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The New International, March–April 1952

B. Ess

Is East Germany a New Order?

The Stalinist-Sponsored Agrarian Program


From The New International, Vol. XVIII No. 2, March–April 1952, pp. 90–97.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


It will soon be six years since the agrarian reform was carried out in the Eastern Zone. The arrogant and narrow-minded Prussian Junkers, a class which brought disaster upon Germany and Europe, were destroyed economically. Whatever may be our attitude toward the regime in Eastern Germany, if we belong to the camp of democracy, we can only be grateful for this measure.

The peasantry was enriched by more than 3 million hectares. Two hundred thousand refugees from the East and agricultural workers (about 514,000 benefited from the reform) became small landowners. This is the reality. There was no similar occurrence in Western Germany. This must be credited as an achievement of the regime. [1]

How, then, can we explain the widespread hostility of the peasantry toward the Berlin regime?

If we study the government’s peasant policy in the Eastern Zone during the last few years, we are amazed at the mess that a group of men, no matter how shrewd and dynamic they may be, can create if they wear blinders and heed only the Kremlin’s voice with no living ties to their own nation. For if there was ever a country ripe for the collective exploitation of the land, it was Eastern Germany: great estates, well equipped, agricultural technicians and an industry which can produce agricultural machinery in sufficient quantity.

Besides, the workers of the great estates were ready to accept collectivization after the expropriation of their landlords. The reforms were carried out in the autumn of 1945. There is no doubt that the division of the land, at first, was achieved without enthusiasm. Most of the Junkers had fled even before the Russians came, and their estates were already worked by their hired hands. In some cases this was still going on one year later, and there are instances where cooperative working of the land went on for two years. Elsewhere, the old workers, among whom the land had been divided, agreed to work their plots in common. As astonishing as it may appear, the peasant expert of the Communist Party Edwin Hoernle, chided them and held up as an example other beneficiaries of the agrarian reforms who worked their plots on an individual basis. (Neue Weg, C.P. organ, May 1946.) The Marxist, Hoernle, tried to demonstrate with the aid of statistics chosen ad hoc that small scale exploitation of the land is more productive than large.

To stir up the peasants, the Berlin regime, through administrative means, created an atmosphere of civil war in the countryside. In the village square they burned the old deeds to the land and razed a number of chateaux. They explained to the peasants that the Junker must no longer have a place to lay his head.

Of course, at the end of a few weeks, the peasants took their cue. They often began by plundering the chateaux; and peasants who had farm equipment found no difficulty in increasing their plots of land.

There were three reasons why the agricultural laborers were reluctant to go further in exploiting the land: they had received it under the aegis of an enemy army, they were not sure of what the future would bring, and, above all, they lacked agricultural equipment. In some instances new peasants had to begin working the land with a cow and a cart, without a house or a stable. War’s destruction and plundering by the occupying army had been on a vast scale. At other times, the landlords had taken their livestock and fled to the West.

The lack of farm equipment along with the dismantling of factories was, in fact, one of the reasons why the regime glorified the division of land.

But this cannot explain everything. Above all, it cannot explain the relentless struggle that was carried on against every attempt to work the land cooperatively. We shall not speculate about the intentions of the Communist leaders in agricultural questions. But it is clear that their attitude on the peasant question is explicable only if we are aware that Stalin had just signed the Potsdam agreement and that the alliance of the three great powers was then at its peak. The Kremlin did not want to frighten the Western powers; therefore, they confined themselves to a modest bourgeois agricultural reform in the Western zone.

Collectivism and Small Scale Production

The next period was very harsh for the new peasants. There were instances where, like the Chinese peasants, they hitched themselves to their carts.

In the village the regime had created a semi-official association, The Peasant’s Union for Mutual Aid, to which it had given the Junkers’ heavy equipment that was still available – tractors, trucks, etc. The Union for Mutual Aid had to lend its equipment to the small peasant who was not competent to run the machinery. Around the Peasant’s Mutual Aid in each village there was a handful of peasants – very often peasants in appearance alone – who were faithful to the regime. The rich and middle peasants with up to a hundred hectares formed another group in the villages of Eastern Germany. They lacked nothing. They had much more farm equipment than the Union for Mutual Aid and the poor peasants were dependent on them.

