The decision taken at the end of 1929 to proceed to the mass collectivization of Soviet agriculture has always been something of a puzzle. Pronouncements of party leaders up to that time had given no reason to expect so far-reaching a measure. It was followed by disastrous consequences which had clearly not been foreseen, and which for some years altogether nullified its advantages. Granted that we now approach the problem with the benefit of hindsight, it remains a matter of legitimate speculation why this drastic solution was so precipitately adopted.

Many writersfootnote1 have suggested that ideology may have been responsible for driving the Soviet leaders into action inappropriate to the situation which confronted them. Marx undoubtedly believed in the efficiency of large-scale collective organization for agriculture as for industry; and he held that the peasant would eventually be obliged to abandon his reactionary role as a petty proprietor and enter the ranks of the proletariat. But he evidently regarded this not as something to be enforced on the peasant, but as a natural corollary of the revolutionary process. Engels, after Marx’s death, in his pamphlet on The Peasant Question in France and Germany, explicitly ruled out the idea of ‘expropriating the small peasants [as opposed to the large landowners] by force, with or without compensation’:

‘Our task in relation to the small peasants will consist, first and foremost, in converting their private production and private ownership into collective production and ownership—not, however, by forcible means but by example and by offering social aid for this purpose.’

This very specific passage was more than once quoted by Lenin both before and after the revolution, and was familiar to every Bolshevik. Even at the eighth party congress, held at the height of the civil war in March 1919, at which Lenin remarked that ‘we have been, are, and shall be in a state of direct civil war with the kulaks’, he deplored the fact that blows intended for kulaks had sometimes fallen on middle peasants, and the resolution of the congress, drafted by Lenin, firmly enunciated the principle of non-violence in regard to the middle peasant:

‘In encouraging associations of every kind, and also agricultural communes, of middle peasants, the representatives of the Soviet power should not permit the slightest compulsion in founding such bodies. . . . Those representatives of the Soviet power who allow themselves to apply not merely direct, but even indirect, compulsion in order to attach peasants to communes, should be held strictly accountable and removed from work in the countryside.’

Throughout the middle 1920’s, collectivization remained in the party programme, but as a distant and unrealizable goal; even Molotov is on record as referring in 1925footnote2 to ‘poor peasant illusions about the collectivization of the broad peasant masses’. The opposition platform of September 1927 put forward, without special emphasis and without any hint of the use of force, its routine demand for a gradual advance towards a socialized agriculture.

With the turn to the Left at the end of 1927, more talk was heard of collectivization, and the fifteenth party congress in December 1927 proclaimed ‘an offensive against the kulak’. But this did not imply any intention to use force. When a foreign delegate asked Stalin in November 1927 how he hoped ‘to realize collectivism in the peasant question’, he spoke of ‘measures of an economic, financial and cultural-political character’, and concluded: ‘things are moving in that direction, but have not yet got, and will not soon get, so far’. At the congress Stalin attacked ‘those comrades [presumably members of the opposition] who think it possible and necessary to finish with the kulaks by administrative measures, through the gpu’; and Molotov, explaining that the party was still faithful to nep, went on: