Year of Great Change

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

In November 1929, on the occasion of the twelfth anniversary of the October Revolution, Pravda published an article by Stalin entitled “A Year of Great Change.” The article, replete with quotations from Lenin, summed up what Stalin considered achievements in three areas: productivity of labor, industrial construction, and agricultural development. It was, in effect, a retrospective justification for a radical break with the New Economic Policy introduced by Lenin in 1921, and a manifesto for the First Five-Year Plan that already was in its second year.

The First Five-Year Plan (1928-32) was the most ambitious undertaking in centralized state planning ever attempted. It reflected both the unbridled optimism of the Stalinist leadership in the capacity of the Soviet Union to catch up to and surpass the advanced capitalist countries “in a relatively minimal historical period,” and the considerable pressure they had exerted on the economic specialists who devised successive versions of the plan. Those economists, working in the State Planning Commission (Gosplan) were faced with the unprecedented and incredibly complicated task of drafting a plan to transform the entire economic structure of the country. They did so by resorting to “teleological” planning, that is, the projection of five-year targets backward to determine annual levels of investment and material balances which were to be applied to each sector of the economy and ultimately serve as guidelines for every enterprise in the country. Two versions were produced: a first variant and an optimal variant, each of which was presented to the party’s Sixteenth Conference in April 1929, that is, some six months after the plan was supposed to be in operation.

The first variant was quite optimistic, calling for increases in investments over the five-year period of 151 percent, of producers’ goods of 161 percent, of electrical output of 236 percent, and so forth. Yet, the sixteenth conference rejected this version in favor of the optimal variant which envisioned investments rising by 228 percent, producers’ goods by 204 percent, and electricity by 335 percent. Even these targets were subsequently revised upward. For example, coal production which stood at 35 million tons in 1927-28, was supposed to increase to 75 million tons by 1932-33 according to the optimal version, but this was amended in the course of 1929-30 to 95-105 million tons. Indeed, in December 1929, the entire five-year plan was projected to be fulfilled “in its essentials” in four years, that is, by October 1931. This, of course, was impossible, and the rush, strain, shortages and wastefulness proved lethal to millions of people. For all that though, the plan was declared a brilliant success and indeed did catapult the Soviet Union into one of the leading industrial countries of the world.

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