Isaac Deutscher 1956

Massive Soviet Industrial Challenge: Race to Surpass US Production

Source: The Times, 3 February 1956. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The Sixth Five-Year Plan, covering the years 1955-60, is an important landmark in Soviet affairs. It comes at the close of a quarter of a century of planned economy, during which the Soviet Union was engaged in an industrial race with the nations of Western Europe. This race is now essentially concluded; and Russia has won it, at least in basic industry and engineering.

Last year Russia produced 390 million tons of coal, against 360 million tons mined in Great Britain and Western Germany; 45 million tons of steel against a combined British and German output of 41 million tons: and 166 billion kw of electricity, compared with the joint British-German output of 155 billion kw. However, the population of the USSR being twice as large as that of Great Britain and Federal Germany, output a head in each of these commodities was only half the British and the German; and Soviet light industry is lagging far behind.

A New Contest: With the launching of the present plan a new contest is opened. The Soviet Union now aspires to ‘catch up with the United States’. The slogan about ‘catching up with the West and surpassing it’ is not new, of course. But the aspiration is now voiced against a new background of economic strength; and it is voiced much more calmly, self-confidently and realistically than in Stalin’s days. And there are signs of more intelligent, and more elastic, planning.

The race with the United States is expected to be long and difficult, and to run through a number of definite stages. The present Plan is seen only as a preliminary to the decisive phase of the contest which is to come in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union expects to emerge with a global production higher than the American, although (this is implicitly admitted) American standards of output a head and the American standard of living may not be reached until the 1970s.

It is necessary, however, to bear in mind the structural differences between the Soviet and the American economies, and the inner disproportions of Soviet industry. Any simple comparison between indices of industrial output may lead to false conclusions. Soviet statistical averages conceal wide discrepancies between various sectors of the economy – some of which are much more advanced than is generally realised, while others remain extremely backward. The new Plan maintains, and in part even widens, these discrepancies.

Highest Coal Output? The Plan anticipates a rise in 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). Employment in industry and administration (excluding collective farming) is to grow from 48 to 55 million. The annual output of coal is to rise from 390 to 590 million tons a year; of steel from 45 to 68 million tons; of oil from 71 to 135 million tons; and of electricity from 166 to 320 billion kw.

A comparison with the latest American production figures shows that Russia is almost certain to become the world’s largest coal producer within two or three years. (Twenty-five years ago Soviet coal output was only 35 million tons a year!) But the production of electricity planned for 1960 is only half the American output in 1955. The target set for steel mills is to attain two-thirds of the present American production. Extraction of oil is to rise to only 40 per cent of last year’s American output.

Pointing to the steel indices some American commentators conclude that Soviet planners aim at an overall volume of industrial production amounting roughly to two-thirds of the present American output. However, the comparative indices of steel offer only an indirect clue to the real dynamics of Soviet industry, and the ‘over-all volume’ is something of a statistical myth. A more specific estimate would conclude that while in steel the plan aims indeed at two-thirds of American production, it aims at even less than one-third in light industry, and much more than two-thirds in engineering.

On the assumption that American production remains stationary at its present high level, Russia is likely to become the United States’ equal as a manufacturer of machines at the turn of the decade. Only if American industry continues to expand will the Soviet lag remain what it is. A recession or a slump in the United States may enable Russia to catch up even earlier than can now be expected.

This estimate is based on the proposition, by no means paradoxical, that for the purpose of industrial development one ton of American steel does not equal one ton of Soviet steel. Of every ton of Soviet steel a much smaller proportion than of every ton of American steel is diverted to the production of houses, private cars, refrigerators and other consumer goods and to the equipment of consumer industries. A much higher proportion is invested in the manufacture of producer goods. The same is, of course, true of every ton of coal and oil and of every billion kw.

Russia has consequently been able to build up an engineering industry which is disproportionately vast in relation to the basic industries. The gap between American and Soviet engineering capacities is much narrower than the gap between their steel and fuel industries. With its current output of 45 million tons of steel Russia supports an engineering industry the American equivalent of which requires for its operation an annual steel output of the order of 65 or 70 million tons. When by 1960 Soviet steel output approaches 70 million tons the volume of manufactured producer goods turned out in the Soviet Union may not be smaller than the present American volume.

