The New Economic Policy
How far were economic problems responsible for Stalin’s decision to replace the New Economic Policy in 1928 with the first Five-Year Plan ? There seemed to be various reasons why Stalin decided to replace the New Economic Policy with the first Five-Year Plan in 1928. These included economic problems, the role of ideology, a fear of invasion and political considerations. Although economic problems certainly were an important reason for Stalin’s decision, the most significant reason must have been political, since the consolidation of his power position had always been Stalin’s prime concern.
The occurrence of economic problems presumably played a major role in Stalin’s decision to move away from the New Economic Policy (NEP), although it must be noted that, before that time, the NEP had had its, albeit limited, success: By 1925 the NEP had returned the economy to its pre-war levels, and by 1927 both agriculture and industrial production exceeded their pre-war level. However, the NEP had run into problems such as the scissors crisis in 1924 and the grain procurement crisis of 1927-28.
For Stalin and many pragmatists who had supported the NEP because it had been working, the grain procurement crisis brought matters to a head. Russia was by 1928 still an economically backward country compared to the large economies of Western Europe and especially the USA. Farming methods still were fundamentally backwards and unproductive. In industry there was a genuine necessity for the economy to develop and compete with western competitors far ahead of Russia.
Economic problems were likely to be a catalyst for the bold measures of the first Five-Year Plan, since Stalin felt that without it Russia would keep lagging behind. Ideological aspects too seemed to matter in Stalin’s decision making, although his own ideological position can be seen as somewhat blurred, since he used to frequently change policies according to what suited him best in his pursuit of a leading role in the Communist Party. For example, before his policy U-turn in 1928 Stalin had defended the NEC against opposition from the left wing of the Party.
By 1927-28, when the NEP began to experience problems, Stalin sensed that stressing Communist ideological believes would gain him a lot of support. Many Communists, especially those of the left wing, saw the NEP as a retreat from Marxist, anti-capitalist principles and the urban working class resented the special position of the peasants under the NEP. Growing mass unemployment in the towns and food shortages combined with the ideological distaste felt by many Communists for the NEP and the Nepmen.
This led Stalin to wage a class war against the peasants and the Kulaks in particular, branding those who would resist collectivisation as ’enemies of the people’ or ’enemies of the revolution. ’ Communist ideology played their part in Stalin’s decision making since it ensured support not only from the Party but also from the workers and gave Stalin the moral grounds to prevail and secure control of the state. A fear of invasion must also have been influential in Stalin’s decision, as since back during the Civil War of 1918-21, when the western powers had clearly supported the ’Whites’, the Communists had a certain suspicion for them.
Russia found itself in a far from ideal international climate during the late 1920s, which clearly suggested that the Soviet Union was surrounded by hostile nations which undermined its national security. Stalin seemed to have felt the necessity for both setting up self-sufficiency in food production and industrialise rapidly in order to built up the armed forces and prepare Russia for war against the capitalist powers, or, as he would say at a Party meeting ’Either we do it – or they crush us. Since under the NEP these goals were unlikely to be accomplished, a fear of invasion probably was an important motivator behind the shift to the first Five-Year Plan. Finally, and most importantly, political considerations led Stalin to replace the NEP. It could be seen as a continuation of the leadership struggle that had set in after the death of Lenin in 1924 and demonstrated Stalin’s victory over Bukharin, who was the leading advocate of the NEP. Stalin could show that he was able to apply his own policies and, in doing so, consolidate his position.
The Plan would further gain him the support of the left wing of the Communist Party, which had been leaderless when Zinoviev, Kamenev and Trotsky were defeated and humiliated in 1927. In addition, he still advocated socialism in one country and therefore appealed to Russian nationalism. Self-sufficiency in food production and not being dependant on foreign grain imports was popular as it would make Russia appear stronger and save money which could be used to improve living conditions.
Political considerations were of prime importance to Stalin since he knew that if he could deliver all these things, it would serve the basic aim of securing his leadership position for the time to come. Overall, while it was possibly a combination of all factors discussed that played a role in Stalin’s decision to abandon the NEP in favour of the first Five-Year Plan, political considerations must have been the major driving force.
However urgent a resolution of the pressing economic problems was, Stalin had proven consistently throughout the leadership challenge of 1924-1928 that his basic aim was the consolidation of his power. He had repeatedly changed his policies to decimate both the left and right wing of the Party. Like so many times before, it is quite probable that his decision was yet another piece of opportunism. Had it not been for the unpopularity of the NEP among many Party members, it is questionable whether Stalin would have taken such bold steps.