Commentary Magazine


The Polish Miracle

It was a Sunday evening in the middle of last August. Two Warsaw journalists were plying me with excellent French brandy and even better Polish stories, in the Hotel Bristol where I had just returned from a lengthy and exhausting tour of the Polish countryside. “Have you heard our latest joke?” one of the journalists asked. “Ulbricht and Novotny have just proposed an extension of the Rapacki plan. The atom-free zone in Central Europe should be made meat-free as well.

“And let me beg you, if I may be serious for one moment,” the story-teller added, “not to embarrass us in anything you write about your trip, by odious comparisons between the food surpluses our free peasants are producing and the shortages created by Czech and German collectivization. Agriculture is one Polish success we don’t want to see advertised—particularly in Western newspapers.”

Early next morning, I flew on to East Berlin. I had arranged to write an article on the anniversary of the Wall, but at my first meeting with the German Communists, my hosts, who knew I had been studying Polish agriculture, brought along a farming expert who at once began to cross-examine me. When I said that no one could fail to notice the difference between the food surpluses in Poland and the food crisis in the German Democratic Republic, he suddenly lost his temper and shouted at me: “They won’t be allowed to carry on like that much longer. You saw for yourself how the kulak is coming back in Poland. They cannot be tolerated.”

These remarks give a hint of the crisis in the Communist world caused by the Polish Miracle. I use the word “Miracle” advisedly. When measured in terms of economic statistics, the revival of the Polish countryside which I witnessed last summer may not rank with the revival of West German capitalism under Erhard. But it is certainly a political miracle that Gomulka should have felt able to achieve this revival by a total abandonment of collectivization.

Indeed it is impossible to appreciate the significance of the Polish Miracle until we realize just how heretically Gomulka has behaved. Nothing is of more central importance in Communist dogma than the kolkhoz. And nothing has provided such a spectacular failure in Communist practice. In stating this, I do not mean to suggest that the kolkhoz belonged to the original Marxist-Leninist doctrine which inspired the Bolshevik revolutionaries. Marx himself had very little to say about either the methods or the institutions to be employed in transforming capitalism into socialism. Anyway he confidently assumed that the dictatorship of the proletariat would first be established, not in a backward country with a primitive peasant economy, but in a highly developed Western nation such as France or Germany where capitalism would already largely have fulfilled the tasks in the countryside which the Kremlin has been forced to allot to the kolkhoz—namely: (1) the elimination of small-scale peasant production; (2) the driving into the towns of most of the peasants; and (3) the transformation of agriculture into a highly mechanized industry, organized in large units and relying on organized wage-earners whose skills and conditions had been assimilated to those of industry.

The countryside Marx envisaged, in fact, when he thought about agriculture under socialism was not that of Russia in 1917 nor even of Poland in 1945, but of 20th-century North America and Britain where capitalism had already eliminated not merely the peasant economy but the peasant mentality as well, and where ultra-efficient farms constantly break new records in production per acre and production per worker, of crops for which there is no effective demand.

_____________

 

The revolution, however, took place not in an industrialized Western democracy but in Russia, with the result that agriculture suddenly became not only the biggest but also the most intractable problem that the revolutionaries faced. Lenin “solved” it by giving the land outright to the peasants and so buying their political support. But this “solution” has faced every Communist government since then with a painful dilemma. Unless they were prepared to accept an extremely slow evolution from peasant to industrial economy, the Communists had to find methods of modernizing agriculture more effective than those prevalent in Western Europe. For after Marx published Das Kapital, it became clear that the elimination of the peasantry by modern capitalism was being slowed down if not stopped altogether by the working of representative institutions. Parliaments selected by universal suffrage were dominated by a right-wing alliance of peasant parties and large land-owners, sufficiently powerful to extract from the state the protection of inefficient home agriculture against competition from cheap overseas foodstuffs.

Although they needed the support of the peasants in order to achieve power, the Communists were not prepared to protect them after the revolution, since they felt that such policies would fatally retard the rapid industrialization on which they had set their hearts. They assumed without question that in order to achieve “Socialism in one country,” the private landowner, whether a big landlord or a small peasant, must be eliminated; and both the manpower and the capital for rapid industrialization must be extracted from agriculture. The peasants must be compelled to deliver sufficient food to the towns to ensure a steadily improved standard of urban living, without themselves obtaining a fair return for their labor. Hence the need for an institution which, while purporting to protect and improve the independent peasants’ way of life, would in fact destroy their independence and impose urban priorities on the countryside.

