The industrialization of agriculture: the wrong way

As the U.S. and Western Europe began industrializing their economies, including their agricultural sectors, two young nations also had dreams of industrialization, but they followed a different strategy. The history of agriculture in 20th century Russia and China is a sad tale, but it has much to teach us about how NOT to run an economy.

I have chosen to illustrate this "wrong way" through fiction. I will tell a story of what your life might have been like in Russia during the 1920s or China in the 1950s. While the stories are fiction every single event is taken directly from, or inspired by, reality, so these fictional characters are really metaphors for all of agriculture under communist central planning.

What is so sad about China and Russia is that they repeated history. Had they only learned of the Pilgrims' experience in the U.S., they might have saved well over 50 million lives—and that number is no exaggeration.

What is also sad is that Venezuela appears to be repeating these mistakes, though at a much tempered level.

(A) The wrong way: Russian edition

You are a child of Russian peasant farmers in 1920, south of Moscow but north of Ukraine. It is lonely in your village. Years ago you lost one brother fighting for the Tsar in World War I and another fighting for the Bolsheviks in the Civil War. You were fortunate in that the Civil War did not affect your village, and the war's conclusion, at first, brought better days. The Russian Revolution got rid of the landlords, and for the first time your family was able to farm your land without paying high land rents.

But once the Bolsheviks established power things began to change. You didn't really know what a Bolshevik was, but you knew what they wanted. They wanted your grain and to pay very little for it. Before the revolution your father would sell his grain on the market, receiving whatever the market was paying at the time, and most of the time it was high enough that your family made money.

Everything you knew about the Bolsheviks you heard from a neighbor's daughter who recently returned home from the Red Army (the Bolsheviks were the least sexist society at the time, and so allowed female soldiers) and the news she brought wasn't good. The Bolsheviks were rearranging the economy to an idea traced back to the Germans: War Communism. This meant the country would be administered as it if were at war: the government could take what it wants, when it wants.

War Communism would industrialize the nation, the Bolsheviks thought, so that it would be ready for the next war. This meant investments in capital: ships, factories, machines, and the like. Investments were needed but the country was broke. They would get this money from the peasants, by paying far, far less than the market price for the peasants' grain, then selling it at a higher price on the world market.

Your neighbor's daughter was right. First the Bolsheviks came to your village to inform you of what “the price” of grain would be. This was not a price negotiated between buyers and sellers, but a price determined solely by the Communist Party. And this price was below the cost of production. Moreover, you could only sell your grain to the party, and only at this price. This year, your family was going to lose money if it farmed, but since all indications were that this policy would last for years, there was no point farming for profits anymore.

You and your family moved your house deeper into the woods, harder for the government to find. There is no point growing food for other people because you would do so at a financial loss, so your parents grew only what your family needed to eat for that year.

Others did the same, which meant the grain the government planned on selling in international markets was never planted. There was far less food being produced all throughout Russia. Some travelers passing through the village talked of starvation in northern regions—even rumors of cannibalism. At the time, the story about cannibalism seemed too repugnant to be true.

With little food being produced the cities were running out of food, so the government sent the Red Army out not to buy food at low prices, but to confiscate the grain by force. When they found your house you knew they would take the grain stored in the barn, but you didn't fear too much because they couldn't take the grain your father had hidden in the woods. Though proud of your father's foresight, he was not as clever as you thought.

The Red Army anticipated you had hidden reserves of grain, and so they dug a hole and took you, a ten-year old, by the legs, holding you upside down and lowering you into the hole as soldiers began to fill it in. Later you would be unable to convey how panicked you were, and you would leave out the fact that you wet your pants. You panicked, wondering whether your father was going to give away the grain to save you, or to sacrifice you to save the others. Truth be told, though you loved your family deeply, at the time all you cared about was yourself. You discovered, that day, that you are no hero.

