January 20, 2014

REVIEW by Andrew Taylor, The Best Sons of the Fatherland: Workers in the Vanguard of Soviet Collectivization by Lynne Viola

BOOK REVIEW by Andrew Taylor, The Best Sons of the Fatherland: Workers in the Vanguard of Soviet Collectivization by Lynne Viola

In November 1929 at its Central Committee plenum, the Communist Party of the USSR changed its line on agriculture, deciding to remarkably accelerate the revolution in agriculture by a decision to undertake a mandatory collectivization of agriculture. Stalin with the CPSU leadership initiated the process of collectivization, arguing that the intermittent grain crises caused by peasant withholding of grain could disastrously impede the pace of Soviet industrialization.

Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev represented the core of the CC adherents behind the left-shift in the party's line. N. Bukharin had also been, up to this point Stalin's ally, both having taken a centrist position supporting a gradualist approach to the revolutionary process. But from this point he dissented from the change in policy.

As Sovietologist historian J. Arch Getty writes:
"From 1921 to 1929, after winning a bitter and devastating civil war, the Bolsheviks retreated temporarily from their goals of nationalisation and collectivisation and allowed private land ownership and a free-market agriculture. In 1929 the position changed abruptly when the party leadership decided on a radically leftist scheme involving the ‘liquidation’ of private trade, rapid and state-planned industrialisation, and collectivisation of agriculture... At that time, Stalin gave his backing to radicals in the Party who saw the mixed economy of the Twenties as an unwarranted concession to capitalism. These leftists, for whom Stalin was spokesman and leader, argued that the free market in grain confronted the state with an unpredictable, inefficient and expensive food supply. The need to pay peasants the market price for grain and to subsidise food prices for their urban working-class supporters meant that there were few funds left for the Bolsheviks to use for capital investment and industrial expansion. These radical activists, who became the shock troops of the voluntarist ‘Stalin Revolution’ which swept the Soviet Union in the Thirties, were concentrated in working-class and youth groups. Enthusiastic, determined and inflexible urban agitators descended on the countryside to destroy capitalism and build socialism according to their lights." 

Collectivization was intended to introduce socialist relations into rural production and rural social patterns of life, revolutionizing the nature of the relationship between the rural and urban proletarian sectors of the Soviet economy. The entire capitalist grain market was to be replaced by social ownership.

The propagandists and instructors in this revolutionary process in the regions were sought out by the party from the most advanced socialists from the industrial working class. The Party very quickly began a process of advertising and recruiting worker-volunteers to conduct the political educational and structural implementation of collectivization in the countryside.

Of 70,000 volunteers, 27,000 plus were selected, and became known as “the 25,000ers”. In the main they were factory worker-activists, factory committee activists and union committee members. About 80 per cent of them were Communist party members, or in the party's youth organization. Over 50% were under 30 years of age; 8% were women. A strict vetting process was run to eliminate workers from wealthier farmer backgrounds, as well as drunkards, ‘bad characters’, and those with connections to party opposition factions.

After a brief, intense training the 25,000'ers were sent out from communist party support rallies to the rural areas in order to establish the organized collectivization of agriculture. They were of the most class-conscious layers of the urban industrial working class prepared to assume tasks as chairs of collective farms and administrators.

Soviet archival records reveal that the old rural officialdom, established in their roles, very often resented the urban volunteers' entry onto their turf, denigrated them, and frequently handed them shovels and pointed to the manure mound. The peasantry was to say the very least ambivalent from the start in their approach to the centre’s exacting grain requisitions, and was often hostile to the urban Party volunteers and their outsider, urban, working class culture. The letters of peasants to relatives show that there was resentment against the valorization of the urban industrial working-class at the expense of the peasantry. We might at this point refer to the long history of Marxist conviction that urban proletarianism was a forward step in the creation of socialism.(“The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life..(Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto, Sec. 1: Bourgeois and Proletarians). But the Russian peasantry had the prior cautious position-statements of Stalin and the prior CPSU policy to back their objections. There had indeed been a shift in top party-policy from one of 'encouragment' of co-operatives to forced collectivation of farming. In organizing resistance to the post 1928 collectivization policy, the peasants circulated Stalin’s earlier speeches and essays as proof of the unfairness and novelty of the new line on Agriculture.

