Isaac Deutscher 1956

The New Soviet Five-Year Plan That May Challenge the West

Source: The Reporter, 23 February 1956. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Last year the USSR produced 45 million tons of crude steel while the joint output of West Germany and Great Britain was 41 million tons. Soviet coal mines turned out 390 million tons against 352 mined in Britain and the Federal Republic. The USSR generated 166 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity compared with 135 billion produced by the two most highly industrialised nations of Western Europe. American production in 1939 was only slightly above the present Soviet level: 394 million tons of coal, 47 million tons of steel and 161 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity.

The pride that Soviet economists take in this achievement is understandable. ‘We are entering upon a stubborn struggle’, wrote Professor A Notkin, a leading Russian economist recently, ‘in which our objective is to surpass the industrial output of the United States.’ The new phase of the industrial race is opened with the publication of the draft of the Sixth Five-Year Plan, which covers the years 1956-60 and is to be adopted at the forthcoming congress of the Soviet Communist Party.

The Plan anticipates a rise in real national income by about 60 per cent and a growth of industrial output by 65 per cent (70 per cent in producer goods and 60 in consumer goods). The number of persons employed in industry and in administration (excluding collective farming) is to rise from 48 million to 55. The output of coal and steel is to be increased by about 50 per cent, coal up to nearly 600 million tons, and steel to nearly 70 million tons a year. The production of oil is to be nearly doubled up to 135 million tons, and so is the generation of electricity, which is to reach 320 billion kilowatt-hours. Finally, the engineering industries are expected to double their volume of production.

Structure and Balance: How are these indexes and targets related to Soviet grand strategy, and how are they going to affect the balance of economic power between the Soviet Union and the United States?

It is not easy to give a plain answer to this question. A glance at the latest US production figures shows that even if the Soviet targets are attained, the output of the Soviet basic industries will in 1960 still be considerably below American output in 1955. True, Russia is almost certain to become the world’s largest coal producer within two or three years. This in itself is an historic development – 25 years ago Russia produced not more than 35 million tons of coal per year. But the planned production of electricity will still be only a little more than half the American output, and Soviet steel mills will turn out only two-thirds of America’s 1955 output. Where the rival powers will stand in relation to each other by 1960 depends on the trend of American business. If American industry continues to expand, Russia’s lag will be a long one; but a recession or a slump might enable Russia to catch up with the United States earlier than can now be expected.

However, it would be a mistake to measure the relative economic strengths of the two powers only by the output of their basic industries. The great differences in the structure and balance of the two economies should not be overlooked, differences that are thrown into relief by the continued Soviet emphasis on heavy industry and neglect of light industry.

It is no paradox to say that for industrial purposes one Soviet ton of steel does not equal one American ton. A much smaller proportion of each Soviet ton goes to meet consumer needs, to produce private cars, refrigerators, houses, etc, and a much higher proportion is used in engineering plants. Russia has built a disproportionately vast engineering industry on a relatively narrow basis of steel output. The United States probably needs an annual output of 65 to 70 million tons of steel to support an engineering industry comparable in size and weight to that which the Soviet Union is basing on an output of 45 million tons.

It follows that in 1960, with a steel output of nearly 70 million tons, Soviet engineering should very closely approach the American level. It may even reach it, unless American production grows considerably in the next few years. This is the most dramatic challenge to the United States implied in the new Five-Year Plan. As a machine manufacturer, the USSR may well equal the United States at the beginning of the next decade. This may seem a daring assertion. But not long ago many thought it quite impossible that Russia would be able to catch up with Germany and Britain, much less to surpass them rapidly.

The structural disproportions of Soviet industry remain of great importance. While one sector of Soviet industry, engineering (a sector that accounts for 50 per cent of Soviet industrial output), is already so advanced as to be within sight of the American level, the other sectors remain backward in various degrees, and are below, sometimes far below, Western European standards.

Since Stalin’s death Soviet economists have come to face this problem frankly and soberly, insisting that progress should be measured not merely by figures of total output but primarily by output per head of population. By this test the Soviet Union’s progress appears, because of its vast population, far less impressive. It still produces only about half the steel that Western Europe produces per person, and only a quarter of the American output; the target is to reach the present Western European standard by 1960. Only against the background of a most powerful engineering industry could the Soviet Union construct the atomic plants it already possesses. It plans to erect atomic power stations of a total capacity of two or two and a half million kilowatts, more than the United States and Britain together intend to build in the next five years.