During this period a growing number of landless men had been organized to collect products on which quotas had been set; they were the only ones who had been organized for this purpose. When the official assessments had been met and his needs satisfied the peasant sold his surplus on the black market. This paralleled the black market in industrial products and was the only means for the peasant to obtain what he needed.

In the first period after the war the group which represented the regime in the village, the Union for Mutual Aid, lived isolated among a mass of small and middle producers and had almost no influence. The situation gradually changed from 1948 on in proportion as industry revived and the gulf between the two world blocs deepened. The tone of the regime changed. They discovered once again that the methods of farming on an individual basis were backward. Edwin Hoernle, the champion of the distribution of land to the bitter end, was dismissed from the ministry of agriculture. In the villages, assessments on the rich peasants were increased. As industry once more began to produce agricultural machinery the regime at first strengthened the Union for Mutual Aid. Then, as in Russia, they created stations for lending agricultural machinery.

The estates which the agrarian reforms had given to a number of public institutions were combined into “A Union for People’s Landholdings”; it was highly favored in the distribution of farm equipment and its land-holdings gradually increased. It legally acquired the landholdings of the new peasants who could no longer hold out and left the village. The big traders were expropriated and in their place a state organization for purchasing agricultural products was created. They also succeeded in suppressing the black market in the countryside.

The official Free Stores established at the end of 1948 were able to deliver everything the village needed at very high prices, but, nevertheless, not higher than those on the black market.

At the end of 1949 the situation in the countryside had changed. The influence of the wealthy peasants had greatly diminished. The “new peasants” had been consolidated while the collectivized institutions, machine stations, Union for Mutual Aid, Union for Peoples Landholdings, Consumer’s Cooperatives, official purchasing agencies, Free Stores had increased in number and were powerful.

To what extent did all this correspond to reality? The fact is that even in 1950, about 75 per cent of the local leaders of the League for Mutual Aid were rich or middle peasants, most of whom were members of the party. The directors of the machine stations, likewise members of the party, very often fell under the influence of the rich peasants. They were strangers in the village and the rich peasants were the most experienced. What is more the Neues Deutschland, organ of the Communist Party, of February 2, 1950, discussing the friendships of the directors of the Stations writes:

“The small peasants bowed by the weight of their cares are not always pleasant companions,” and “the calf given as a gift by the rich peasant for a party of the Machine Station men, the package of butter and the ham given to the tractor drivers are always a source of amazement.”

Despite everything, we must not give too much weight to these facts. Collectivized institutions made greater progress in the countryside. Private trade was no longer the link between city and country and the small peasants became increasingly dependent on the machine station. During the year the independent cooperatives which were still in existence and had great strength in Mecklenburg became part of the Union for Mutual Aid. In rural localities the Union and the Machine Stations formed a village community, merging with the local sections of the National Front, actually the S.E.D. Through their combined efforts a precise economic plan for the village was developed in which a record was kept of tasks assigned to the individual peasant.

The struggle against collectivist tendencies was subtly carried on in the town hall and other institutions; the rich and middle peasants still had influence in the villages. What was often at issue was the impending expropriation of 7,500 peasants owning more than fifty hectares; it was a necessity for the regime to do this. At this stage, however, their expropriation was highly improbable. The National Front was still in power; more than ever it was appealing to the whole population of Western Germany against the “American oppressors” and it was impossible, at this time, to run the risk of frightening the peasantry still more.