Lynne Viola notes that documents show the 25,000’ers general attitude towards the peasants was a distinct improvement on that of the average rural officials. But no influx of new organizers is accepted into a bureaucracy without incident, least of all those conducting propaganda for a total re-arrangement of rural life and property.  Nevertheless at the close of the collectivization  campaign in late 1931, fully 18,000 of the 25,000'er volunteers remained in the countryside and had retained leading positions in rural party and administrative structures.

Viola states that collectivization was intended "to be a revolution which would undermine the old order, modernize agriculture, institute a reliable method of grain collection, stimulate a cultural revolution, and build a new social and administrative base in the countryside". Today we know modernization was achieved at a staggering human and political cost to the soviet peasantry, but we also know in light of new research from the soviet archives (including letters from 25,000’ers in the countryside back home) the enthusiastic idealism of the 25,000'ers about their task for socialism cannot be gainsaid. Two social forces with little appreciation of the others' reality collided with tragic outcome.

According to Viola, agricultural collectivization, though at the start a proletarian policy of political education launched by Stalin through the 25,000’ers, became limited in its potential by ad hoc policy responses made in response to immediate crises and widespread peasant resistance. And it is her contention that collectivization came over time to be shaped less by Stalin and the party center than by the often less-than-disciplined or irresponsible activity of rural officials, the experimental methods of collective farm leaders left to manage as best they knew how, and the stark realities of a backward countryside and the wealthier and middle peasantry who did massive wrecking by destroying cattle, hoarding, and destruction of reserves.1

According to Viola, the Centre’s response changed following the first wave of the 25,000'ers service in the vanguard of the 'rural revolution'. In response to continued wrecking, strict repressive measures rather than class political action gave the lie to soviet “control” of agricultural policy.

And the policy of repression that grew with the resistance to collectivization, continued after the collectivization struggle had completed in distortions of Leninist norms and violations of socialist legality.

The author calls the 25,000'ers the cadres of the Stalin revolution, the advanced workers in the front lines of the Soviet revolution. The urban centres urgency about collectivization was fuelled by continued outbreaks of food shortages in the cities and viewed the “kulaks” or wealthier peasants as the primary hindrance to socialist construction. The party's aim of rapid industrialization of the socialist state was only possible with a reliable increased access to grain etc.

However, as is notorious, collectivization became a class-war against the wealthier and middle peasantry. The wealthier peasants fought back. Shortages and dislocations caused famine. And as we know, severe famine led to terrible famine in areas of the Ukraine, the northern Caucasus, and the lower Volga River area in 1932-1933. Millions are believed to have perished, though estimates vary considerably. Hundreds of thousands who were charged as "kulaks" hoarding and destruction of the Grain requisitions and farm animals were abruptly exiled to labor camps or untilled lands in the North or east of the Urals.

Viola's closely documented study using original documents from the Soviet Archives illustrates the jury is still out on the precise conjunction of factors responsible for the famine. Some other prominent historian-agronomists do not concur in the claim made by many Ukrainian nationalists that the famine was an "act of genocide" and question the whole thesis of a collective persecution of the Ukrainian nation. Professor of History at the University of West Virginia , Mike Tauger and Professor of History at the University of Melbourne, Steven Wheatcroft, argue that the famine was not a result of a deliberate policy against the Ukrainians, and they bring out agricultural and political documentation to illustrate their contention that the widespread 1932 starvation in Ukraine and western Russian areas was due to a lack of control over the dynamics of collectivization by the central leadership, misguided or misapplied economic policies during collectivization, to severe drought conditions, and to a harvest that turned out to be much smaller than originally anticipated.

