Yevgeni Preobrazhensky: ABC and NEP

Submitted by Matthew on 15 May, 2013 - 7:24

Yevgeni Preobrazhensky (1886-1937), was a Bolshevik, economist, and one-time member of the Trotskyist Left Opposition against Stalin.

From 1904, Preobrazhensky sided with the Bolshevik faction in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, becoming a member of its Ural provincial bureau of the Party. During 1917, he was a delegate of the Chita Soviet in south-east Russia, and became a candidate member of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party.

In 1918, Preobrazhensky sided with Bukharin and the Left Communist faction against signing the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty with Germany. In 1919, the two men wrote The ABC of Communism. Immensely popular and the most widely-circulated pre-Stalinist exposition of Bolshevism, the book reflected the heady optimism of “war communism”.

After the Russian Civil War wrought economic collapse, the Bolsheviks were forced to reckon, practically and theoretically, with the problems of maintaining the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in an isolated, economically backward, and overwhelmingly peasant country. In the ensuing debates, Bukharin and Preobrazhensky found themselves occupying polar opposite positions.

Bukharin made a virtue out of limited market reforms of the New Economic Policy, and embraced the possibility of “socialism in one country”. Bukharin reasoned that if the middle and wealthy peasants could produce not only enough to feed the towns and themselves, but also a marketable surplus, it would be a source of tax revenue and would create domestic demand for the products of state-owned industry. He urged the peasantry to “enrich yourselves, accumulate, develop your economy.”

Though he withdrew this slogan, it revealed an inherent problem in his approach. An overly “sectoral” focus on the relationship between industry and agricultural failed to take account of the risk of accelerating social differentiation between the poor, middle, and wealthy peasants (kulaks). Wealthy peasants would accumulate at the expense of other clases, by paying low wages to agricultural workers, or through charging high prices for food and increased rent for land. This also threatened the Bolsheviks’ promises to the poorer peasants and agricultural labourers.

Preobrazhensky provided the most systematic alternative policy. In the NEP period, much focus was placed on recovering from the temporary destruction of the civil war. Preobrazhensky was more concerned with Russia’s underlying backwards, and with expanded industrialisation. He said resources for sustained industrialisation could not come from within the state industrial sector; during an initial period large sums of necessary capital would need to be transferred from other sources — from the peasant economy.
Preobrazhensky used the unfortunate metaphor “primitive socialist accumulation” to describe this initial phase. It was an allusion to Marx’s argument in Capital that the pre-history of capitalism was characterised by “so-called primitive accumulation”, the process by which the peasantry was forcibly dispossessed through enclosure and colonial exploitation.

In The New Economics (1924), Preobrazhensky did not advocate coercion against the peasantry, but insisted on the “exploitation” of the peasantry, in the technical Marxist sense of extracting surplus value. The state should use its monopoly over foreign trade and its position as the major supplier of industrial goods to pump surpluses out of the peasant economy by means of “nonequivalent exchange” in market relations between the two sectors. His emphasis on the need for a more rapid pace of industrialisation was vindicated by the growing realisation that the key bottleneck was not an under-consuming peasantry but a “good’s famine”, in which the state industrial sector struggled to meet consumer demand.

This analysis, and the Opposition’s warnings against the “Right danger” inherent in Bukharin’s programme, was borne out by events. On 15 February, Pravda was forced to admit that “the village has expanded and enriched itself...[The kulak] has established an alliance with the city speculator who pays higher prices for grain.” It was the lack of industrial products which “permits the peasants in general and the kulak in particular to horde grain.”

The Opposition understood the factional battle in the Soviet Union as one between the “Left”, representing the interests of the working class, and the “Right”, channeling the interests of the new proprietors — kulaks and NEPmen (private traders and merchants). The “Centre”, represented by Stalin, vacillated between the two poles.

In understanding Stalinism, Trotsky made an analogy with the Keresnky period in 1917, which lay between the March Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power in November. He wrote that: “Upon [Stalinism’s] back the power is gliding over from the proletariat to the bourgeoisie; in general the post-Lenin leadership is unwinding the October film in a reverse direction. And the Stalin period is this same Kerensky period moving toward the Right.”

The perspective of a weak, vacillating, Stalinist faction in the apparatus, paving the way to the “Thermidorian” restoration of capitalism by the “Right” elements within and outside the party, culminating finally in “Bonapartist” capitalist rule, was shattered by events. The Stalinists embarked on a superficially “left” turn of forced collectivisation and breakneck industrialisation.

It is often argued that Stalin’s Five Year Plan Was the implementation of the “Trotskyist” programme of industrialisation. However, the Left Opposition never argued for the “extra-economic” coercion, violent requisitions, and arbitrary targets of the Five Year Plan. The proper social regulation of economic life, they argued, required soviet democracy, rather than arbitrary bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, as Max Shachtman wrote, Trotsky’s prediction that the Stalinist “left” turn would quickly give way to a “right-wing” appeasement of capitalist elements, “was wrong a misleading. The bureaucracy struck out on a road of its own, neither back to capitalism nor forward to socialism... it proved to be the inauguration of an organic course towards the independent development of the bureaucracy as a new ruling class.”

Exiled, isolated and demoralised, the ranks of the Left Opposition began to drift apart. After Trotsky’s deportation to Turkey in February 1929, the Opposition’s internal divisions widened. Preobrazhensky and Radek, concerned at the social crisis engulfing the country, sought a return to the ranks of the party. They believed that Stalin was implementing some of the Opposition’s ideas, albeit through repugnant means.

In April 1929, Preobrazhensky published an appeal “To All Comrades-in-Opposition!” arguing that the Opposition had done its duty to the party by opposing the Central Committee’s course up until then but should now return to the fold.

In May, he was allowed to return to Moscow. The following month he was joined by Smilga and Radek, and in July the three men announced their “ideological and organisational break with Trotskyism.”

Stalin then crushed all opposition to the rule of the bureaucracy. In early 1933, after a new wave of expulsions from the party, Preobrazhensky, Smirov and “many other capitulators were once again expelled and imprisoned; they were persecuted even more cruelly than the Oppositionists who had never surrendered.”
On 20 December 1936, Preobrazhensky was arrested again. He refused to confess and on 13 July 1937 was sentenced to death and shot. He was rehabilitated in 1988 by Mikhail Gorbachev’s government.

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