If capitalism were restored in Eastern Germany it would, in the beginning, find its main social support in rural areas. That would be its means of revenging itself on the social reality with which the Soviet regime was anxious to play. The Communist Party, a revolutionary organization whose reason for existence was its anti-capitalism and collectivist policy, carried out an individualistic, bourgeois reform in the countryside. This was accomplished from above and without popular support, although in Eastern Germany the countryside was ripe for a progressive social experiment. By this action it increased the number of individual producers. The logic of its own system later compelled the party to seek to impose a pattern of collectivization on the peasantry and leave its stamp on the countryside. To a certain extent it was successful. The peasant submitted, but being tied to his plot of land and to his products he wanted to trade as he saw fit. He remained profoundly hostile to the system. He had received the land from a Communist government. He never stopped being a supporter of capitalism and the “new” peasant immediately adopted the attitudes of a landlord.

The Regime and Its Basis of Support

In Eastern Germany it is not society which molds the political system of the country, but the regime, the party which puts its imprint on society.

In May 1945, a few hundred German émigrés arrived from Moscow. Having been put into power, they attempted a difficult task: the transformation of this part of Germany from above, without mass participation, using the USSR as a model (at this time the Russian armies were looting the country of its wealth). To do this, hors le pluvoir, they retained an important base. They cast aside capitalism, proclaiming it powerless and invited the workers to seize the whole immense network of administrative and economic posts, the whole apparatus that capitalism had built up for one hundred years. In spite of everything they forged a social base and were able to appear as innovators. Those who climbed the social ladder found in the Stalinist Marxism of the émigrés, if not always a true ideology, at least an ideological reason for their success: It is impossible to understand the movement of the activists and especially of the young communists in the Eastern zone without understanding these facts. However, the party carried on without precise ideas, and it was impossible that in wanting to transform everything, the old German society which it was molding should not, in turn, influence and penetrate the party with its contradictions.

The Youth

The time was ripe in Eastern Germany to overturn the old society. The old teaching personnel, the old technical and administrative staffs were gradually pushed aside and the former workers took their places. More than 60 per cent of the factory directors are former workers. A tremendous shifting was carried out in Eastern Germany. The youth had the opportunity to participate in this and to build something new. What prospect could be more intoxicating?

In order that the youth might participate in this change, many technical and administrative schools were built for them. Workers’ and peasants’ faculties were reserved for the most gifted. In two or three years of very serious work, the young worker received his degree and could then go to the university. Almost 40 per cent of the students of the Russian zone continue to take advantage of this.

Can we not favor a regime which offers all that? Is it difficult to accept severe hardships for the moment? Can we refuse conditions which are set for taking part in this upheaval? to belong to the Communist youth and have faith in the USSR? The enthusiasm of the youth of Eastern Germany for the communist regime is a more extraordinary phenomenon than its infatuation with Hitlerism in the preceding generation. At that time it lived in the nation which was neutral or favorable to the regime. Now most of the older generation is hostile to it. It is true that not all of the youth looks admiringly on Pieck and Stalin. The gap between official words and present realities is too great. But the Communist youth (FDJ), the famous blue shirts, are the principal support of the regime. There are shock brigades of the youth in each city and, in the country, the young tractor man (FDJ) of the Machine Station is the best propagandist for the regime. Young Communists have since systematically moved into the administration and if they are not always very experienced they are at least devoted and always ready to spy upon and watch over the young people. For instance Leipzig has a deputy mayor, aged 22. Finally, the famous Volkspolizei of Eastern Germany is recruiting from the young Communists. The regime is well on its way to winning over the youth. It is easy and good to believe in a better world in a vacation camp where friendship rules. It is exhilarating to belong to a system which embraces and answers all questions. The youth is the facade of the regime. What will become of it a few years later when it is active in social life and the process of production? That is at least half of the question.

The Activists

In the factories, the youth formed the most active and enthusiastic group. The first shock brigades were drawn from the young Communists. Of course, “material rewards” were an inducement but the will to build and their enthusiasm were authentic.

The situation among the adult activists was quite different. From 1945–46, incentive bonuses and piece work were introduced. Since money was worth little before the monetary reform, bonuses in the form of food and clothing were distributed by the trade union leaders to good workers. The politics of the individual was highly significant, and very often personal friendships and antagonisms played a role. This system was raised to the rank of an official institution by Order 234, Oct. 1949, by the joint military commandant.