Almost by accident, the institution adopted for this purpose was the kolkhoz or collective village. As long as Lenin was in control, no decision was reached to impose a standard pattern on Russian agriculture. Instead, a number of experiments in cooperation and socialized farming were launched. It was only during Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan that the kolkhoz became the chosen instrument of collectivization. But the very fact that it aroused such fierce opposition among the peasants and had to be imposed on them by force, elevated the kolkhoz into a dogma and made any criticism of it heresy of the gravest kind.

It was almost inevitable therefore that in 1945 the satellite governments of Eastern Europe, instead of developing their own national experiments in agrarian socialism, accepted the Russian kolkhoz as their model. Completely slavishly, they proceeded to repeat all the brutal miscalculations and mistakes of Soviet collectivization, deceiving their peasants with the promise that they should henceforward own their own land, and then bullying them into giving up their fields, their machinery, and finally their livestock to the kolkhoz established in each village by a handful of party agitators. By the early 1950′s, mass collectivization was well under way in every country in Eastern Europe—with the single exception of Yugoslavia, where a peasant revolt had been narrowly averted by Tito’s hasty disavowal of the kolkhoz, along with the rest of Stalinism. And in the Far East as well, the Russian pattern was being faithfully repeated by the Chinese Communists despite their peasant origin and their practical understanding of rural problems.

_____________

 

* * *

It is a great pity that so few Westerners have bothered to see for themselves how the kolkhoz works. Most travelers behind the Iron Curtain concentrate their attention on urban and industrial life, and are content to see the factories, crèches, schools, hospitals, and theaters which the Communists in all cases are anxious to show them. All these visitors see of agriculture, which is still by far the largest activity, and of the countryside where from 40 per cent to 70 per cent of the population still live, are a few carefully selected tourist beauty spots. Yet, as I have now proved for myself in no less than five countries—Russia, China, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and East Germany—a request to make a detailed study of life in the kolkhoz is enthusiastically welcomed. Elaborate arrangements are made to enable the visitor to travel extensively, to see everything on his list, and to talk at length with all kinds of people, from the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Agriculture to disgruntled peasants in the collectives.

Unfortunately, in Russia as well as in China—which I visited just when the communes were being established—I was traveling alone; and I could not check against the considered judgments of real professional farmers the amateur impressions of a socialist politician who has married into a farm, and who now spends his weekends trying to supervise it. In 1961 and 1962 I took care to make good this defect by suggesting to the Czechoslovak and Polish governments that I should bring a group of British agriculturists to see their countryside at harvest time. Both governments agreed and as a result I was able to make these two tours in the company of three members of the Labor party’s Agricultural Advisory Committee—all of them farmers on a scale that would cause them to be denounced in the Communist world not as mere kulaks but as landlords.

The division of labor on which we agreed was that I should listen to the official speeches, question the bureaucrats, and cross-examine our hosts on the collective farms, while my three farmer friends looked round for themselves and then put their supplementary questions based on what they had seen. Of course, traveling with Communist guides and talking through Communist interpreters, we were looking down on the peasant from the top floor of Communist society, and we could not expect to make much personal contact with him, even in Poland. But no Communist guide, however clever, can divert you from seeing whether crops are good, whether fields are clean, whether machinery is well looked after and livestock intelligently handled. And though we could not hope to discover what the peasants really were thinking, we could certainly see how they were living.

The one overwhelming impression I got from these tours was of the utterly mechanical way in which each of the non-Russian Communist governments had imposed the Stalinite pattern on its own countryside. Once one understands how a Russian state farm and a Russian kolkhoz works, one knows exactly what to expect in every other Communist country—even down to the smallest detail. What a contrast, I could not help feeling, with Israel—a tiny country but one that contains within it an astonishing variety of collectivist patterns. There is not only the difference between moshavim and kibbutzim but within each there are numbers of important variations in the form of cultivation and the methods of keeping livestock.

