist rule, but rapid industrialization, the concentrated effort to close the technological and cultural gaps in barely a decade or so, started only with the First five-year plan in 1928. Stalin said in 1931: “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or we shall go under.” This effort was the key to victory in the oncoming war against the Nazis.

Some say this matter is a source of eternal debates, that there’s still some validity behind the question of choice between the rapid industrialization which actually took place and a more moderately paced industrialization whose effects we can only imagine. However, that debate was resolved a long time ago, in the plenary sessions of the Central Committee of the CPSU where an overwhelming majority rejected the latter option. During the trials which proved the existence of a conspiratorial group devoted to the overthrow of the Soviet government and the derailment of the rapid industrialization process. At the gates of Moscow where the Nazi war machine was first pushed back. In the streets of Stalingrad. On the fields near Kursk. In the marshes of Belorussia. And finally, at the top of the Reichstag. But also in the rapid reconstruction program of the immediate post-war years.

If the Soviet leadership accepted Bukharin’s view of slowing the industrialization to a more moderate pace, of diverting a great portion of their efforts away from the development of heavy industry towards light industry and the production of consumer goods (submitting to the rules of capital accumulation), then the Soviet Union would’ve been unable to defend itself in the war that was creeping near. Simply put, you need heavy industry (steel, coal, metal alloys, oil, etc) to produce tanks, airplanes, parts, munitions, weapons, fuel… Furthermore, pursuing Bukharin’s policy (which was, in effect, the indefinite continuation of NEP, which Lenin and Stalin always considered only as a temporary retreat), even excluding the inevitability of a renewed imperialist attack (keep in mind the failed foreign intervention during the Civil war), would most probably lead to the restoration of capitalism.

Some say that the rapid industrialization was a tragedy because so many lives were sacrificed and therefore they question the necessity of advocating such a policy. But, if some lives were lost during this period, they certainly weren’t sacrificed in the often propagated sense that there was this irrational monster called the Soviet Union which threw its children into the cauldron to appease the gods. They were lost in a conscious class struggle against those who resisted revolutionary changes in order to preserve their own privileges. Kulaks, the rich peasants, for example, withheld grain in their attempt to starve the government into submission, because they feared what the collectivization of agriculture might do to their prestige. They killed Party members, they terrorized the countryside, they blackmailed the workers in the cities, they withheld or destroyed their products. They sabotaged the socialist project. And they were defeated. Possessing no access to foreign financial credits, aid or investments, collectivized agriculture became to the USSR the lifeblood of its rapid industrialization. This far-seeing policy which modernized the country, championed by Stalin (however inconvenient this truth may be to some), saved the Soviet Union, and the rest of the world, from annihilation and enslavement by the Nazi hordes.

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