In the last active period of his life, Lenin was chiefly absorbed by the problems of the Soviet economy under the New Economic Policy. In 1921, under the pressure of the millions of peasant small proprietors, the workers’ state had been forced to retreat from the path of Socialist planning and industrialisation, in order to procure grain for the starving workers in the cities. The old Civil War practice of requisitioning grain had to be abandoned to placate the peasants, whose support was necessary if the workers’ state was not to succumb to the reaction. A free market in grain was re-established, and concessions were made to the peasants and small traders, while the main levers of economic power (nationalised banks and heavy industries, state monopoly of foreign trade) remained in the hands of the workers’ state.
This retreat which had been forced upon the Bolsheviks was not to create a Socialist, classless society but to save millions from starving to death, to re-build a shattered economy and to provide houses and elementary schools - i.e. to drag Russia into the twentieth century.
The triumph of socialism demands a development of the productive forces to a level unheard of in any previously existing society. Only when the conditions of general want and poverty are obliterated can the thoughts of man be raised to loftier horizons than the grinding, day-to-day struggle to live. The conditions for such a transformation already exist in the world today. For the first time in human history we can say truthfully that there is no longer any need for anyone to starve, to be homeless, to be illiterate.
The potential is there - in the science, technique and industry created by the development of capitalism itself which draws upon all the resources of the planet albeit in an incomplete, anarchic and undeveloped way. Only on the basis of an integrated, harmonious plan of production can this potential be realised. But this can only be carried out on the basis of common ownership of the means of production and a democratic socialist plan.
These elementary truths of Marxism were taken for granted by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. They did not lead the workers to victory in October 1917 with a view to “building Socialism” within the frontiers of the former Tsarist Empire, but to strike the first blow for the international Socialist Revolution:
“We have made the start,” wrote Lenin on the fourth anniversary of the October Revolution. “When, at what date and time, and the proletarians of which nations will complete this process is not important. The important thing is that the ice has been broken; the road is open, the way has been shown.”
For Lenin, the first significance of the Russian Revolution was the example it provided in the eyes of the workers of the world. The failure of the revolutionary wave which swept across Europe in the period 1918-21 was the decisive factor in the subsequent development. On the basis of a victorious European revolution, the enormous potential mineral wealth of Russia, its vast labour force, could have been linked to the science, technique and industry of Germany, Britain and France. A Socialist United States of Europe could have transformed the lives of the peoples of Europe and Asia and opened the way for a Socialist World Federation. Instead, as a result of the cowardice and ineptitude of the labour leaders, the European working classes faced decades of hardship, unemployment, Fascism and a new World War. On the other hand, the isolation of the only workers’ state in the world in a backward, peasant country, opened the door to bureaucratic degeneration and Stalinist reaction.
The defeat of the German working class in March 1921 forced the Soviet Republic to look to its own resources in order to survive. In a speech on October 17, 1921, Lenin spelt out the consequences:
“You must remember that our Soviet land is impoverished after many years of trial and suffering and has no Socialist France or Socialist England as neighbours to keep us with their highly developed technology and highly developed industry. Bear that in mind! We must remember that at present all their highly developed technology and industry belong to the capitalists who are fighting us.”
In order to survive, it was necessary to conciliate the desire of the peasant to make profit, even at the expense of the working class and the building up of industry - the only real basis for a transition to socialism.
The concessions given to the peasants, small businessmen and speculators (“Nepmen”) staved off economic collapse in 1921-22. The trade between town and countryside was restored, but on terms greatly disadvantageous to the former. The reduction of taxes on the peasant cut into the funds necessary for investment in industry. Heavy industry stagnated, while much of light industry was in private hands. Even the revival in agriculture strengthened the capitalist, not the socialist element in Soviet society. Huge profits were made by the “Kulaks” (wealthy peasants), with the largest and most fertile farms and the capital necessary for equipment, horses and fertiliser. In fact, it soon became clear that under NEP, the difference between the rich and poor in the villages was growing at an alarming rate. The Kulaks took to hoarding grain to push up prices, even buying up the grain of the poor peasants to sell it back to them at a later date when prices rose.
These tendencies were watched with anxiety by Lenin, who repeatedly warned of the need for the working class to keep a tight rein on the levers of the economy. At the 4th Congress of the Communist International, in November 1922, Lenin put the matter in a nutshell:
“The salvation of Russia lies not only in a good harvest on the peasant farms - that is not enough; and not only in the good condition of light industry, which provides the peasantry with consumer goods - this, too, is not enough; we also need heavy industry. And to put it in good condition will require several years of work. Heavy industry needs state subsidies. If we are not able to provide them, we shall be doomed as a civilised state, let alone a Socialist state.”