Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution

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To say that history's greatest economic experiment--Soviet communism--was also its greatest economic failure is to say what many consider obvious. Here, in a startling reinterpretation, Robert Allen argues that the USSR was one of the most successful developing economies of the twentieth century. He reaches this provocative conclusion by recalculating national consumption and using economic, demographic, and computer simulation models to address the "what if" questions central to Soviet history. Moreover, by comparing Soviet performance not only with advanced but with less developed countries, he provides a meaningful context for its evaluation.

Although the Russian economy began to develop in the late nineteenth century based on wheat exports, modern economic growth proved elusive. But growth was rapid from 1928 to the 1970s--due to successful Five Year Plans. Notwithstanding the horrors of Stalinism, the building of heavy industry accelerated growth during the 1930s and raised living standards, especially for the many peasants who moved to cities. A sudden drop in fertility due to the education of women and their employment outside the home also facilitated growth.

While highlighting the previously underemphasized achievements of Soviet planning, Farm to Factory also shows, through methodical analysis set in fluid prose, that Stalin's worst excesses--such as the bloody collectivization of agriculture--did little to spur growth. Economic development stagnated after 1970, as vital resources were diverted to the military and as a Soviet leadership lacking in original thought pursued wasteful investments.

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Editorial Reviews

International Review of Social History
Farm to Factory . . . provide[s] new insights on several key issues and presents a stimulating and wide-ranging perspective on twentieth-century Soviet social and economic history.
Technology and Culture - Paul Josephson
Robert Allen considers . . . contentions about the costs and achievements of industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture in the USSR.
" International Review of Social History s Kessler

Farm to Factory . . . provide[s] new insights on several key issues and presents a stimulating and wide-ranging perspective on twentieth-century Soviet social and economic history.
From the Publisher

Co-Winner of the 2005 Ranki Prize, Economic History Association

"Farm to Factory . . . provide[s] new insights on several key issues and presents a stimulating and wide-ranging perspective on twentieth-century Soviet social and economic history."--Gijs Kessler, International Review of Social History

"Robert Allen considers . . . contentions about the costs and achievements of industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture in the USSR."--Paul Josephson, Technology and Culture

Technology and Culture
Robert Allen considers . . . contentions about the costs and achievements of industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture in the USSR.
— Paul Josephson
International Review of Social History
Farm to Factory . . . provide[s] new insights on several key issues and presents a stimulating and wide-ranging perspective on twentieth-century Soviet social and economic history.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Robert C. Allen is Professor of Economic History at Oxford University and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is the author of "Enclosure and the Yeoman".
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Read an Excerpt

Farm to Factory

A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution
By Robert C. Allen

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2003 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-00696-3

Chapter One


The twentieth century was brief: it began with the Russian revolution of 1917 and ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day, 1991. Other events were important, of course-Hitler's rise to power, world war, the dissolution of the European empires, America's world hegemony-but these developments were powerfully influenced by the economic growth and political challenge of the USSR. With the end of communist rule and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the world has entered a new era.

Death requires a postmortem, and the death of a country is no exception. The Soviet Union was a great social experiment with political, social, demographic, and economic dimensions. This book focuses on the economic issues-socialized ownership, investment strategy, agricultural organization, the growth of income, and consumption. What worked? What failed? And why? What lessons does Soviet history have to teach?

Discussion of Soviet economic performance has often been highly judgmental even when the underlying research has been dispassionately social-scientific. This was inevitable since political and intellectual life in thetwentieth century was dominated by the contest between capitalism and socialism. Until Stalin's barbarities were exposed in the 1950s, the Soviet Union was the paradigm of socialism, and, even after that, there were few alternative examples of "actually existing socialism" to contemplate. Perhaps especially for the dreamers of a "better, truer" socialism, it is important to perform the autopsy on the last attempt.

