Collective Agriculture in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union

By McIntyre, Robert | Monthly Review, December 1993 | Go to article overview

Collective Agriculture in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union


McIntyre, Robert, Monthly Review


Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist states of Eastern Europe, there have been few attempts to decollectivize agriculture in these regions except where forces originating outside agriculture have tried to destroy the collective system, and resistance has sprung up whenever the idea has been raised. This absence of pressure for decollectivization has been puzzling to Western readers nurtured on "worst case" depictions of Soviet agriculture. But after the death of Stalin and the reversal of the agricultural management policies of his period, the collective farm became relatively successful both as an economic and as a social institution in Eastern Europe.

With the passage of time, the performance of the collectives improved in the Soviet Union as well, so that even in the successor states the case for decollectivization is far weaker than it was at the time that Western thinking on this issue solidified. It is especially important to take note of this performance at a time when dissolution of the entire system is regularly treated as obviously desirable by both foreign and indigenous reform advocates. Popular resistance to decollectivization turns out to be grounded in simple but not easily seen facts about the collective system of organizing rural life and production. Whether, or in whatever modified form, these institutions survive the new political and economic conditions of the 1990s, it is important to understand how they came to function acceptably in the eyes of the directly affected populations.

Although the administrative structures adopted in Eastern Europe were basically identical to the 1935 Soviet Collective Farm Charter, a sharp reversal of performance was achieved through policies drastically different from those adopted in the Soviet Union during the 1929-1953 period. In Eastern Europe formal nationalization of land ownership per se was usually avoided. Following a period of disruption associated with the collectivization process itself and skepticism about the durability of the transformation, the system began to function coherently. The resulting rapid rise in agricultural productivity reversed traditional rural-urban income differentials and produced a new type of rural settlement structure and culture.

The favorable performance of this form of rural organization was little noticed prior to the surprising manifestations of its indigenous popularity after 1989, in part because of a tendency to generalize a 1930s picture of the Soviet collective farm but also because of the widespread use of ways of measuring performance which are systematically biased. Commonly used methods of measuring the "productivity" of collective agriculture are problematic. (1) They leave out of consideration sharp differences in the assignment of responsibility for private and social costs between social systems (the collective as a local government). (2) They fail to account for higher non-cash living standards in successful cooperatives (the urbanization of rural life). (3) They profoundly misunderstand the contribution of the so-called "private plots" in collective agriculture (joint production and symbiosis).

These three "problems" provide a good organizing framework within which to show that popular resistance to dissolution of collective farms is a rational reflection of their favorable performance and their manifest superiority to any available alternatives. Returning to small-field family farming is simply not attractive to any significant fraction of the rural population.

Professionalization and the Vanishing Peasantry

The achievement of good overall performance by Soviet-type institutions after the Second World War was the result of the application of political, price, and investment policies quite different from those followed in the USSR during the collectivization process. Later collectivizations were mainly pursued by administrative persuasion and, most significantly, were accompanied by large infusions of capital. …

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