The same applies to electricity. Impressive schemes for electrification are a prominent feature of the new Plan. A single grid is to be established for the whole of European Russia. Giant power plants, some with a capacity of over three million kilowatts, are to be erected in Soviet Asia. But when these schemes have been carried out, the supply of electricity per head will still be only 1400 kilowatt-hours, as much as it is in Western Europe now, but less than half of the American supply.

The development of transport does not keep pace with the general industrial progress, and that may turn out to be the Achilles heel of the new Plan. Many new railroad lines are to be laid; old lines are to be modernised and electrified; the steam engine is to go out of production as obsolete. Even so, the railway network will remain far too small in relation to area and population. As far as motor traffic is concerned, the Soviet Union still remains a primitive country of few cars and very few modern roads.

Accent on Housing: The preparation of the Plan was accompanied by continuing attacks on planners who had a pro-consumer bias, and so light industry takes a back seat. The struggle over policy was intense, and may not be quite concluded. Its political implications are large. The anti-consumer bias is evident, but it is less marked than might have been expected. It would be an exaggeration to describe the Plan as a genuine compromise between the ‘productionist’ and the ‘consumptionist’ viewpoints, but the Plan does offer a few concessions to the consumer. The most important of these concerns the housing programme. It is on this that the controversy has centred, because housing, more than any other consumer industry, competes heavily with producer industries for materials and labour.

Under the Plan 200 million square metres of new urban housing space is to be provided, twice as much as was built in the years 1950-55. This, however, will not solve the disastrous and chronic housing crisis that has accompanied the whole Revolution. Between 1930 and 1960 the urban population of the Soviet Union will have grown by some 60 million – it has so far grown by nearly 55 million, mostly peasants transferred from the country. The new housing space provided in the course of those 30 years will amount altogether to 450 million square metres. Much of this goes to replace the appalling number of urban dwellings destroyed in the last war.

Housing space in the cities and towns is now at the most four to six square metres per person, which means that many workers must be living in barracks. It should be six to nine square metres by 1960. The miseries of such overcrowding will continue to plague the Soviet city dweller until the government decides to tackle the problem in all seriousness. Then it will take at least 10 years of intensive slum clearing and of building on a scale 10 times larger than the present one before housing attains Western standards. Meanwhile, Soviet workers will probably continue to live in slums until the Soviet industrial potential has been developed to an American level.

Which Consumer Goods? The Plan foreshadows a general rise in the output of manufactured consumer goods by 60 per cent, with a rise in real wages by 30 per cent and of peasant incomes by 40 per cent.

The increase in supply is to come mainly from those consumer industries which can expand with only a minimum of investment and which do not compete with heavy industry for materials. In those consumer industries where higher production would require much new plant and would absorb much steel, progress will be comparatively small. In other words, a marked improvement is planned in food and clothing, but not in so-called consumer goods.

Even by 1960 only 650,000 motor vehicles are to be produced annually. Of these only 100,000 to 150,000 will be passenger cars; the rest will be trucks. Thus only three to four per cent of Soviet people will possess private cars.

Though the output of refrigerators is to be increased fourfold, only one family in a thousand will be able to install one in its kitchen. Six times as many washing machines are to be produced in 1960 as in 1955, yet not even one housewife in a thousand will have the chance of obtaining a machine.

Against this must be set the very considerable improvement in food and clothing. This is indeed the first decade in which the standard of living of the Soviet working class has been rising steeply, the first after a frightful depression that lasted nearly 20 years, from 1930 till 1950, when the Soviet worker bore the brunt of industrialisation, armament and war.

The consumption of meat in Soviet towns (rural consumption is not assessed statistically) is to be about 1.5 pounds per person per week – it was only about half a pound five years ago and is a little above one pound at present. It remains to be seen how the agricultural schemes launched in recent years work out in practice, whether the virgin soils ploughed up in the east yield the expected crops, whether the kolkhozes really take to the cultivation of North American corn advocated by Khrushchev, and whether cattle stocks grow sufficiently to support higher nutritional standards. But it seems that the government is anxious to honour this promise to the consumer even in case of a partial failure in farming.

