The economic policies of Lenin and Stalin

Categories: CommunismEconomics

Compare and contrast the economic policies of Lenin and Stalin and evaluate their success.

Comparing Lenin and Stalin one finds that both were following a communist ideal but what is the communist ideal? The main principal is to share a country's wealth amongst its people. This is the theoretical side of the communist idea; the practical side requires a careful planning of the country's economy and also a system that makes sure that everybody is treated equally.

When Lenin and the communist party took over power, following the revolution in 1917, Lenin made sure that a council took over the planning of the economy.

The council was called the "Vesenkha" and established a planning commission in 1921 called the "Gosplan".

Following his succession to power in 1924, Stalin promised the Russian people that he would carry on Lenin's legacy, which meant continuing with Lenin's policies and also his aim to establish communism throughout the Soviet Union and the rest of the world. However, comparing their strategies, one finds that Stalin moved away from Lenin's ideals, War Communism and his New Economic Policies (NEP).

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In order to evaluate the success, or to some extent the failure, of their economic policies, it is necessary to consider their personal ambitions, if any, and the internal and external circumstances facing the USSR that influenced economic policy making. (Miss Daley's essay)

Lenin and the communist party only had a vague idea how the communist philosophy should be put into practise. This included especially the economic proposals of the communist philosophy.

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The first economic ideas to be put into practise were reactionary and were formulated to please the Bolsheviks (the communist party). One of these ideas was the Land Decree of 1917 which was a radical change for Russia. It abolished all private ownership without compensation and all ranks in the army. In addition, most of the economy was taken over, on the behalf of the people, by the government. This represented a big step towards communism because the country was now in a period of socialism, a transitional phase between the end of capitalism and the beginning of communism. This radical step brought with it some problems, one such problem being the reconciliation of the workers' freedom to run their own affairs. Another problem was that Lenin had to face the demands made by the Civil War.

This period, where "private trade was banned and food was requisitioned from the peasantry to feed the Red Army and ensure supplies for those in vital industries" (Heinemann Advanced History) was called War Communism. Instead of bringing the promised success, War communism brought misery, in the form of famines and diseases, from which up to 20 million Russians a thought to have died. It also led to protests, which led to the peasant uprisings in 1920-21, such as the Kronstadt Mutiny in 1921. During this period the Russian currency collapsed and the economy was close to breaking down. This situation was nowhere near the utopia that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had promised.

Lenin's first economic policy had failed to deliver. To kick start the economy, drastic measures were needed.

These drastic measures came in the form of the NEP, which did not only revive the economy but also showed the pragmatic side of his character. Lenin showed himself to be a realist, willing to compromise communist ideology for the survival of the revolution. This pragmatic interpretation of Marxism that implied that the party should follow any course that would ultimately lead to communism was later called Marxist-Leninism. However, the introduction of the NEP meant a compromise between the ideology of the party and the desperate needs of the economy. This stopped the requisitioning of food and allowed peasants to trade with products that they had surplus.

Small factories, particular those producing consumer goods, and traders where now allowed to buy and sell goods and make a profit from them. Not only did this revitalise the economy, which by 1924 had reached a pre-war (1914) level, it also increased foreign trade. To combine this compromise with the ideology of the party, the state kept control of the heavy industries. Lenin saw the NEP as a short-term fix which meant "a step backwards" in the development of communism but one which would restore the economy. Once this had happened, the country could take the "two steps forwards" to achieve a communist state. The success of the NEP was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the NEP had revived the economy, increased foreign trade and also electrified the country which was seen as a great success. On the other hand the NEP divided the party into a left and right wing.

After Lenin's death in 1924, two conflicting schools of thought about the future of the Soviet Union arose in party debates. Trotsky, one of the primary proponents of the party's left wing, believed that a world revolution was essential for the survival of socialism in the economically backward Soviet Union. However, the left wing's domestic policy also advocated rapid development of the economy and the creation of a socialist society.

In contrast to these "militant communists" (Internet: Lenin's Leadership), Burkharin, one of the primary supporters of the right wing, realized that an immediate world revolution was unlikely. He favoured the gradual development of the Soviet Union through pragmatic programs like the NEP.

