Initial reading about the USSR

Some ideas on relatively short and accessible books to read on the USSR besides Revolution Betrayed.

“The Struggle for the New Course” by Max Shachtman gives a good short history up to 1943
(Difficult to get in print form)

Steve Smith’s “The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction” was recommended by Paul

Alec Nove’s “An Economic History of the USSR, 1917-1991” for latest edition, but there are lots of other editions, and older editions can be got secondhand cheap. It’s much less critical of Stalin than we would be, but it’s well written and informative.

Donald Filtzer (1986) “Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization: The formation of modern Soviet production relations, 1928-1941”
Good, and quite easy to read, but quite long.

A novel: Anatolii Rybakov, “Children of the Arbat”,, gives a vivid picture of life in mid-1930s Moscow. It’s very expensive on Amazon, but available quite cheap at

Comparing USSR economic growth

Thanks to Paul Hampton for the figures below.

Two other comparisons.

In 1913 Italy was 72% ahead of what would become the USSR in GDP per capita (Italy’s big industry was not more developed, nor its agriculture, but it was more urbanised and had more small industry), and Japan’s was 7% behind.

In 1950 Italy was 24% ahead, and Japan was 32% behind. Japan had grown slowly up to 1929, but between 1930 and 1939 its GDP per head rose 52%, or 4.8% per year. The USSR’s, from the graph below, rose about 61%, or 5.4% per year.

By 1973 Italy was 73% ahead, and Japan was 88% ahead.

(All figures from Maddison, The World Economy)

As early as 1942, Raya Dunayevskaya pointed out that if USSR heavy industry had indeed increased by 1937 to 238% of the 1932 figure, in Japan it had increased by 1940 to 254% of the 1932-3 figure (despite Japan being much poorer in raw materials than Russia) –

In Rosa Luxemburg’s Introduction to Political Economy, before World War 1, she already saw Russian capitalist development as unstoppably dynamic.

“Russia, as soon as it casts off the fetters of an obsolete form of state [i.e. Tsarism]… will… appear… alongside Germany, England, and the United States as a powerful industrial country, if it does not indeed overshadow them”.

Trotsky’s “alternative policies”; inflation and the gold standard; “Children of the Arbat”

Zack has written with three questions: here they are, with responses from Martin.

1. In Economic growth and the zigzags of the leadership, I wasn’t sure about DP 2 (I wasn’t able to make that session). “Trotsky is critical of all three phases. What alternative does he propose?”

It wasn’t clear to me that he proposed one alternative policy for the whole period. You could I guess argue that in his later writing he might be critical of all of them in terms of the class (or similar) interests they are serving, and in not being adequately democratic.

Response: In the 1920s, I think Trotsky had a fairly consistent response:

• Planned, organised, higher-speed industrialisation, financed by a greater squeeze on the kulak, but enabling support to be rebuilt in the countryside because the cities would have more, better, and cheaper manufactured goods to exchange for agricultural produce.

• The planning to be done by manipulation of the state budget and credit allocation, on the basis of a stable (gold-linked) currency, rather than administrative production targets and an attempt to set prices administratively.

• A revival of working-class democracy, also enabled by the factories working better and more and unemployment being reduced. (From after the end of the civil war, all the Bolsheviks saw the mass of the countryside as fed up and resentful, and ready to support any Thermidor or substantial-looking move against the regime which could differentiate itself even a little from the old landlords. Bukharin wanted to placate the countryside by letting the kulaks “enrich themselves”, the Left Opposition by different methods, as above. But all saw the regime as holding on precariously, so that easing off restrictions on democracy had to be done cautiously).

• None of the above, for Trotsky, could resolve the dilemmas. It could only buy time. The survival and flowering-again of the workers’ state depended on revolutions winning elsewhere, in more advanced countries.