The supply of cotton goods, which was only 20 yards per person in 1950 and about 25 yards in 1955, is to reach about 32 yards in 1960, approximately the British standard. Consumption of woollen fabrics will remain far below the British and American levels but not much below the French or the German. The output of footwear, which is now 1.5 pairs of shoes per person per year, is to rise to more than two pairs, which is roughly the British proportion. This is a remarkable achievement for a nation which was traditionally barefoot and which some 20 years ago produced annually not more than one pair of shoes per three or four persons.

There is thus an extremely uneven tempo in the development of the various items that make up the standard of living of a modern nation. There is a relative abundance of essentials, except for housing, and there is a continued scarcity of the amenities. On the whole, the second strongest industrial nation of the world is still living a Spartan life, without the luxuries and most of the semi-luxuries of our civilisation. However, a people with a strong and still recent peasant background is sure to appreciate the marked improvement in feeding and clothing and will hardly miss the more technical refinements of life. The new Plan undoubtedly gives the Soviet people the exhilarating sense of a tremendous social advance.

The Plan for Education: Nowhere is this advance as striking as in the new educational programme. In the course of the next five years obligatory secondary education is to become nearly universal, in the country as well as in the cities. The number of schools to be built is twice as large as that of the years 1950-55, and nearly four times as large as in 1945-50, although educational building enjoyed a very high priority even then. More important still, fees for higher secondary and academic education are to be abolished. It will be remembered that the Revolution had promised free education for all and the abolition of school fees. But the Bolshevik government was not able to keep that promise. There were not enough schools, not enough teachers, not enough textbooks, not enough educational equipment. In 1940, Stalin reintroduced school fees. His critics denounced the act as a betrayal of the Revolution and a measure designed to perpetuate the privileges of a minority which alone could afford to give its children higher education. The abolition of fees is therefore a landmark in the social evolution of post-Stalin Russia. Higher education is to cease to be a privilege for the few, and the social and educational barrier between bureaucracy, labour aristocracy and the mass of workers will be lowered.

This expansion of the educational system serves primarily the needs of Russia’s industrial ascendancy. The bias of education is predominantly technological. The secondary school is reverting to the classical Marxian conception of ‘polytechnical’ education and seeks to combine instruction, scientific training and training in labour skills. The number of specialists to graduate from secondary and academic schools is to be nearly doubled. As Sir Francis Simon, professor of thermodynamics at Oxford, has declared recently, the number of students entering Soviet technical schools is greater ‘than in the whole non-Communist world’. Facilities for adult education are similarly extensive, for it is the purpose of Soviet labour policy to transform the bulk of the working class into skilled labourers.

Apart from ‘ideological’ considerations, this policy is dictated by the state of Soviet manpower and by technological needs. The USSR has not yet recovered from the manpower losses it suffered in the Second World War. The wartime fall in the birth rate will soon make itself felt and will be reflected in a decreasing influx of fresh labour to industry. The late 1950s and early 1960s will be critical years in this respect. The deficit can be made good only by increasing the efficiency of the existing labour force. The fear of a shortage of manpower acts as a strong stimulus for labour-saving and in particular for automation.

The average productivity of the Soviet worker is still greatly inferior to American productivity, but Soviet industry evidently hopes to bridge this gap by pressing ahead with automation. How seriously this problem is tackled is evidenced by the setting up of a special Ministry for Automation.

Soviet industry enjoys one decisive advantage: its workers, unlike workers of the West, are not afraid of the unemployment that may result from radical labour-saving operations.

Automation, however, demands an industrial labour force of superior technical knowledge and efficiency, and it threatens to make of many unskilled and semi-skilled workers sad survivals of a bygone era. Any nation that fails to gear up its educational system and industrial training schemes to the new structure of industry, which is now beginning to take shape, is in danger of falling by the wayside in the economic race. This idea obviously inspires the educational programme that forms an integral part of the Five-Year Plan.

In addition, Soviet schools and universities are training the technicians who are to carry the industrial revolution not only to the remotest corners of Soviet Asia but also to Manchuria, to Sinkiang, beyond the Yangtze, and also to Eastern Europe. The broader and unmistakable purpose of the Plan is to enhance enormously the Soviet Union’s position as the industrial workshop – and the arsenal – of the entire Soviet bloc.