East of the Iron Curtain, this variety ceases and is replaced by set rules and standard practices, extending as I saw for myself even to such details as the number of cows per worker on a dairy farm. In 1958, I visited within a month, first a state farm on a kolkhoz in White Russia, and then a state farm on a people’s commune near Peking—each with a dairy herd. In both I asked the same questions about the labor force and received exactly the same answers. Although the size of the dairy herd and conditions varied enormously, there was always one full-time worker to 12 cows when they were milked by hand, and one to 16 cows when they were milked by machine. I should add perhaps that the Chinese are fond of neither butter nor milk, and there is therefore only a limited amount of dairy farming in China. But what there is of it seemed to conform precisely to the Russian pattern, just as the Chinese and Russian cowmen gave almost identical answers. And when I said that in the Western world a cowman will milk up to 50 cows without difficulty and without assistance except on his day off, I was met with that look of incredulity which blanks out all Communist faces when they are confronted with a fact that does not fit into their intellectual pattern—a look which combines a loyal conviction that you are a capitalist liar, with a disloyal suspicion that there may be something in what you say.

The kolkhoz, in fact, is a monstrous straightjacket, strapped by Stalin on to the back of Russian agriculture with a disastrous effect that has been repeated outside Russia since 1945. Quite recently, as a result of Khrushchev’s liberalization policy, some local variants of the pattern have been emerging, even in such ultra orthodox states as East Germany and Czechoslovakia. But these minor departures are insignificant compared with the uniformity that has been imposed on the peasant throughout the Communist world in the sacred name of progress.

_____________

 

The fairest way to judge the kolkhoz—which the Poles have so dramatically abandoned—is to examine it in the country where it is most efficiently managed. Along with the East Germans, the Czechs are the most Westernized and most highly industrialized people in the Communist world; and their peasants, before the Communist coup in 1948, were known as good farmers with excellent Cooperatives. Here, if anywhere, the kolkhoz could be made to work. And the Czechs have certainly tried. The countryside is 100 per cent collectivized—as one can see from the air. Flying over the mountains which divide West Germany from Czechoslovakia, one suddenly notices that the patchwork quilt of Bavarian peasant strips has been replaced by the huge fields of the Bohemian plain. If you look carefully, you can tell whether you are passing over a state farm or a kolkhoz, by noticing whether there is still a patch of strip farming close to the village. If there is not, it is a state farm since these are worked by salaried managers and employ agricultural workers who cultivate no land of their own. On the other hand, in most of the collectives the members still possess the famous “private half hectare” as well as a private cow and a couple of pigs

Motoring through the villages—particularly in Slovakia, which, before the war, was an agricultural slum—we could see the achievements of the kolkhoz at close range. In each village, all the old farmyards are being left to crumble away. On the leeward side, where the smell blows away, magnificent new buildings are being erected—the collective cowsheds, pig-sties, broiler factories, silos, and shelters for the new collectively-owned wheat, maize, and potato harvesters. All these new buildings—as well as the thirty or forty new homes we saw going up in each village—are a demonstration of the Communist determination to industrialize peasant production and bring rural life up to the standards of the towns.

I doubt if there is a peasant in the world more efficient than the Czech, or more independent-minded. He used to be his own master working his own land in his own time. Now he is a member of a work brigade, awakened at 5:30 each morning by the voice of the kolkhoz manager, barking the day’s orders through the loudspeakers. He used to have an independent income. Now he is paid for piece-work, partly in money and partly in kind.

How efficient is the Czech kolkhoz? The state of both the fields and the farm equipment, as we saw it during the harvest, was as good as in any Western European country; and if the livestock was unimpressive, it is only fair to remember that many of the cows are the progeny of draft animals which the individual peasants brought with them less than ten years ago, when they joined the kolkhoz.

There are just two snags about Czech collectivization. In the first place, the average age of the kolkhoz member is now well over 50. Only the peasant too old and too rooted to escape stays on the land. Most of the boys and girls have either fled into the towns or live in the villages, traveling miles by bus to a job in industry or the public services. If one of the objects of collectivization was to reduce rural overpopulation, this is a target which in Czechoslovakia has been over-achieved.