By this decree, hot luncheons were given to a million workers in the factories. These privileged people – hunger was then widespread in Eastern Germany – were themselves divided into two categories: A and B. Only the first (400,000 workers) received meat at their meal. The workers of the same shop were divided into three categories and ate apart at mealtime. The gradation depended on how important each category was for production. But, as we have mentioned before, the political and personal played an important role. Of course, this system introduced a division among the workers. In this period, too, the pictures of the best workers were hung up and they were called “activists.” All kinds of benefits, especially food – were guaranteed them. The mass of workers usually were hostile to these “yellow” ones as they were called and always considered them as followers of the factory management.

In October 1948, the Saxon miner Hennecke, thanks to conditions specifically arranged, finished more than 400 per cent of his norm. The activist movement, from then on, adopted his name. No efforts were spared to help the “movement of Hennecke activists” expand and at the same time to be proclaimed as a political example. The food situation gradually became better. Members of the movement received big salaries. An activist could earn 6 to 7 times more than a laborer. The activists in each factory formed a group which met separately. They held conferences on a regional and national level. They and their families spent their vacations in select hotels. Their children had first choice, in fact, if not legally, of schools of higher learning and got scholarships more easily. The personnel for governing was recruited from the “activists” and it was possible to go to an engineering school if you were an “activist.”

The “activists” were the workers’ aristocracy; an attempt was made to imbue them with an esprit de corps and their movement was a good road to success in the social scale. One condition is indispensable, however, aside from good work: a positive attitude toward the regime, toward the USSR – and to accept the task of serving as an example to the other workers.

Lastly the element of personal interest was greatly strengthened in each factory. A special plan to save raw materials was drawn up for the activists. Each activist had a bank account opened for him and 25 per cent of the savings they made in production were transferred to it.

There were about 150,000 activists in the Soviet zone who became one of the bases of the regime. But what drives them to this point of view? As always happens in such situations, self-interest and conviction are inextricably co-mingled. Whatever the reason, the second pillar of the regime, the activists, is much weaker than the first, the youth.

The Sub-Proletarians

When we consider the mass of workers as a whole, the growth in the number of activists – and their number is increasing – represents an increase in the standard of the average individual. But are the activists really workers in every respect. What kind of proletarian is he whose wage is the smallest part of his share in the social income? At least according to the Marxist definition prevalent in the People’s

Democracies, he is not a worker. The mass of workers consider the activists as a foreign element in their midst. They are tied to “those who are on top,” they are for increased production and the workers ridicule it. In the nationalized industries they act like bosses; the rest of the workers do not. Pose these problems to a Communist leader and he will not deny the facts. He will only tell you that the activist is the worker of the future. We shall not discuss this hypothesis here. Let us only observe that for the activist movement to become typical, the standard of living in Eastern Germany would have to rise above the pre-war level. This would mean that it would be much higher than in the USSR which seems difficult to accept.

Whatever it may be, another group diametrically opposed to the activists is now taking form in the working class. It consists of unqualified workers and those who are too openly opposed to the regime and have no support, either in a union committee or in any official organization. They and the unemployed – there are 400,000 unacknowledged unemployed in East Germany – are recruited to work the uranium mines of Aue and to other very hard labor.

There are about 100,000 workers in Aue alone. They have been widely discussed in West Germany. The conditions under which they work are not as bad as is supposed but in spite of everything they are inhuman; the lot of many is a barracks life which they cannot leave at will.

The workers of Aue, the “sub-proletarians,” are recruited not only from among the factory workers but from every strata. All classes are put into a mould by the regime and all leave “waste.” If the activists are growing, we can at least say that the “sub-proletarians” are not becoming fewer.

And if they were not fleeing toward the West (1,500,000 refugees since 1945) it would surely increase in number.