But at the start of the twenty-first century, the failure of the Soviet Union has called into question any search for an alternative to capitalism. Most postmortems on the Soviet Union conclude that its economic model was hopelessly misguided. Rosefielde (1996, p. 980) was vehement and specific: "Stalin's economic programme thus must be judged a colossal failure. Administrative command planning proved inferior to market capitalism, growth was illusory, the nation's material welfare deteriorated during the 1930s and after some improvement lapsed into protracted stagnation." Harrison was more measured: "despite the Soviet great leap forward of 1928-37, ... the USSR did not win the expected decisive victory in the economic race with the capitalist powers" (Davies, Harrison, and Wheatcroft 1994, p. 56). Malia (1994, p. 10) criticized the attempt to figure out what went wrong on the grounds that "the whole enterprise, quite simple, was wrong from the outset." Overall judgments like these are generalized from conclusions on the major issues in Soviet economic history. The complete case for failure makes the following claims:

1. The Soviet growth rate was not impressively high when seen in a world context (Khanin 1988, 1991). Certainly many capitalist countries have done as well, including the European periphery, Japan and, more recently, the East Asian Tigers. The crimes of Stalin brought no economic advantage. 2. Even before 1917, the Russian economy had taken off on a trajectory of modern economic growth that would have achieved a west European standard of living by the 1980s had the Bolshevik revolution not derailed the process (Gregory 1994; Mironov 2000). Whatever the apparent success of Soviet communism, it did less well than Russian capitalism might have done. 3. The increased output achieved under the Communists was limited to steel, machinery, and military equipment. Consumption was driven down in the 1930s to free resources for investment and armaments, and living standards grew at an abnormally low rate throughout the communist period. This is the expected result of an economy run by dictators whose aim was personal aggrandizement and world power rather than the welfare of the working class-a group whose interests would have been better served by a continuation of capitalism (Tucker 1977; Bergson 1961; Chapman 1963). 4. The collectivization of agriculture in the 1930s is a particularly vicious example of these tendencies. Herding the peasants into collectives, deporting the best farmers, and terrorizing the countryside did allow the regime to squeeze resources for investment out of agriculture, but the result was mass starvation and ruined farms (Nove and Morrison 1982; Conquest 1986; Fitzpatrick 1994; Viola 1996). 5. Soviet socialism was economically irrational because it was driven by ideology, bureaucratic infighting, and despotic caprice. Ignoring prices led to massive misallocation of resources that depressed performance, judging enterprises by output instead of profits meant bloated payrolls and excessive costs, allowing planners instead of consumers to direct the economy unnaturally tilted the balance of production from consumption to investment and the military (Kornai 1992; Hunter and Szyrmer 1992; Malia 1994). 6. The growth slowdown after 1970 showed the ultimate weakness of socialism: while it could function in a mediocre way to build the smokestack industries of the first industrial revolution, it was incapable of the sustained technological advance required for the postindustrial age. Therefore, the system collapsed (Berliner 1976; Goldman 1983; Kornai 1992).

These claims make a formidable indictment, but all of them are contestable. (1) Some commentators have noted that Soviet growth was exceptionally rapid (Nove 1990, p. 387; Gregory and Stuart 1986, p. 422). (2) Leading historians of Russia have been pessimistic about the growth prospects of the empire of the tsars (Gerschenkron 1965; Owen 1995). (3) Most commentators accept that consumption grew rapidly in the Soviet Union after World War II (Gregory and Stuart 1986, pp. 347-50), and published evidence already points to consumption growth between 1928 and 1940 (Hunter and Szyrmer 1992; Wheatcroft 1999; Nove 1990, p. 242), although the case is rarely made. (4) While collectivization has few defenders, not all commentators have dismissed Soviet agriculture as hopelessly inefficient (Johnson and Brooks 1983), and there is a powerful argument that it accelerated industrialization (Nove 1962). (5) Soviet policies had a coherence that is often overlooked (Erhlich 1960). (6) The growth slowdown in the 1970s and 1980s had many possible causes, some of which imply deep-seated failures of Soviet institutions (perhaps the incentives to adopt new technologies is an example), while others (like the diversion of research and development personnel to the military) are incidental. Although the usual judgment on the Soviet economy is negative, these divergent views show that the question is still a live one.