The second snag is the obstinate reluctance of the Czech collective farmers to sell their products at the low prices obtainable. Of course, the Compulsory Deliveries must be fulfilled; but beyond that point the Czech peasantry is showing that the kolkhoz can be used, not to serve but to frustrate the demands of the government. The Five-Year Plan dominates the life of the peasant. Already in 1962, he knows the extra tons of wheat and extra head of cattle which each acre must carry in 1967. He acquiesces—and when consulted about the plan makes sure that his target is nice and low! In Communist Czechoslovakia, the Good Soldier Schweik is now the Good Farmer Schweik; and in the countryside there is a gigantic gray market where the collective farms get together to defeat the demands of the state. Even ten years after collectivization, the stubborn peasant mentality, which the kolkhoz was specifically designed to eradicate, is still as strong. It is just possible that the huge amounts of capital invested in Czech collective farming have been justified in terms of food production: it is quite certain that it has not been justified in terms of food delivery.

_____________

 

* * *

Last August I saw the other side of the shield. Poland is the only country in the Communist world where steady increases in agricultural production are being recorded year by year. It is also the only Communist country which successfully combines plenty of food for all its inhabitants with the role of an efficient food exporter to Western Europe. The Poles are now eating better than any of their Communist neighbors; and they are also providing the British consumer with bacon as good as anything the Danes provide, eggs, and best quality butter. Sales of foodstuffs abroad now comprise 18 per cent of Poland’s total exports.

What gives this agricultural revival such enormous political importance is the fact that it has been achieved as a direct result of Gomulka’s decision six years ago, after the Posnan riots, to abandon collectivization and permit the Polish peasant to walk out of the kolkhoz.

Today, 87 per cent of Poland’s arable land is privately farmed by the peasants, 12 per cent by state farms, and only 1 per cent by collective farms. And this movement away from the kolkhoz is still proceeding: last year 64 new collectives were established, but 231 were wound up. And the reaction from collective to private ownership has recently been strengthened by the restoration of a completely free market in agricultural land. The Polish peasant is now free either to sell off his land to a private buyer or, if he is elderly, to let the state have it and receive a pension instead. He is also free, once he has fulfilled his Compulsory Deliveries, to sell the rest of his produce in the completely free markets which exist all over the country. Yet despite this freedom of choice, he prefers to market 80 per cent of his produce through the socialist sector. It is this willingness of the peasant to deliver his produce to the state which distinguishes Poland from all her Communist neighbors.

How has this miracle been achieved? The answer is delightfully obvious to a Westerner, if not to a Communist. Once Gomulka had thrown away the stick of collectivization, he was compelled to rely on the carrot of a price system favorable to the peasant. Only 30 per cent of total food production is now taken from the peasant in Compulsory Deliveries. Another 30 per cent, including all milk, is marketed by the peasants through their own central Cooperatives. Another 40 per cent, including bacon, sugar beet, oil-seeds, and eggs, is sold under long-term contracts to state factories. This contract production is a very important factor in the Polish Miracle. But it is not a Communist invention. Before the war, bacon factories, for example, concentrating exclusively on the British market, had been established in many parts of the country, catering for peasants in a radius of twenty to thirty miles. Because the peasants were primitive and incapable of doing it for themselves, the bacon factories laid down the precise animal they required, controlled the breeding, and even provided much of the foodstuffs. In return they guaranteed to accept every pig the peasants produced at a fixed price, provided it passed the standard laid down by the factory. In 1945, the contract system was resumed—the only change being that the factories were now state owned. Collectivization, however, threatened to destroy it altogether, and it is only since the retreat from the kolkhoz that the state factory has come into its own, providing by far the most effective incentive to modernization that we saw in Poland. Our Communist guides, when pressed, did not deny that the relationship between the peasant and the state factory to which he delivered his bacon is very similar to that between the individual farmer and the cooperative bacon factory in Denmark.

Of course the peasants complained that they are over-taxed. In fact, though rent has been officially abolished, each peasant pays a land tax graded according to the quality of his soil, which comes to exactly the same thing. In addition they make their Compulsory Deliveries—a harsher form of taxation, which is all the more irritating because they are excluded from every kind of social service except education. The Health Service, for example, is available only to the agricultural worker on a state farm: the peasant, as well as any worker he employs, must find a private doctor—and usually there aren’t any in the countryside.

