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14 June 2022

From the NS archive: Bread and Bolshevism

22 December 1934: What the end of food rationing says about the economic and social health of the USSR.

By Louis Fischer

In 1935 the Soviet Union abolished its food rationing system, the cause of much friction between Soviet towns and the countryside. Bread rationing in particular was divisive, with the peasantry unwilling to grow wheat for the towns or reluctant to hand over their grain. Bread had become both a commodity for bartering and a signifier of splits in Soviet society. What the end of rationing signalled therefore, thought the writer Louis Fischer, was not just the greater availability of an important foodstuff but the improved health of the Soviet economy, currency and its entire social basis. Collectivisation had been a painful process and much resented but “to-day, having paid the heavy toll, Soviet socialised agriculture is on the uphill”, said Fischer.

Moscow, December 14th, 1934

The food rationing system is abolished as from January 1st, 1935. This measure has considerable significance. The Bolsheviks would not have taken it if they had thought that a war was imminent, for there would be no sense in eliminating bread cards only to reintroduce them in three or six months. No doubt the menace of a foreign attack, which the Soviets have exaggerated these many years, remains, yet the eliminating of the rationing system in the cities will enrich and mollify the villages and thus further reduce the likelihood of invasion. For war against the Soviet Union would be in part a gamble on peasant disaffection; the outside has always underestimated the internal strength of the Red regime. But the suppression of the bread cards will make the countryside more prosperous and hence more loyal.

At one and the same time, therefore, it reflects a lessened fear of war and likewise lessens the chances of war. The Government should accordingly be in a position to transfer some of the energy and materials now devoured by military defence activities to the gratification of popular consumption requirements, and thereby still further improve the mood and condition of the civilian population factors very helpful in wartime.

The cashiering of the bread cards means not only that there is now enough bread in the country to satisfy demand, but that there is every likelihood of normal agricultural production and normal retail distribution in the future. The destructive phase of agrarian collectivisation is at an end, and the Socialist village can feed the Socialist city. Bread cards were introduced in 1928, because the capitalistic peasantry could not or would not grow enough food. Since then Soviet agriculture has passed through purgatory and hell. The costs and the losses and the sacrifices have been great, but the net result is a politically more reliable and an economically more productive collectivised village.

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Before collectivisation, the Soviet system was Janus-faced; one face looked up the Red road towards Socialism, the other wore the well-known features of the Russian moujik. Before collectivisation, the Soviet system stood on one leg, the Socialist city. To-day, by a painful and tortuous process, the regime has acquired a more homogeneous character and a firmer footing. Bolshevism now has one face and two legs. There is no longer any danger that a strengthened private-capitalistic village will lay economic siege to and reduce the Socialist city.

At present, three-quarters of all peasant households and 90 per cent of all land in the USSR are collectivised. Imagine that collectivisation had never taken place. The city, however, would have proceeded with its industrialisation and expansion. The city has given the kolhozi 281,000 tractors, 33,000 combines, 34,000 auto-trucks, and over two million seeders, threshing machines and harvesting machines. Suppose this equipment were now the private possession of private farmers. Those farmers would be a powerful capitalistic force. By mechanising private agriculture, the industrialised city would have been entrenching its own enemy. The thing is inconceivable, and it is one of the reasons why collectivisation had to come together with industrialisation. For, if the Bolsheviks had mechanised the village and then tried to collectivise it, the difficulties and expense would have been even greater than they were.

To-day, having paid the heavy toll, Soviet socialised agriculture is on the uphill. It is not much of an achievement that Russia has enough bread. But when one recalls that as late as 1932 there was, partly through crop failure and mostly through peasant sabotage, a definite food deficit; when one remembers that millions more consume in the cities while millions less produce in the villages; when one considers that collectivisation involved a tremendous diminution in the number of horses and other working animals; when one thinks of all the chaos brought on by the reorganisation of life, work, and thought processes incident to collectivisation, then Soviet agriculture’s rapid turning of the corner is not a small triumph.

Bread will now be sold in an augmented number of State and co-operative stores at one fixed price and in unlimited quantities. As a matter of fact, the rationing system had broken down before it was relinquished. According to the Pravda, a quantity of bread equal to 44 per cent of the bread distributed on cards is now being sold in commercial stores where the size of purchases is not limited. This commercial bread is of far better quality, and people prefer it despite its higher price. Moreover, the ugly red tape, the innumerable questionnaires which every citizen had to fill in before receiving a card, the stealing and other abuses, the speculation by workers who got double and therefore excess rations – all these were demoralising and irritating, and so costly that the Government will economise huge sums by releasing bread from the restrictions. Nevertheless, prices will be raised.