Consumer Goods: The defeat of the pro-consumer school of thought is evident in almost every chapter of the Plan, though that is not to say that the consumer is offered no benefits. The national loaf is growing so rapidly and is becoming so large that even if state and heavy industry claim the major portion of the increase, something quite substantial still accrues to the consumer as well.

This is, indeed, the first decade in which the popular standard of living has been rising steeply, the first decade after the frightful depression which lasted from 1930 till 1950, when Soviet workers and peasants bore the brunt of industrialisation, armament and war. The Plan provides for a rise in the supply of consumer goods by 60 per cent (but only for a 30 per cent increase in the national wages bill and a 40 per cent increase in peasant incomes).

The main contributions towards a higher standard of living are, however, to be made by food and clothing, not by the more durable consumer goods. Increased supplies are to come mainly from those light industries which can be expanded with only a minimum of investment and which do not compete with heavy industry for materials. In such consumer industries where higher production would require much new plant and would absorb much steel, progress will be negligible.

The Plan aims at bringing consumption of the main articles of food and clothing near Western European standards. There is to be 11/2lb of meat a person a week (in towns); about 32 yards of cotton fabrics a person a year; less than two yards of woollen fabrics; and what is quite remarkable for a traditionally barefoot nation, more than two pairs of shoes a person a year.

650,000 Cars a Year: Most of the targets do not exceed the present level of consumption by so much that they should not be reached. It remains to be seen whether Mr Khrushchev’s schemes for the ploughing up of virgin soils and for cultivation of maize will yield expected results and bring the higher nutritional standards within the nation’s reach.

In other respects, however, the consumer is not even led to expect much. Only 650,000 motor cars are to be produced a year, mostly lorries, and only 100,000 to 150,000 passenger cars. By 1960 at the most one family in 50 will possess a car. Only one family in 1000 will be able to install a refrigerator in its kitchen; not even one housewife in 1000 will get a washing machine.

The real sacrifice which the Plan imposes on the people is in housing. Two hundred million square metres of new housing is to be built, twice as much as in the previous five-year period. This, however, will not solve the disastrous and chronic housing crisis which has accompanied the whole course of the Soviet industrial revolution. In the last 25 years the urban population of the USSR has grown by nearly 55 million souls, and it continues to swell. In proportion to this, the number of houses built has been negligible, especially if allowance is made for vast wartime destruction.

If the Plan is carried out, urban housing space will still be only seven to nine square yards a person, which means that many workers must be herded in barracks. It will take at least ten years of intensive slum-clearing and of building on a scale ten times larger than at present before housing attains standards worthy of a great modern nation. The job could not be tackled without a massive diversion of materials and labour from heavy industry, which is incompatible with present economic policy.

Ahead In Education: But if Russia is far behind in housing, she is in many respects ahead of the rest of the world in education. The educational programme forms an integral part of the Plan and ties up closely with its industrial targets. Obligatory secondary education is to become universal in country as well as in town. Twice the number of schools is to be built as under the previous Plan, which also marked a tremendous advance in this field. Twice the number of technicians is to graduate from secondary and academic schools. Fees for higher secondary and academic education are to be abolished altogether, which is a sensational reversal of the policy of Stalin, who reintroduced fees twenty years ago.

Adult education facilities are uniquely extensive and are to be expanded even further. It is the declared purpose of Soviet labour policy to transform the bulk of the working class into skilled labourers. This links up with the prospect of automation in industry, which requires a labour force of superior technical knowledge and efficiency. The Plan appears to foreshadow automation on a scale larger that attempted in the West so far. This has now been emphasised by the setting up of a special Ministry for Automation. Soviet trade unions, which are, unlike their Western counterparts, not afraid of unemployment, will certainly be eager to cooperate in speeding up automation.

To sum up, the Plan is designed to enhance enormously Russia’s position as the industrial workshop – and the arsenal – of the entire Soviet Bloc.