This is on one level an academic debate among experts on soviet agricultural and national history. But it is at the same time an impassioned often extremely politicized contended space with an ongoing vigorous global campaign by Ukrainian nationalists, anti-communists, revisionist communists and the crisis-ridden “orange revolution” government of Ukraine (which is pressing a charge of genocide at the UN as one front of its ongoing struggle with Moscow). The head of the Russian State Archive, Vladimir Kozlov, rejects claims of genocide in 1930’s Ukraine. Kozlov claims not a single document exists in the archival materials that would even indirectly suggest that a strategy was adopted against Ukrainians that was different from other regions, never mind a strategy aimed at genocide.

Viola affirms the 25,000ers as enthusiastic idealist workers fighters for Socialism, the most resolute of their generation of socialist cadre. But their zeal and the zeal of the party-central could not foresee the depth of traditional community rebellion against forced cdollectivization. She shows that early in the collectivization campaign the Soviet state mobilized working-class activist support for collectivization and also shows from Soviet Archive documentation that the 25,000ers went into the countryside as enthusiastic recruits 2. Her unique social history uses an "on the scene" approach from letters and documents of cadre to offer a new understanding of the process of the USSR agricultural revolution under Stalin.

I suggest to  readers interested in further reading of archival-sourced history that they read RW Davies and SG Wheatcroft's book The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-33 (NY: Macmillan, 2004) esp p 214; RW Davies, (1980). The Socialist Offensive: The Collectivisation of Soviet Agriculture, 1929-1930. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Also see Mark B Tauger's article: "The 1932 Harvest and the Famine of 1933", Slavic Review, 50:1 (1991) esp p 89; and see Terry Martin's The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union 1923-1939 (Cornell U Press: 2001) esp 273-308

NOTE: None of these scholars are ‘Stalinists’. They are social scientists and historians of Soviet agriculture who do not however support the notion of a conscious conspiracy by Stalin and the CPSU of 1929-31 to create a "Ukrainian Holocaust". Their careful research shows there are intermediate positions.


1. From 1929 to 1933 the number of cattle fell from 70.5 to 38.4 million, pigs from 26 to 12.1 million, horses from 34 to 16.6 million, and sheep and goats from 146.7 to 50.2 million.

2.Such an upsurge [pod" em] which we now observe is characteristic only

of large revolutionary overturns. This is not an ordinary upsurge, but a

revolutionary upsurge, especially the upsurge among workers. All

questions of workers' daily life [byt], all questions with which the trade

unions are concerned in relation to wages, etc. are now subsumed by the

question of collectivization. All problems in workers' provisioning, all

questions about inefficiencies, food shortages, high prices, etc., are

subsumed by collectivization. All the attention of the working class is

centered on collectivization. It [the working class] instinctively feels that

the key to all these problems is collectivization and that the sooner this

issue is resolved, the sooner all the remaining problems will be resolved

. . . We presently have a real revolutionary movement in the working

class for collectivization: a real revolutionary socialist campaign to the

countryside for collectivization when workers gladly decline a high

salary and go to the countryside. There are masses of cases of the best

skilled workers refusing high salaries and going to the countryside.

A. A. ANDREEV, speech at the Third Plenum of the North

Caucasus Regional Party Committee, 13 January 1930


Chapters of Viola text are as follows:

The Best Sons of the Fatherland: Workers in the Vanguard of Soviet Collectivization
by Lynne Viola; Oxford University Press, 1987. 292 pgs.
1: Workers to the Countryside: from Revolution to Revolution

2: The Recruitment of the 25,000ers

3: Setting the Campaign in Motion

4: The Drive to Collectivize Soviet Agriculture: Winter 1930

5: The 25,000ers and the Cadres of Collectivization: The Offensive on Rural Officialdom

6: The 25,000ers at Work on the Collective Farms

7: The Denouement of the Campaign
A Note on Sources

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