The new price beginning January 1st, 1935, will be a mean between the low artificial ration-card price and the high commercial price, but all persons gainfully employed will be granted wage rises equal to the rise in the price of the bread they now consume. The worker will reap some small advantage, because he will buy less bread. There will be no inflation, because the wage rise money will come back to the exchequer in the form of bread price increases. And the chief difference will be that, what with higher price levels, the Government will pay the peasants more for their grain. Growers of tobacco, cotton, flax and oilier industrial crops will likewise receive higher compensation. Otherwise there would have been a rush to grow cereals, whereas the Government is encouraging the development of technical cultures.

The statement announcing the end of the card system states that the rationing of some products other than bread will also be discontinued and that the prices of manufactured commodities are to be brought down. The peasant with his larger income will consequently be able to buy more factory goods. The city employee with his unchanged income will benefit too, but relatively less than the kolhoz member. Just as the elimination of bread cards reflects the availability of more bread, so the reduction of goods prices reflects the availability of more manufactured articles. Here, therefore, in concrete, undeniable form, is proof of the agricultural and industrial progress of the Soviet Union.

Persons living in or visiting this country can see with their own eyes the speedy, daily increase in the kinds and the volume of city goods sold in stores, as well as the speedy, daily rise in living standards. Hitherto, the impartial observer could pass on this information and ask to be believed. Now these official measures offer incontrovertible evidence. By which I do not mean to suggest that supplies are already adequate. They are only bigger. The ration system was inaugurated in 1928, not so much because the city was underfed, but because the peasant came into town and bought up the city’s bread. If there were much danger of a return to this condition, the system would have been retained.

I think the lifting of restrictions on bread sales will actually reduce the amount of bread sold in urban centres, for under the present card distribution much bread is bought only to be exchanged for other products. My maid, for instance, regularly pays with bread for the milk she buys from the peasant women who bring it into Moscow. She is not alone in this practice. But of late the women refuse to take bread. They have enough of it themselves. And the exchange value of bread has fallen. The peasants demand money with which they expect to buy manufactured goods from the State.

The repeal of rationing of bread and some other foods is important because it points the way to a new system of Soviet distribution. The moment there was enough bread in the country and enough goods to pay for the bread, restrictions were cast out and a unified price established. Ultimately, the same will apply to every other article of consumption. At present, one can buy meat at one price in a co-operative store on cards, at another and higher price in a closed factory co-operative, and at a third and still higher price in a commercial store. Those who have access to the closed co-operative are privileged. The moment there is enough meat to go round one price will be fixed, limitations abolished, and the closed co-operatives will become unnecessary.

All prices of all commodities in commercial stores and markets have been falling sharply – obviously a result of bigger supplies! The Soviet rouble is not tied to gold though, technically, part of the currency has a gold cover. The value of the rouble is determined by the volume of goods in the country. In 1931, when there was scarcely anything to buy here, the rouble was practically worthless. And it was constantly depreciating. Now it is valuable and appreciating.

For the first time, as far as I can recall, the existence of inflation is now officially recognised; the decree abolishing rationing speaks of the: “Soviet rouble which is growing stronger.” In the eyes of the Government, however, it was never officially weak. Actually it was very weak. And actually it is growing stronger. The Soviet Union is on the road to a stable parity currency based on a sufficient supply of food and manufactured goods. One-price trade will mean the disappearance of speculation and waste. It will mean that agricultural production will be stimulated and that draconic methods and pressure for the collection of village products can be abandoned, for the peasant will gladly deliver up his crops if he receives fair compensation in city goods. This will be the chief political significance.

It will mean, therefore, a real bond and bridge between socialist city and socialist village. I suspect it will also mean the disappearance of co-operative stores and the monopoly of Government stores. Soviet co-operative stores are, for the most part, already “Statified”. They are dirty, inefficient and slow, and when customers can afford it they prefer the open State shops. State trade is pushing out co-operatives, and, soon and for a period at least, co-operative distribution will be dead in the USSR. There will remain, after January 1st, 1935, many closed co-operatives where the lucky can buy at reduced prices. The Government proposes gradually to wipe out these stores for the privileged. Everything will be sold in open commercial stores at one price. Inequality, which the Bolsheviks encourage, will then express itself in the inequality of wages based on varying training and talents, but not in inequality of opportunity arising out of varying social position or of official position as at present. 

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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