_____________

 

But though the peasant has his legitimate grievances, the fact remains that it is industry and the urban population that are paying the bill for the failure of collectivization. Last year, for example, real wages in industry only advanced by 2.7 per cent, but the figure for the peasants was no less than 11 per cent. In recent years, the number of peasant houses with electricity has doubled. Four hundred thousand young peasants now own motorcycles. And on every road and land in the countryside you meet the parents of these young people, sitting in their traps and surries behind those magnificent silky grain-fed horses of which they are so proud. It would be very nearly true to say that Gomulka has turned Marxism on its head by making the socialized sector of the economy pay for the improvement of the peasants’ lot.

The problem with the decision to abandon collectivization was that it enabled the peasants not merely to regain their own land but to revert to their primitive peasant methods. The size of the plots is ludicrous. Two million peasants each farm twelve acres or less. To make matters worse, these tiny peasant farms usually consist of half-a-dozen strips scattered around the village, and on the death of the owner they are divided up among his children. We visited one village in Silesia which, to judge by its noble red-brick farm houses and farm buildings, had been the home before 1945 of prosperous German kulaks or middle peasants. Now it has been taken over by Galicians who have divided up the big houses into one-room flats.

Here was a chance to break with the medieval strip system and give the primitive peasant a new start by dividing up the ample land available into decent-sized plots. But the Communists had found it impossible to do this. After one unsuccessful attempt at collectivization, the peasants had distributed the fields around the village once again into strips. One owner of some 20 acres proudly showed me where his 5 plots lay all around the village. “But wouldn’t you save labor by having them all in one place?” I asked him. “Maybe,” he replied, smiling craftily, “but what would happen if a thunder-storm hit one side of the village? We have to share the risk.”

Parcelization gets worse and worse, and with the unit of production so ridiculously uneconomic, mechanization is almost impossible. Combines, which are universal in Czechoslovakia, are not to be found except on the state farms. The total number of tractors in Poland is only 30,000—16,000 communally owned and 14,000 in private hands. As I saw for myself, much of the corn is still cut with sickles, and a farmer considers himself go-ahead if he uses his fine horses to pull a kind of flail reaper, which I had previously seen only in Victorian pictures.

What chances are there, since compulsion is now out of the question, to persuade the peasants voluntarily to abandon their primitive methods and accept modernized farming? Alas! Nearly all the peasants we talked to in the villages, on the fields, and by the roadside, during a tour which took us three-quarters of the way round Poland, were as reactionary as they were prosperous, consumed by a burning hatred of two things—Russia and Communism, which are associated in their minds with modernization and improvement. Under pressure from a foreign visitor, most of them would agree that since Gomulka came to power they have been free to say what they like. Gomulka himself is popular. But I scarcely heard a favorable opinion expressed about the bureaucrats in Warsaw during the whole time of my tour.

Every peasant, of course, wants to make more money. Most of them would like to cultivate more land, if they can be sure of keeping the profits they earn. But even such an obvious reform as a change in the law which permits parcelization seemed to be viewed with suspicion.

In three of the villages we visited, there was only one Communist—the hard-working secretary of everything. And he obviously felt himself a gallant member of a small persecuted minority! The officials from the Ministries who accompanied us on our visits were not much better off. While our interpreters tried in their translation to water down the violence of the peasants’ language, they stood uncomfortably in a bunch, obviously anxious lest the proceedings should get out of hand.

_____________

 

* * *

I certainly did not envy these officials their main job, the establishment in each village of an Agricultural Circle—the primitive form of Cooperative on which the government is relying to introduce modern farming techniques. The name “Agricultural Circle” has been chosen because any reference to “Cooperation” would arouse memories of the detested kolkhoz, and the organization is an ingenious gimmick for bribing non-cooperative peasants into de facto cooperation without any theoretical recognition that this is what they are doing. The precise method of working is as follows: every year a calculation is made for all of Poland’s 40,000 villages in order to assess the exact difference between the price the villagers receive from the state for Compulsory Deliveries and the price they could have got for those same deliveries if they had sold them on the free market. When this sum has been assessed, the amount is duly banked to each village’s account.