With the third “phase”, the turn to forced-march industrialisation and collectivisation, Trotsky did at first continue to counterpose his consistent policy. Over the years, though, he shifted from presenting the regime’s policy as mistaken (i.e. a mistaken route towards more or less shared aims), and towards seeing it as shaped by alien interests (whatever mistakes it included, in terms of its aims, being secondary to the fact that the aims were alien). I think that shift is not complete even as late as Revolution Betrayed</em>.


But would he/was he arguing for something like a quicker end to war communism, with then a combination of some economic liberalisation (analogous to the NEP) and policies towards rapid industrialisation, maybe with some collectivisation?

My response: Yes, basically. No-one much dissented from war communism from late 1918 and in 1919, if only because whatever its problems it seemed the only expedient to avoid being crushed in the civil war. In February 1920 Trotsky started to argue for a move away from war communism towards NEP-type policies. At first he got no support, and dropped the argument for a while. Then he supported Lenin when Lenin proposed the same move in early 1921, and by that time everyone could see that war communism was fomenting peasant revolt and had to be replaced.

Zack: 2. In the chapter on “The struggle for the productivity of labour”, I had a question. I don’t think I was able to attend the meeting itself, but in any case I still have a question on gold standard and inflation. If I recall correctly, my question was about two distinct but related desiderata for a currency and monetary policy under a workers’ state, as I felt was implied within the chapter.

On the one hand, it seems desirable, as Trotsky argues, for economic policies to be such that there is little or no inflation. If my understanding of borgeois economics is correct, that generally involves aiming for a positive but low and consistent inflation rate, such that the currency is stable and predictable, but that inflation in itself encourages circulation? And that seems not unreasonable, likewise, for a workers’ government or workers’ state’s policy.

On the other hand, or additionally, Trotsky seems to argue for a currency which is independent of the state, i.e. as he advocates, a gold standard. In today’s economy (to my understanding) we don’t have a gold standard, and haven’t for some time. I can’t see why we would advocate a workers’ government implementing a gold standard; the modern equivalent would be some kind of “cryptocurrency” (some advocates of bitcoin style cryptocurrencies even see them as based on a labour theory of value type logic, I believe). Of course, in moves towards a decentralised, stateless society, an independent currency would become increasingly useful…

While the two things seem related, is, or should Trotsky be arguing for the latter – independence of the currency – as well as or independently from the former – no inflation?

My response: The idea of aiming for a positive but low inflation rate is a surprisingly recent move in bourgeois economic thinking. Before that, the established wisdom was that price stability was desirable, meaning an approximation to a constant price index. (You can see that, for example, in the summary of official US thinking, The Business Cycle in a Changing World, by Arthur F Burns, in 1969). In practice, though, well before 1969 both capitalist and Stalinist administrators had settled for a modest positive inflation rate as at least a good-enough substitute for price stability.

To control inflation, a government needs either an external peg for the currency (in the era when Trotsky was writing, primarily gold) or sufficient economic and financial clout (diversified foreign-exchange reserves, capacity to produce a wide range of goods and services internally) that its IOUs will be taken as reasonably stable against a wide range of products. The USSR didn’t have that.

Zack: 3. You recommended a novel in one session, which I thought sounded good, but I didn’t catch the name. Possibly in the family/youth/culture; possibly about bureaucratism — I don’t remember. Do you remember?

My response: That would have been Children of the Arbat, a novel written in the 1960s, published in 1987, but set just before the Kirov assassination in 1934. It depicts young people responding in different ways to the Stalin regime – genuinely pro-regime, cynically careerist, “just scraping by”, privately rebellious but publicly careful.

Marx on the definition of social regimes (and Trotsky and Shachtman)

“The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers — a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity — which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state. This does not prevent the same economic basis — the same from the standpoint of its main conditions — due to innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical influences, etc. from showing infinite variations and gradations in appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances”.

