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What the New Economic Policy Did — And What It Left Unfinished

The NEP helped the young Soviet Union rebound economically. But its lack of political reform hampered the ability of workers and peasants to resist the onset of Stalinism.

Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin on the tribune of the Vladimir Lenin Mausoleum during the celebration of the twelfth anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution, on November 7, 1929. (Wikimedia Commons)

In his review of my book Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy in Jacobin, John Marot not only disregards most of the material I cover in the book, but exclusively focuses on the issue of Lenin’s 1921 New Economic Policy (NEP).

Marot’s argument is that the NEP — a policy that provided economic freedom to peasants and small traders — was the alternative to Stalinism. In my book, I argue that although the NEP was a welcome policy it needed to be accompanied by a political opening that would allow for the independent organization of workers and peasants that eventually could have facilitated the resistance to Stalinism. Marot contends that I was therefore against the NEP. But in my book, I expressly argued that the New Economic Policy was essential to move away from the terrible economic policies of War Communism to something more rational and attuned to popular aspirations, and that the Bolshevik leadership had made a mistake in opposing an earlier version that Trotsky had proposed in 1920.

Going a step farther, in my November 2018 Jacobin article “The Russian Revolution Reconsidered,” I stated that “any radical socialist transformation occurring in a country where the lion’s share of agricultural, industrial, and service production and distribution is not conducted by large, industrialized capitalist firms, will inevitably need, if that socialism is going to be democratic and humane, some version of a NEP to accommodate the possibilities and needs of large numbers of small producers, particularly individuals and families.”

Marot’s distortion of my views on the NEP confuses two issues: the economic policy in itself and the political measures that accompanied it. As I argued in Before Stalinism, the adoption of the NEP should have been accompanied by what I called a New Political Policy (NPP). Essentially, freedom of peaceful political organization for all those groups willing to abide by the original form of soviet democracy that came to power in October 1917. Unfortunately, the political opening I was referring to was inconceivable for Lenin and the mainstream Bolshevik leadership in 1921: for them, permitting the economic concessions and cultural freedoms granted by the NEP was one thing, very different and separate from political freedom which had to be simultaneously restricted.

As I noted in my book, the end of the Civil War brought about the deterioration, rather than an improvement, in the degree and extent of political freedom in Russia, moving from the very widespread but still somewhat tentative repression of the Civil War to the complete and systematic repression of opposition parties and groups after the end of that war. For example, by 1922, the last opposition newspapers and journals had been shut down, never to be reopened. The significant reduction in political freedom was causally connected to the granting of economic concessions. As Lenin explicitly linked the political and economic questions at the Eleventh Party Congress in 1922 (his last party congress):

It is terribly difficult to retreat after a great victorious advance, for the relations are entirely different. During a victorious advance, even if discipline is relaxed, everybody presses forward on his own accord. During a retreat, however, discipline must be more conscious and is a hundred times more necessary, because, when the entire army is in retreat, it does not know or see where it should halt. It sees only retreat; under such circumstances, a few panic-stricken voices are, at times, enough to cause a stampede. The danger here is enormous.

As I argue in Before Stalinism, it was the Soviet leadership’s growing restrictions and limitations of political freedom during the NEP that considerably weakened the ability of Soviet society to resist, and in that sense facilitated, the establishment of Stalinism. Topping his distortion on my views on the NEP, Marot proceeds to caricature my argument for the necessity for a political opening, claiming that for me such an opening would have guaranteed the defeat of Stalinism, a gross simplification of my position.

Contrary to Marot’s other charge holding that my book ignored trade union struggles of the 1920s, I discussed the numerous strikes that took place in Russia throughout that period. However, it is important to note that struggles at the point of production, while critically important, do not necessarily indicate working-class power in society as a whole, which Marot seems to assume.

Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia allowed for more worker control at the point of production than did post-1921 Russia. Yet that was hardly sufficient to establish working-class power and rule in light of the political monopoly of the Yugoslav Communist Party, its monopoly of the mass media, and the power of the secret police.

The fact remains that independently of strike activity, in the Soviet Russia of the twenties, unions were still not able to politically organize outside the confines of the increasingly bureaucratized and undemocratic Communist Party. Politically independent unions would have helped to resist the onslaught of Stalinization, although contrary to Marot’s intended caricature of my argument, I do not know or guarantee whether that may have succeeded in resisting Stalinism.