But there it stays in the bank until the village establishes a Circle. For the Fund may only be used where a Circle has been actually started, and where, furthermore, the members of the Circle have contributed a sum equivalent to 25 per cent of the village fund out of their own pockets. At this point permission is given to use the Fund for a limited number of purposes. The Circle can drain or improve land; or it can buy machines and hire mechanics to drive and maintain them, so that any villager can go to the secretary of the Circle and arrange to have his field ploughed, his grain harvested, or his potatoes transported.

We visited some five of these Circles, and since on each occasion it was necessary to drive some fifty or sixty miles, I suspect that those worth showing to a foreigner were very few in number. Even the Ministry of Agriculture does not claim that more than 5,000 of them actually own a tractor. Moreover, in each of the carefully selected Circles to which we were taken, the peasants we met—although they were desperately anxious to modernize their methods and improve their own earnings—were still suspicious of cooperation.

In one village, the Circle had begun to farm communally some of the large areas of land left derelict since the Germans fled in 1945. The fields were a long way off and when we reached them it was obvious that they were deplorably farmed. Our Ministry guides looked very embarrassed when the peasants eagerly pointed out the contrast between the poorly kept communal fields, and their own beautifully tended strips on the other side of the path. “I suppose this experiment in cooperative farming by your Circle is a first step on the return road to the kolkhoz,” I said to the village Chairman, rather naughtily. My words must have been faithfully translated, for there was a moment of horrified silence and then uproar as the chairman denounced the kolkhoz and told us how the attempt to introduce it was defeated ten years ago.

_____________

 

It is important to remember that, even at the height of the collectivization campaign, only 10 per cent of Poland’s arable land was collectively farmed. Yet in every village we visited, the peasants had seen enough of the system to abominate the kolkhoz; and they remained deeply and I think quite reasonably suspicious that the bureaucrats in Warsaw might one day feel tempted, if too little progress is being made by voluntary methods, to revert to compulsion once more. Collectivization has never been formally abandoned by the government, and the threat of it hangs like a thunder-cloud over the countryside.

Throughout our tour, our dedicated Communist guide continued to assert to me, in the course of a long series of heated arguments, that the reversion to private ownership was only temporary, and that the final aim still remained a fully collectivized agriculture. But these assertions had a strangely hollow ring, and in this case I feel pretty sure that the hard facts of life will defeat this aim. By his silence, Khrushchev has given his consent to Gomulka’s decision to abandon the breakneck revolutionary methods of collectivization, and to try the experiment of changing the peasant by a slow process of voluntary persuasion and passive evolution. Even more recently, by coming to terms with Tito, he has once again made it clear that the kolkhoz is no longer regarded in the Kremlin as the sole chosen instrument for socializing agriculture. And that is why he is now prepared to turn to the West to find other ways to achieve his ends.

_____________

 

* * *

In no field of economic activity is there a larger range of choice. Ever since the great slump of 1929, the idea that classical free enterprise could ever be applied to agriculture has been abandoned by the Western democracies. In its place, we have evolved a wide variety of devices designed to maintain prosperity in the countryside, while at the same time reducing the numbers employed in agriculture and encouraging improvement and modernization. Today we all recognize the need to combine centralized state planning of agriculture with voluntary cooperation, not only in the marketing of produce but in the provision of seed, machinery, etc. In North America, France, and Germany, these schemes are described as democratic; in Scandinavia, as socialist. The semantics do not matter. What is important is the discovery that the modernization of agriculture requires the most skilled combination of central direction and grass-roots cooperation for success. In Western Germany, to take only one example, more than 1,300,000 peasants were transferred from agriculture into industry between 1951 and 1961, without any of the appalling political and economic consequences which Communist ruthlessness creates. And by 1970, when the transitional Seven-Year period ends and the E.E.C. agricultural policy really begins to function, another 750,000 will have been moved. The main method employed by the government in Bonn is a regulation of agricultural prices skillfully designed to eliminate the small peasant while providing his sons plenty of opportunities in an expanding industry under conditions of full employment.

But what are the chances that the Communists can learn the lesson and apply it? Certainly their bureaucrats are not trained to do the kind of tactful “extension” work which the British, American, or Danish fanner has come to expect as a matter of course from government experts or Cooperative representatives. Nevertheless, the Polish government really has no choice in the matter. With the Catholic Church still immensely powerful and eager to exploit any crisis, Gomulka cannot risk open conflict with peasants who still form no less than 38 per cent of the population, and whose stubbornness was enormously increased by the victory they achieved after the Posnan riots. Thus it looks inevitable that Polish Communism, like Yugoslav Communism, will be forced in the foreseeable future to plan for a completely nationalized industrial sector existing alongside a privately owned agriculture, conforming to state requirements not by compulsion but by consent.