More from Trotsky and Shachtman

That part of the product which goes to cover the worker’s own subsistence Marx calls necessary-product; that part which the worker produces above this, is surplus-product. Surplus-product must have been produced by the slave, or the slave-owner would not have kept any slaves. Surplus-product must have been produced by the serf, or serfdom would have been of no use to the landed gentry. Surplus-product, only to a considerably greater extent, is likewise produced by the wage worker, or the capitalist would have no need to buy labour power. The class struggle is nothing else than the struggle for surplus-product. He who owns surplus-product is master of the situation – owns wealth, owns the state, has the key to the church, to the courts, to the sciences and to the arts.

Trotsky (18 April 1939) The Living Thoughts of Karl Marx (Otto Rühle). 1939: 9

Trotsky (18 April 1939) Marxism in the United States. Workers Party. 1947: 13


The kulak, jointly with the petty industrialist, worked for the complete restoration of capitalism. Thus opened the irreconcilable struggle over the surplus product of national labour. Who will dispose of it in the nearest future – the new bourgeoisie or the Soviet bureaucracy? – that became the next issue. He who disposes of the surplus product has the power of the state at his disposal. It was this that opened the struggle between the petty-bourgeoisie, which had helped the bureaucracy to crush the resistance of the labouring masses and of their spokesman the Left Opposition, and the Thermidorian bureaucracy itself, which had helped the petty-bourgeoisie to lord it over the agrarian masses. It was a direct struggle for power and for income.

Trotsky (1940) Stalin. 1946: 397; 2016: 563

The privileges of the Soviet bureaucracy have a different source of origin. The bureaucracy acquires for itself that part of the national income either by force or of its management and direct control over economic relations. In regard to the [struggle over the] national surplus product the bureaucracy and the petty bourgeoisie quickly changed from an alliance to direct enemies. The control of the surplus product opened the bureaucracy’s road to power.

Trotsky (1940) Stalin. 1946: 410; 2016: 594-95


We say the Stalinist bureaucracy is a new ruling class because it is the “owner of the conditions of production.” Despite similarities in certain aspects with other class societies (the capitalist, for example), it differs basically from all of them in its own unique mode of production, in the “specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labor is pumped out of the direct producers,” in the distribution of the means of production and of the products of economy. As a result of unforeseen historical circumstances, it arose out of “the needs of production”; it did develop the productive forces in a way that no other class could under the given conditions.

Max Shachtman (October 1944) An Epigone of Trotsky – II Ignorance as a Substitute for Marxism, The New International, Vol. X No. 10, October 1944: 324

Real wages in the USSR in the 1930s

Donald Filtzer (1986) Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization. The formation of modern Soviet production relations, 1928-1941. (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.) tells us:

Living standards fell sharply, so that by 1940 the real wage of the average urban worker was just over half the 1928 figure.

Filtzer, Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization. 1986: 7

Western estimates of the fall in the standard of living vary slightly, but all show a catastrophic decline between 1928 and 1932. Solomon Schwarz and Naum Jasny calculate real wages in 1932 at about 50 per cent of their 1928 level. Eugene Zaleski puts the figure lower, at 43 per cent. Yet such quantitative estimates fail to convey the real extent of the destitution. In theory collectivization was supposed to have provided for a substantial rise in real wages, not simply through an improvement in the supply of goods, but through the rationalization of their distribution through the state and co-operative supply system, which by eliminating the private trader and middleperson would in principle provide goods more cheaply… By 1930 candid references to the fall in real wages were no longer permitted and the official line was one of unbounded prosperity.

Filtzer, Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization. 1986: 91

Barber, John, ‘The Composition of the Soviet Working Class, 1928-1941’, unpublished discussion paper, Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Birmingham, 1978.

Barber, John, ‘The Standard of Living of Soviet Industrial Workers, 1928-1941’, unpublished discussion paper, Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Birmingham, December 1980.

Schwarz, Solomon, Labor in the Soviet Union, New York, 1952.

