The tragic lessons from the Bolshevik land reforms

The year is 1928. More than a decade after the Bolsheviks took power, the Soviet state struggles with grain collection from increasingly strained farmers, leading to strict rationing in the cities and extreme hardship in the countryside. Since the revolution, many ‘kulaks’ (better-off peasants), demonised for their capitalist credentials, have been persecuted and had their lands confiscated in a campaign pitting committees of poor peasants against their wealthier neighbours. Small peasant holdings are still allowed to trade their grain in a tightly regulated marketplace, but the system, known as the New Economic Policy, has an inherent contradiction: efficient farmers, who increase their yield and accumulate more land run the risk of becoming ‘kulaks’, enemies of the people incurring the wrath of the regime. The alternative, to eek out a living on the brink of starvation but remain ideologically tolerable, seems preferable to most.

In Moscow, Stalin is aware of the problem and in the winter of 1928, he travels to Siberia in search of a solution. The strength of the kulaks, he concludes, lay in their accumulation of land, enabling them to employ more efficient farming techniques and achieve a higher yield than small farm holdings. The lesson he learns is the virtue of capitalism: in a competitive, free market, production increases as efficient producers grow and inefficient ones fail. But Stalin draws a different conclusion: since the creation of a new capitalist class of landowners is ideologically in-permissible, the economies of scale must be achieved by forced collectivization. He will do away with private land owners altogether. Peasants will no longer be independent producers in charge of their own land; many will be forced to leave agriculture for work in the factories and workshops of the cities and the rest will be wage labourers on large, state-owned farms; the peasant class will be proletarianized.

For the rest of the history of the USSR, agricultural productivity would be an obsession for the central planners as the sector struggled to achieve outputs anywhere near that of their counterparts in Europe and the US. In the 1980, the regimes own estimates put a collectivised farmer’s output at 20-25% of that of a US farmer, whereas the 3% of the land that was left in private hands according to some sources produced more than a quarter of the total agricultural output (although using a disproportionally large part of the total agricultural workforce).

The history of the ideological oppression and persecution of successful farmers and the disastrous consequences for the industry and society at large has resonance today. At a time where wealth is increasingly demonized and collectivist ideas enjoy a revival, the calamitous history of collectivisation and the dispensation of the free market holds valuable lessons, especially for younger generations unfamiliar with the tragic history of the communist experiment.

Most importantly, when incentives to produce is lessened, the effect is a lower total output and lower wealth for society as a whole. Removing incentives to pursue economic rewards has real, negative effects for the individual and society at large. Central planning is a deficient and inferior substitute for the free market. Private enterprise and competition benefits all, not just the capitalist. Accumulation of wealth is not at the expense of the poor, but a natural phenomenon in any successful economy. We should indeed celebrate, not be embarrassed by, wealth creation. Efficiency is a virtue, not a crime.

The Soviet experiment lasted more than 70 years, at the cost of many millions of lives and untold misery for those lucky enough to survive and eek out a living under the iron-fisted communist regime. In 1917, the masses had been shouting the Bolshevik slogan of ‘Peace, Bread and Land’ in the streets. Little did they know that within a few years, reality would be oppression instead of peace; starvation instead of bread; collectivisation instead of land.

Those ignorant of history should pay attention before they too are seduced by the easy promises and seductive slogans of the statist left and learn the hard way what the population of the USSR did: that any system of government relying on state power will benefit those in power at the expense of those it promises to serve.

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