Stalin, on the other hand, aligned himself with the right wing of the party, even though he did not believe in the NEP. He wanted to use the Rightists to destroy Trotsky and the left wing politically and thereby secure his own position.

By 1924, the "Troika" made up of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinov'yev used the split in the Politburo (Russian government), to manoeuvre successfully against Trotsky. They engineered his removal as a commissar of war, in 1925. In the meantime, Stalin had consolidated his power and, once he had sufficient strength, he broke with Kamenev and Zinov'yev. Both recognized the danger of Stalin's political power and made amends with Trotsky in order to join forces with their former partner. Stalin countered their attacks on his position with a well-timed release of his doctrine, of the theory of "socialism in one country". This called for a construction of a socialist society in the USSR regardless of the international situation. It distanced him from the Left Wing and won him even more support from the Rightists.

In the period from 1926-1927, with this support and his own influence, Stalin managed to oust the leaders of the "Left Opposition" from their positions. In 1928 he managed to force Trotsky into exile.

Now that Stalin had eliminated his opponents, open debate became increasingly limited within the Party. Stalin, who had now risen to a dictator, used his power to follow a completely new course compared to his old line. He implemented industrial expansion as rapidly as possible through the Five-Year Plan, which was launched in 1928. It was designed to industrialise the USSR in the shortest possible time and, in the process, to expedite the collectivisation of farms. The plan was ruthlessly applied and focused on heavy industries, in particular the development of iron and steel, machine-tools, electric power and transport. Stalin justified these measures when speaking in a statement made in 1931 by saying, "We are 50-100 years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in 10 years. Either we do it or we shall be crushed." (Heinemann Advanced History)

The first Five-Year Plan covered the period from 1928-1933, but was officially completed in 1932. Stalin argued that the five-year plan was necessary by claiming that if rapid industrialisation did not take place, the Soviet Union would not be able to defend itself against an invasion from capitalist countries in the west.

There were other economic and political reasons for rapid industrialisation but the main economic reasons were always closely linked to the fear of foreign invasion. Many communists in the party believed that the position of the Soviet Union in the world could only be secured by a strong economy. They were disappointed by the industrial production of the country as a whole and Soviet production figures which still remained far behind the modern industrial economies in Western Europe.

The political reasons behind the five-year plan were to ensure the survival of the revolution and therefore socialism and with it the Communist Party. Industrialisation would create many more members of the proletariat (working class people), the backbone of the revolution and would also get rid of the detested NEPmen ("private business owners and traders who survived under the NEP") (Heinemann Advanced History)

It is difficult to evaluate the success of Stalin's economic policies because like Lenin's NEP they were a double-edged sword. From an economic point of view, they were a great success even though the targets given by Stalin were not all achieved. In spite of this there was a noticeable increase in production. The production of coal for example, increased six-fold. The emphasis on heavy industries resulted in many new industrial centres being built, such as Magnitogorsk. Before the first five-year plan Magnitogorsk was only a small village with 25 inhabitants which expanded during this period to a huge industrial centre with more than 250,000 inhabitants.

From a political point of view the Five-year plans were also a great success since they strengthened the control of the party and therefore Stalin's position as leader. The number of workers ("the proletariat") also grew, which was good for the survival of the revolution. However, at the same time the rapid industrialisation led to many workers earning low wages and living in very bad living conditions. In addition, the introduction of slave labour, which was necessary to overcome the labour shortage, did nothing to improve the working conditions of those who where working freely.

To summarise, one comes to the conclusion that both Lenin and Stalin were following the same idea, a communist Soviet Union. Although they were following the same idea, they used different methods and policies to achieve their goals.

Lenin tried to reach his goal in two different ways. Firstly, he introduced the so-called War communism, which not only brought misery to the population but also brought the economy close to collapse. Secondly, he introduced the NEP, which revived the economy but split the party into to two wings.

Stalin tried to reach his goal with the Five-year plans, which brought a big increase in heavy industry and secured the Party's and his own position but worsened working and living conditions.

Ultimately one sees that Stalin was more concerned about his own standing and reputation than Lenin who cared more about introducing communist principles.


  1. Essay from Miss Daley, Heinemann Advanced History,
  2. Internet:
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The economic policies of Lenin and Stalin
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