These issues define the agenda for this book. To explore them, the argument is developed along three axes. The first is careful reconstruction of the quantitative dimensions of Soviet growth. Here my work builds on that of the early pioneers of Soviet economic and demographic statistics-Lorrimer (1946), Bergson (1961), Chapman (1963), Hunter and Szyrmer (1992), Karcz (1957, 1967, 1979), Kaplan (1969), Moorsteen and Powell (1966), Nutter (1962), and their associates and students like Gregory (1982)-although my conclusions differ in important respects from theirs, most notably with regard to consumption.

The second axis is international comparisons. These are the only way to see Soviet performance in perspective. The Bolsheviks measured the USSR against the United States, and during the Cold War the Americans did the same. I compare the Soviet Union to the advanced, capitalist countries, too, but I emphasize comparisons with less developed countries as well. In many respects, the Soviet Union in the 1920s had more in common with Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America than it did with Germany or the United States. These similarities underlay the attraction of the Soviet development model to leaders of Third World countries in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s: if the USSR could transform itself from an agrarian backwater into a superpower, maybe their country could do the same. Indeed, when compared to poor, Third World countries, Soviet performance was extremely good even taking account of the post-1970 growth slowdown. This record prompts one to look for policies and institutions that worked well rather than the usual cataloguing of reasons why the system was bound to fail. It also raises the question of whether there are positive lessons to learn from the Soviet experience.

The third axis is "what if?" (counterfactual) questions. These have always been central to an assessment of Soviet institutions and policies. The forced collectivization of agriculture is a case in point. It was not preordained: agrarian policy was heatedly debated in the 1920s. We can, therefore, ask how Soviet development would have differed had agriculture not been collectivized. This is Nove's (1962) famous question: "Was Stalin Really Necessary?" An even harder question is how successful Russia would have been had the 1917 revolution never happened. As unhistorical-and difficult-as these questions may be, it is only by engaging them that we can establish the historical import of momentous decisions like collectivization. This book uses economic and computer models to simulate counterfactual development in a way that is as systematic as possible.

The study of counterfactuals is also important for the light it throws on the "Soviet development model." What institutions worked and which failed? Could the model have been modified to make it more attractive and to raise living standards more rapidly? Should the negative assessment of Soviet performance be accepted without qualification, or were there aspects of economic organization that might be salvaged for the future? Questions like these require counterfactual investigation, and that is another reason it is pursued here.


What was typical and what was unique in Soviet economic development? How well did the USSR perform compared to other countries in the twentieth century? The simplest indicator is gross domestic product (GDP) per head. Angus Maddison (1995) has pushed the data for the fifty-six largest economies back to 1820. These estimates establish four important points about the evolution of the world economy since 1820 and Russia's place in it.

First, the dominant tendency has been income divergence; that is, the countries that were rich in 1820 grew faster than the countries that were poor (Pritchett 1997). As a result, the gap between rich and poor countries has widened. Broadly speaking, there were two trajectories through the twentieth century: a country could become an advanced industrial economy or it could become an underdeveloped economy. A country's path depended, in large measure, on its starting point. Table 1.1 illustrates this pattern for broad groups of countries. In 1820, the rich countries were in western Europe (with an income of $1292), the "offshoots," that is, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand ($1205), the northern periphery of Ireland and Scandinavia ($1000), and the Mediterranean periphery of Spain, Greece, and Portugal ($1050). The rest of the world-including Russia-lagged behind with an income between $525 and $750. While there has been growth almost everywhere, the countries that were richest in 1820 grew fastest. Thus, in 1820, western Europe was two and a half times richer than South Asia; by 1989, the lead had grown to 15 times. Per capita GDP rose by a factor of 10 to 20 in the rich countries while the least successful regions-Latin America, South and Southeast Asia, and Black Africa-saw only a doubling or tripling of output per head. Divergence-not convergence-has been the dominant tendency since the industrial revolution.