Similarly with the peasantry: their political self-organization, independent from the Communist Party, could have helped against the advent of Stalinism. John Marot accuses me of having been exclusively focused on freedom and democracy for the working-class minority and disregarding the peasant majority, the exact opposite of what I argued for in my book and article in Jacobin a year ago. But more important is his implicit disregard for the independent political organization of the peasantry — and of the concomitant political monopoly of the Communist Party — by stating that the Russian peasantry of the 1920s was content with its relative economic autonomy and therefore had no interest in the organization of peasant-oriented political parties.

Faced with the brutal, when not genocidal, collectivization drive of the late twenties and early thirties, did not the Communist Party’s political monopoly greatly facilitate such an atrocious campaign? Might not the peasantry have considered political means to resist it if these means had been available or even conceived as at all possible?

It is nevertheless comforting that we agree on some things he writes about in his review. One of them is his criticism of Trotsky’s politics in the late twenties, where he points out that Trotsky’s doctrinairism “barred the way to an alliance with Bukharin and the Right, paving the way for Stalin’s victory.” As I wrote in my Jacobin article, both Bukharin and Trotsky’s programs were after all two different versions of a revised New Economic Policy, and were closer to each other than to the monstrous course followed by the supposed “center” led by Stalin with its super-exploitation of the working class and the death of millions inflicted by the forced collectivization of the peasantry, which included the deliberate fostering of famine in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933.

Marot seems to belong to the Marxist school that minimizes, if not entirely eliminates, any consideration of politics and political ideas as important factors in historical developments. Thus, for him, the policies of War Communism were solely the product of objective circumstances. But War Communism was not only a “situational response” to the extreme hardships and economic chaos created by the Civil War that began in the middle of 1918. It was also the result of the ideological and political drive impelling the majority of the Bolshevik leadership to set up what it defined as “communism” independently and regardless of the objective economic and social conditions.

That is how Lenin, despite his usual hardheadedness and later criticisms of the follies of War Communism, claimed in 1919 that “now the organization of the proletariat’s Communist activities, and the entire policy of the Communists has fully acquired a final, stable form; and I am convinced that we stand on the right road.” And that is why Bukharin sang the praises and became the foremost theoretical apologist for War Communism in his The Politics and Economics of the Transition Period, a study of nothing less than “the process of the transformation of capitalist society into communist society.”

Certainly, there were very powerful objective factors behind many of the policies adopted during War Communism. However, it would have made a big difference if the political leadership would have recognized them as a necessary and temporary response to war conditions instead of having turned them, as they did, into revolutionary virtues.

The turning of War Communism policies into virtues was very important in crystallizing a political culture that sanctioned the suppression of multiparty Soviets, the Red Terror, in addition to the serious restriction of union democracy and independence, and the suppression of legal freedoms and of socialist opposition. It was this new political culture that led, for example, to the adoption of “collective punishment” — deliberate punitive measures taken by the government against people it knew were not involved in counterrevolutionary activity but who belonged to certain ethnic, regional, and class groupings suspected by the government as counterrevolutionary — like the suppression of the “Green” peasant rebellions in the Tambov region in 1920–21. It is important to note that this practice had serious consequences for the government, not least wresting the support for the revolutionary government of major sectors of the population.

The Red Terror was another consequence of that repressive political culture. It was initially instituted by Lenin in places such as Petrograd, as a response to the assassination of major Bolshevik leaders. Its targets were defined based on their class origin rather than on what they had actually done, as in the case of many people persecuted because of their bourgeois background but who were actually collaborating with the Bolshevik government.

As historian Alexander Rabinowitch reports in his book, The Bolsheviks in Power, the indiscriminate Red Terror in Petrograd was opposed by a substantial part of the local Bolshevik leadership, which shows that in spite of the prevailing War Communist repressive culture, the Bolshevik leadership was still far from the monolith it would become under Stalin.

Naturally, some readers may consider this argument between John Marot and myself an obscure debate about historical matters irrelevant to present realities. But the question of democracy and independent political organization, both today and under a socialist system, is a key question for leftists today. I know where I stand.