The Party

What then, in short, is the nature of the regime in East Germany and what is its future? These questions cannot be answered in a few words. The regime, the country itself, presents an inextricable melange of new collectivist forms, on the one hand, imposed from above and having deep roots despite everything; on the other, of old individualism, the bourgeois capitalist living in the pores of society and consciousness of men. They influence and distort the collectivist elements and reach the summits of society. All of them are reflected and combined in a thousand forms in a party which including everything must also compress everything: objectivism, cosmopolitanism, practicalism, economism, pure syndicalism, sectarianism, social democracy, etc., are just so many names given to a social reality which does not bow to decrees.

Lastly the Party discusses itself in new terms. In discussing the private entrepreneur who still uses the old expression: “giver of work” in the paternalistic meaning of bread giver, Neues Deutschland, the leading organ of the Communist Party, wrote as follows: “The Party, not the boss, is the ‘work-giver’.” When it criticizes the formation of cliques in the administrative apparatus the same paper said: “These comrades have reached the point where they no longer serve the Party, but their leaders.” The S.E.D. is increasingly finding in itself its raison d’etre.

The S.E.D. is at present concentrating all its efforts on increasing production. There is no doubt that if the level of production in Western Germany were surpassed, if the population lived better than beyond the Elbe, the regime would have taken a decisive step toward consolidation. But this effort to increase production is greatly handicapped by the internal contradictions of the system. Eastern Germany continues to pay reparations to and has been forced to conclude unfavorable commercial treaties with Russia. The goal of the S.E.D. plan is not to raise the standard of living of the country, but the requirements of the Soviet bloc. Under these circumstances, the regime believes that to continue its efforts, it cannot allow criticism and must seal itself from the West. “Only what the Party says is true,” proclaims the Neues Deutschland of March 17, 1950, and “to be eager to listen to the Western radio or to read Western newspapers is to take sides with the enemies of democracy and the war-makers.” (Neues Deutschland, June 9, 1950)

But can victory be attained in the long run by insulating one’s self off completely, by wearing blinders and not understanding world reality. The experience of the last few decades proves that that is the road to catastrophe.

The regime has important trump cards. Enemies lie in wait outside; they are also within its own domain. The regime must compromise with them and struggle against them at the same time. Everything is changing, merging and being transformed before our very eyes. For the moment we can only say with the German socialist, Kautsky (whose works are forbidden in the East): “We can only define but not describe the transformation.”

The structure of Eastern Germany each year moves further away from that of Western Germany. But the difference is much more on the surface than in the real social content of the country. If the regime of East Berlin collapses, capitalism will be welcomed enthusiastically by the remnants of the old bourgeoisie. The majority of the peasantry, the middle class of the cities and the former intellectuals will joyously greet it. The attitude of the working class, of course, remains an unknown factor. It is nevertheless certain that if the working class does not welcome the representatives of the Bonn government with wide open arms, neither will it defend the regime of East Berlin. In the last analysis the latter will find on its side only a handful of old communists and activists and a part of the youth – some ten to twelve per cent of the population at the very most.

* * *


1. Here, as elsewhere in his well-informed article, the author, in our view, tends to regard the Stalinist “agrarian reform” in Germany abstractly and as somewhat comparable to the agrarian reform of the great bourgeois revolutions. The fate of the German Junkers is, by itself, of less interest than that of last year’s snow. But since the overdue destruction of Junkerism did not and could not “by itself,” but was only one of the absolutely indispensable prerequisites for the consolidation of Stalinist despotism over the workers, and the peasants, we see no ground for any democrat or socialist being “grateful” to Stalinism even for this apparently progressive measure.

The agrarian reform, without quotation marks, of the great bourgeois revolutions, was progressive. It was indispensable for the unfoldment of the then progressive social order; the Stalinist reform is indispensable for the consolidation of a reactionary social order. The classic bourgeois reform created the independent peasant by giving him the feudal lands; the Stalinist reform in actuality turns the land over to a totalitarian state which organizes all agricultural production and distribution by police measures and converts the feudal or capitalistic peasant of yesterday into a modern serf, as it turns the proletarians into modern state slaves. What the Stalinist reforms have in common with the old agrarian reforms, or any other progressive changes, except for the most transparent externals, is practically inconsequential. – Ed.

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