Second, within the group of rich countries there has been some convergence of income as the peripheral and-it should be emphasized-small countries on the fringe of western Europe caught up with the core. Convergence has lately received much attention from economists who were initially hopeful that it characterized the whole world. The simplest explanation is that convergence represents the diffusion of the industrial revolution. This is also the most optimistic interpretation since modern industry, in principle, can spread anywhere. While technological diffusion undoubtedly played a role, it is also clear that the growth of GDP per capita in countries like Ireland and Sweden owed much to massive emigration (O'Rourke and Williamson 1999), which cut the denominator in income per head. It was the small size of these countries that allowed big fractions of their populations to move to the offshoots. This source of convergence could not operate on a world scale.

Third, the division between the rich countries and the poor countries has been exceptionally stable. Very few countries have switched groups. Japan is remarkable for outstripping the poor countries and joining the rich. Possibly, Taiwan and South Korea, Japan's former colonies, are doing the same thing. In contrast, the southern cone of Latin America-Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay-has gone the other way. In the late nineteenth century, they were as rich as the advanced countries of Europe and were closely integrated into the world economy. Subsequent growth has been slow, and they have fallen into the company of the poor countries. Otherwise, the divisions have been stable.

Fourth, the Soviet Union grew rapidly in comparison to the other countries of the world. This stands out for the 1928-70 period, when the planning system was working well and also obtains-less dramatically-when comparisons are made over the whole 1928-89 period.

Figure 1.1 shows the relevant facts. The vertical axis shows the growth rate (the factor by which GDP per head grew from 1928 to 1970), and the horizontal axis shows 1928 income. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) points lie to the right of the graph in view of their higher 1928 incomes. There is also a downward trend in the OECD points characteristic of income convergence (the poorer OECD countries in 1928 had a higher income growth factor). The trend line is the OECD "catch-up regression." The non-OECD points are clustered in the lower left of the graph. These countries had low incomes in 1928 and low growth rates to 1970, so they failed to catch up with the leaders.

The Soviet Union (with a 1928 income of $1370 and a growth factor of 4.1) was the non-OECD country that did the best in Figure 1.1. Its growth factor was also higher than that of all OECD countries except Japan. Soviet performance exceeded the OECD catch-up regression, which is a more stringent standard since its value is higher for poor countries than for rich. Figure 1.1 shows that the USSR performed exceptionally well over the 1928-70 period if it is classified as a less developed country and also outperforms the average OECD country even allowing for catch-up.

These conclusions hold, with some emendations, if the comparisons are extended to 1989, the year before the "reform" process began to cut GDP per head. The Soviet economy grew slowly in the 1970s and 1980s, so adding those years to the balance is unfavorable to the USSR. Nevertheless, the previous years of fast growth meant that the USSR's overall record from 1928 to 1989 was still better than that of all major non-OECD countries with the exception of Taiwan and South Korea-the leaders of the East Asian miracle.

The long-run record is reviewed regionally in Figures 1.2-1.5. Figure 1.2 compares Soviet income per head to that of the rich countries of the West. Russia started from a lower base and did not catch up, although the Soviet Union grew faster than the West after 1928 and cut the gap that had opened up at the start of the planning period.


Excerpted from Farm to Factory by Robert C. Allen Copyright © 2003 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Figures ix

List of Tables xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Chapter One

Soviet Development in World-Historical Perspective 1

Part One

The Economy before Stalin 19

Chapter Two

Economic Growth before 1917 21

Chapter Three

The Development Problem in the 1920s 47

Chapter Four

NEP Agriculture and Economic Development 65

Part Two

Stalin's Industrial Revolution 89

Chapter Five

Planning, Collectivization, and Rapid Growth 91

Chapter Six

The Population History of the USSR 111

Chapter Seven

The Standard of Living 132

Chapter Eight

The Causes of Rapid Industrialization 153

Chapter Nine

Preobrazhensky in Action 172

Part Three

After Stalin 187

Chapter Ten

The Soviet Climacteric 189

Appendix A

Soviet National Income 212

Appendix B

The Simulation Model of the Soviet Economy 223

Appendix C

Data Sources 238

Appendix D

The Demographic Databases and Simulation Model Used in Chapter 6 249

Notes 253

Bibliography 271

Index 295

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