But when they see this new attitude adopted in dealing with the peasants, the workers in industry are bound to insist that they too shall be led by carrots instead of being driven by sticks. So it is not only the future of Polish agriculture that is at stake, but the whole concept of totalitarian planning as a short cut to industrialization. For once a Communist government admits that in one section of the economy, a planned free market and voluntary cooperation work better than centrally imposed discipline, the freedom is bound to spread to other sectors of the economy. Poland under Gomulka cannot remain half slave and half free. And the two most powerful national emotions—Catholicism and hatred of Russia—are on the side of the free peasant.

And what is true of the different sectors of the Polish economy is also true of the different national economies within Eastern Europe. The abandonment by both Poland and Yugoslavia of collectivization is having its effect on their neighbors. Everywhere—even in Czechoslovakia where Communism is most monolithic—there is a loosening up and a readiness to permit in the countryside minor departures from the Russian model of collectivization. Since I have not been to the Soviet Union since 1958, I cannot report from personal experience on the changes there. But it is clear enough from Khrushchev’s impatient speeches and from official articles in the Russian press, that he now recognizes agriculture as far the weakest link in the Communist chain.

I suspect that the turning point was his trip to the U. S. and in particular the days he spent with the corn farmers of the Middle West. Khrushchev has eyes to see and he was obviously overwhelmed by the success story of American agriculture since the New Deal. The soil of Illinois is very good, but it is no better than the black earth of the Ukraine. Yet Khrushchev could see for himself the deadly contrast between the miraculous improvement in both rural production and rural prosperity since the 1930′s, and the sullen failure of Russian collectivization. Of course, in speeches he is careful not to compare the two systems, but to urge his own collective farmers to learn what they can from American applied science and technology. But he now knows very well that the kolkhoz is not a short cut but a dead end. The best way to maximize food production is to allow your farmers to go on owning their own land, encourage them to work together in genuinely free cooperatives, and when you have earned their good will, subject them to central state directives in return for guaranteed prices.

_____________

 

But how are these lessons to be applied east of the Iron Curtain? In Poland and Yugoslavia, the retreat from collectivization took place early enough to permit a return to a peasant economy. But in Russia, after thirty years of Stalinite kolkhoz and state farm, the recreation of an independent peasantry seems completely out of the question. A vast amount of capital has been invested in machinery and buildings, quite unsuitable for small independent farmers. Even in Czechoslovakia where collectivization has only just been completed, its abandonment could precipitate a counter-revolution.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that, now that the inefficiency of the kolkhoz has been demonstrated in terms of production per acre and—even more important—in terms of production per man employed in agriculture, the Kremlin will be compelled to follow Gomulka’s example in one respect at least. It will have to relax its pressure on the countryside and permit the collective farmers to retain far more of the product of their labors.

Of course this will mean a far slower rate of industrialization and the end of the spectacular annual figures of economic growth which are the pride of the Communist world. In order to relax the centrally imposed discipline, reduce the Compulsory Deliveries, and raise peasant living standards, the Communists will be compelled to make available far more of the consumer goods which the people in the country passionately desire. That can only be done by cutting capital investment and arms expenditure back to the kind of level which the free electorates of the Western democracies are prepared to tolerate.

In their peaceful competition with the West, the Communists have only been able to keep their rate of growth ahead of ours by dragooning the countryside into submission by means of the kolkhoz and deliberately retarding its rate of improvement. Once this artificial unbalance between industry and agriculture, town and country, begins to be reduced, Communism will begin to lose its totalitarian features, and the main gap which now sunders it from Western democracy will be narrowed. For the peaceful competition between democratic and Communist planning will then be taking place on something approaching fair terms; and coexistence which up to now has been merely a political abstraction could begin to become a social and human reality. So far agriculture has been the Achilles’ heel of the Communist system. But its very failure could well provide a breach in total planning through which freedom could percolate throughout the Communist world.

_____________

 

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.