Economics and the Establishment of Stalinism

Kritika, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Economics and the Establishment of Stalinism


After the collapse of communism, Soviet economic history remained a relatively small scholarly industry. Interest from other historians was limited because of skepticism regarding both the validity of the rational-choice approach employed by economic historians and the quality of data available to verify the approach. (1) Students of Soviet history preferred to concentrate on political and social issues, taking advantage of the opening of the archives of the Soviet state. Yet declassified files on the Soviet economy remain largely underexplored; Gregory and Harrison have appraised the progress of work in this field, which in my view deserves more attention from historians as well as further development. (2) I welcome the present discussion of Soviet economic history in Kritika and am grateful to the editors for the opportunity to take part in it. Before taking a careful look at the articles contributed to this issue, I will comment on what I consider the state of the art in the field of Soviet economic history and suggest contributions that further research in this vein could make to the understanding of Stalinism, Soviet history in general, and the nature of modern dictatorships.

Two closely interrelated subjects define the agenda of Soviet economic history: political economy and the economic development of the command system. The task is to explain both why the system that Stalin built failed and how it managed to operate for so long.

Politics played a very important role in Soviet economic development. In turn, politics was shaped by the ideology of the ruling party. This ideology defined the ultimate aim of both political and economic development--communism, or a social order based on collective ownership that would secure an abundance of goods and equal access to them for all citizens. Communist ideology limited policy choices at least in theory. As is well known, however, Soviet policy took quite a number of sharp turns--above all, the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the Great Break. These marked the discontinuation of previous development strategies but were advocated by the government with the same ideological mantras. To what extent, then, did communist ideology affect Soviet policy goals, and more generally what were those goals or, in the language of modern economics, what was it that the Soviet government--whether Stalin or later on the collective Politburo--sought to maximize? Although these questions are natural, there is little systematic research on them. In a paper analyzing official documents, Kontorovich and Wein argue that Soviet decision makers maximized defense expenditures. (3) Using formerly unavailable correspondence by Stalin, Paul Gregory points to gross investments as a key variable. (4) Of course, the Soviet government could follow both these goals as well as a number of others simultaneously; the question, however, is how, when these goals conflicted with each other, such clashes were resolved. One possible line of inquiry is to look at top officials' decision making on allocation of scarce resources as a way of revealing their preferences. In a study of distribution of cars under Stalin, Gregory and Lazarev found that the dictator worried more about political loyalty than economic development, while ideological issues had little importance. (5) The question of how such preferences and the impact of ideology on economic decision making changed over time, if at all, remains open. Did Stalin change his priorities? Did his successors choose alternative goals? We also need more research on the opposite direction of influence: how did economic constraints limit political decisions and reframe ideology?

A natural extension of the previous questions is to improve our understanding of the goals of all economic agents in the command economy, not only those of the dictator. The first studies on this issue demonstrated that Soviet officials took into account rational assessments that could contradict the interests and orders of their superiors and so were not ideology-driven. …

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