Jasny, Naum, The Soviet 1956 Statistical Handbook: A Commentary, East Lansing, Michigan, 1957.

Zaleski, Eugene, Stalinist Planning for Economic Growth, 1933-1952, London, 1980.

Beginning in 1934 the supply situation began rapidly to improve, although real wages never came near to recovering their levels of 1928 and living standards began once more to decline under the pressure of the military build-up at the end of the decade. In December 1934 bread, flour, and groats were derationed, and rationing was abolished in toto in September 1935.

Filtzer, Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization. 1986: 94

By 1937 real wages had recovered to about 60 per cent of their level in 1928. For the urban population per capita purchases of goods and services were only 6 per cent lower than in 1928, since families now had more members working and fewer dependents to support. In December 1934 the regime decreed a partial decontrol of rationing, and abolished rationing altogether in September 1935. For the mass of the population the situation nevertheless remained difficult, as accounts in Socialist Herald describe.

Filtzer, Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization. 1986: 125

With the economic slowdown came a renewed fall in the standard of living. After modest rises in 1938 and 1939, real wages fell by about 18 per cent between 1939 and 1940 – no small drop when we consider that despite the improvements since 1933, real wages in 1937-9 were still only about 60 per cent of what they were in 1928. Although 1940 was not as desperate as the bleak famine years of 1932 and 1933, there was clearly a downward pressure on workers’ consumption.

Filtzer, Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization. 1986: 127

Forced industrialization and collectivization had brought with them a drastic fall in real wages and the overall standard of living.

Filtzer, Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization. 1986: 208

Taking the workforce as a whole the unplanned-for growth of money wages could in no way compensate for the fall in real wages caused by inflation and scarcity. But for each individual worker the ability to obtain this or that supplement to her or his basic wage became all important, especially when the overall disorganization of production led to massive and random stoppages that could severely eat into earnings. Here the actions of managers or foremen to deflate output quotas, award payments for fictitious work, or otherwise manipulate the conditions of payment in workers’ favour acted as a counteracting tendency to the general trend of speed-up and declining living standards. The result was partly to nullify the impact of official policy. More durably, however, managerial concessions over wages and norms became part of the basic fabric of worker-manager relations characteristic of the Soviet system.

Filtzer, Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization. 1986: 209

Filtzer also comments (p.290) on Chapman’s estimates (below).

Chapman gives two different measures of the fall in real wages between 1928 and 1937. One weights the cost-of-living index by the price structure of goods and services prevalent in 1928, the other weights the index by the price structure in 1937. The figures in the text are those calculated by using 1937 weights. Using the 1928-weighted index shows a fall in real wages of only 14 per cent and a rise in urban per capita purchases of nearly a third. The large disparity here arises from the fact that between 1928 and 1937 the prices of foodstuffs and basic consumer items, which made up the overwhelming share of the average household budget, had risen far faster than average prices on the general range of available goods and services. The 1937 weights reflect the disproportionate strain that the higher prices of essentials placed on real wages. Chapman (pp.34-43) considers the 1937 weights more accurate essentially for methodological reasons: price data for 1937 were more comprehensive and the consumer market had stabilized relative to the fluid situation of 1928, with its chronic shortages and multiple prices.

Real Wages in the Soviet Union, 1928-1952, by Janet Chapman – The Review of Economics and Statistics , May, 1954, Vol. 36, No. 2 (May, 1954), pp. 134-156 – There are more recent calculations by Robert C Allen which aim to paint a rosier picture, but not convincingly.

A pdf of Filtzer’s book is attached here:

The bureaucracy: a class, or not a class?

This article argues that the substantive question of whether the Stalinist bureaucracy crystallised into an exploiting class is often obscured by arguments about summary descriptive phrases for the whole system (“degenerated workers’ state”, “bureaucratic collectivism”, “state capitalism”). Widely varying substantive theories have been developed under each of the summary phrases.

