November 2011        

Out of the dark and into the light

How the October Revolution brought the countries of the USSR into modernity in a historically short period through heroic advances in industry

There is a reason why I am covering historical ground in this article—not that we don’t have enough economic and social problems to contend with in Ireland today, but it is my opinion that the socialist construction that took place in the USSR in the twentieth century needs not only to be defended but advanced in the labour and left movements.
     In this era that we live in, when labour is on its knees and the international communist movement has been weakened, at such a critical juncture we need to respond and challenge not only the ideologues of the imperialist and capitalist forces but also those who label themselves as socialist, the revisionists and the opportunists who don’t recognise the achievements of the first attempts at socialist construction in history.
     My goal in this article is simply to relay some basic facts about Soviet industry in the fields of power (electrification), metallurgy, fuel, and engineering, which had a profound positive effect on the livelihood of the citizens of the socialist systems. These types of industries are the classical “hard” industries. I am focusing on them because (a) they formed the basis for socialist construction, (b) without the revenue and the products of these industries the advancement and expansion of “light” industries would never have materialised on a mass scale, and (c) space does not allow me to go beyond this field.
     For those who still question the intent, nature and advancement of socialist construction in the USSR, let me bend your ear on this fact. Remembering that the newly formed state was blacklisted by the industrialised countries in regard to investment finance, “the Soviet people had to build the country’s heavy industry entirely with their own resources . . . All the profits of state-owned factories and mills, transport, banks, state internal trade and foreign trade remained in the hands of the state and could be used for the development of socialist industry.”
     In other words, the means of production were now publicly owned, and it was in the people’s interest to continually and heavily invest, build and expand in all industrial areas, which is what they did. The table below illustrates this fact, and the figures also show that industries were becoming much more efficient and less labour-intensive and therefore needed a more technically skilled labour force.

Data comparison from 1922 to 1974

Electric power output (billion kWh)0.848.691.2292.3850975.8
Output of steel (million tons)0.318.327.365.3116136
Output of pig iron (million tons)n.a.14.919.246.885.999.9
Output of iron ore (million tons)n.a.29.939.7106195.5225
Oil extraction (million tons)4.731.137.9148353459
Gas output (billion cu.m)
Coal production (million tons)11.3166261510624685
Production of metal-cutting lathes30058,40070,600156,000202,200224,000
Forging and pressing machinesn.a.4,7007,70029,90041,30048,900
Production of motor cars840

     We can also look at the fact that “the proportion of individual peasants and non-co-operated handicraftsmen, who amounted to 75.4% of the population in 1924, had dropped to 0.3% by the end of the 1950s . . . Since 1970, they have ceased to be statistically significant” (Golikov).
     One cannot over-emphasise the qualitative difference this would have made for those who previously lived as peasants and in constant poverty. Electricity, lighting, running water, hot water, solid housing, social care, free health care, free education, guaranteed jobs—all these were made universal. These and many more progressive schemes were the result of the construction of heavy industries, continuing into light industries, that characterised socialist economic planning.
     It is important that in all the anti-communist and anti-Soviet propaganda from those on the right and the left, we must take account of these empirical statistics, which demonstrate just how effectively a planned economy functions, and without doubt it greatly enhanced the lives of the greatest number of people living in the Soviet Union.
     The idea of electrification contained in Lenin’s GOELRO (1920) was the beginning of what became the Soviets’ five-year plans for economic development, the first one being that of 1928–1933, which brought electricity and light to every corner of the Soviet Union.
     Electrification was the basis of all industry; and, as we can see from the figures, power capacity went up in unison with the expanding productivity levels. In terms of economic growth it is observed that “in 1940 the GNP of the Soviet Union was 410% higher than in 1913, the national income 430%, industrial output 670% and gross agricultural output 40% . . . In 1974, the Soviet GNP was more than 10 times that of 1940, the national income 10.9, industrial output 15.8 and gross agricultural output 2.4 times higher.”
     The figures I have included here go up to the ninth five-year plan, because of the source I am citing. But, contrary to the idea of stagnation in the Soviet economy, industrial growth in the Soviet Union after this period continued, but at lower levels. It wasn’t until Gorbachev’s reign that the wheels of this historical juggernaut were stripped. In Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny’s book Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, one of their main conclusions was that it wasn’t the socialist system of a planned economy that failed: on the contrary, we have noted how successful it had been. It was in those final years of Gorbachev, with the seeds planted in Khrushchev’s tenure, that the planned economic structures of the Soviet Union, its publicly owned industries and the political structures of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were dismantled piecemeal, dismembered, and ultimately helped lead to the collapse of the first attempt at building a socialist state.
     I have defended the achievements of Soviet industry here because the ideas and implementation of Marxist-Leninist theory can withstand the assaults and falsifications conjured up by right and left-wing theorists and their stooges. Conversely, this is not to endorse an idealist impression of the USSR. Mistakes were made aplenty, and these, just as importantly, need to be examined and learnt from. What is important, though, is that we here in Ireland can have faith in another way to organise our industrial forces, one that seeks to strip the monopolists of their hegemony and price-setting power, so that the greatest number of citizens can reap the benefits of a planned economic system.
     In these most turbulent times it is imperative that we defend and advance the title of socialism and the attempts made to create a more equal and just society. Failure to do so most certainly will bring us from the light into the darkness.

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