Rakovsky on the Stalinist state

“From a proletarian state with bureaucratic deformations — as Lenin defined the political form of our State — we are passing to a bureaucratic state with proletarian communist survivals. Under our eyes has formed, and is continuing to form, a great class of governors with its own internal divisions, which grows by prudent co-option, direct or indirect (bureaucratic promotion, fictional elections). What unites this novel class is a form, also novel, of private property, that is, the possession of State power. ‘The bureaucracy possesses the State as its private property’, wrote Marx…”

That passage comes from the “Declaration of April 1930”, written from the internal exile into which all the Left Opposition leaders were sent at the start of 1928. The declaration was signed by Kossior, Muralov, and Kasparova as well as Rakovsky.

The passage above and the preceding paragraph are omitted (without comment) from the translation of that Declaration contained in the English-language volume of Rakovsky’s “Selected Writings on Opposition in the USSR 1923-30”, edited by Gus Fagan. There, the sources used are cited as the Russian-language Bulletin of the Opposition (published in exile by the Trotskyists) and Lutte de Classe (the French Trotskyist magazine at the time).

I have taken the passage above from Cahiers Léon Trotsky no.6, 1980, p.97 (see below). That journal cites its source as the version in Lutte de Classe but says it has “revised and corrected” the translation from a version of the declaration found in the Trotsky archives at Harvard University. It seems unlikely that Bulletin and Lutte de Classe omitted those paragraphs, since Leon Sedov (“N Markin”)m who managed the production of the Bulletin, drew special attention to the bit about the bureaucracy becoming a class in an article for the US Trotskyist paper The Militant of 1 December 1930

As Paul noted in our discussion, the passage above also appears (unsourced) in Boris Souvarine’s Stalin, translated in 1939 by C L R James from the French original of 1935.


From 1928-9, rationing was introduced on a large scale. The Stalinists even claimed that this meant an advance to socialist methods. From the mid-30s, however, rationing was phased out in favour of a policy of trying to extract more production by higher pay for selected workers.

From the Encyclopedia Britannica:
July 1932 saw the abrogation of Article 37 of the 1922 Labour Code, under which the transfer of a worker from one enterprise to another could be effected only with his consent. On Aug. 7, 1932, the death penalty was introduced for theft of state or collective property; this law was immediately applied on a large scale. From November 1932 a single day’s unauthorized absence from work became punishable by instant dismissal. Finally, on Dec. 27, 1932, came the reintroduction of the internal passport, denounced by Lenin as one of the worst stigmas of tsarist backwardness and despotism.

At the same time, pay and rations were linked to productivity. Preferential rations for “shock brigades” were introduced, and in 1932 the then very short food supplies were put under the direct control of the factory managers through the introduction of a kind of truck-system for allocation to workers on the basis of their performance. This culminated in the much publicized Stakhanovite movement. It was announced [in September 1935] that Aleksey Stakhanov, a miner, had devised a method for immensely increasing productivity. The method as stated was no more than a rationalization (in the Taylorian or Fordian sense) of the arrangements for clearing debris, keeping machines ready, and so on, and in fact it involved a large effort by a support team of de-emphasized assistants. A vast publicity campaign ensued, and Stakhanovites emerged everywhere. In fact, as more recent Soviet analyses have made clear, the whole thing was little more than a publicity gimmick. But it was linked with the policy of payment by piecework, intended to set the individual worker’s targets in industry higher than was normally possible, and was highly unpopular. This unpopularity could not be expressed in a normal fashion, but there were many press reports of sabotage of, or assaults on, Stakhanovites by “backward” workers.

Meanwhile, not only in the U.S.S.R. but in the communist movement the world over, “Stakhanovite” became the favourite word for a “shock worker” in any economic—or political—field. The new workers’ stratum, given much money and prestige, reflected the increasingly caste-oriented nature of Stalinist society, of which the bureaucracy-intelligentsia was the most notable feature…