The dirt continued to accumulate, and you began to prepare for death. When the dirt accumulated so high that it covered your nose, your father confessed to the hidden grain, and to save your life he led them to the hidden locations and watched them take it away. After he had given it all away they then asked, “Where is the rest of it?” He swore there was nothing else. With indifference, the soldiers shot your father dead and drove away with the last of your food.

Your village became a graveyard.

It took you one month to reach a city, and you travelled alone, as you were the only remaining member of your family. Your life was spared that day when the soldiers came, but without food or money, your mother, older brother, and younger sister had died. Once at the city you found that begging for food would not be easy, as there was much competition from other orphans. One little orphan girl took a liking to you and showed you a reliable trick to earn a few kopecks a day—so long as you promised her to do it only in a distant neighborhood, so that you don't compete with her. It was a debasing trick but it kept you alive: you would smear your face with your own excrement for the amusement and pity of others. Often you thought about the others who dealt with starvation by cannibalism, and you were not sure if that was less or more repugnant than your key to survival.

You were dying of malnutrition and disease, and you almost welcomed the end. You dreamed about the taste of fresh bread, and your most fervent hope was that heaven would smell like a bakery. Your last day alive was spent lying by the street, where you heard two party officials chat as they walked by, avoiding eye contact with you. They were laughing how the USSR was receiving free grain sent by the U.S., under the direction of the altruistic Herbert Hoover, and at the same time loading another ship with Russian grain confiscated from the peasants—grain to be sold to pay for the bombs that Russia would need in the next war.

And you thought to yourself how easy it would have been for the communists to take fifty times the amount of grain they took from your father. All they had to do was to let him sell it at a fair price—a market price. For centuries your family had produced grain to feed themselves and to make a profit. With one policy, a policy preventing any farmer from earning a profit from their production, your family stopped producing.

The USSR believed it could loot the countryside to pay for industrialization, but what they did not understand was that it was impossible to loot unless the peasants produced something worth looting. And without the profit motive and free markets, the only thing left in the Russian countryside to loot was graves and skeletons. Almost a skeleton yourself, moments before you died you panicked. Not because you were dying, but because you realized you forgot what the smell of fresh baked bread really smelled like.

Quotation A.1—Richard Pipes on War Communism In the summer of 1918, Moscow launched a campaign to extract grain from the villages, which the peasants were unwilling to sell to the government at unrealistically low fixed prices… One response of the peasants, rich and poor alike, to this terror was to curtail the sown acreage so as to reduce the “surplus” subject to confiscation. At the same time, shortages of draft horses, mobilized for the civil war, lowered yields. As a consequence, cereal grain harvests declined from 78.2 million tons in 1913 to 48.2 million in 1920.
—Pipes, Richard. 2001. Communism: A History. The Modern Library: NY, NY.

Quotation A.2— on War Communism War Communism was a disaster. In all areas, the economic strength of Russia fell below the 1914 level. Peasant farmers only grew for themselves, as they knew that any extra would be taken by the state. Therefore, the industrial cities were starved of food.
History Learning Site. “War Communism.” Accessed December 23, 2013 at

(B) The wrong way: Chinese edition

As long as your family could remember, they had rented the land they farmed, and paid such high rents they remained forever poor peasants. Then came World War II, and then the Communist Revolution, which took the land from the landlords and gave it to the peasants. It was a joyous yet dreadful day. Joyous because people like your family had power for the first time. Dreadful because you saw what peasants would become with this power. Though you had no affection for your landlord, you had to pity him as the village tied his hands behind his back, forced him to his knees, and took turns insulting him and spitting in his face. They drew a circle around him and forbid him to leave the circle or his family would be killed. It took three days for him to die of dehydration; his family feared they would be persecuted if they tried to help him, so they neither brought him water nor told him goodbye.

Your family was only given control of land for a short time though. You knew your parents' newfound freedom would be short-lived when you started hearing of experimental communes being established to the south. The rumors were unbelievable but ultimately true, and it happened the same way all throughout China.

First you heard warnings that the Communists would be at your village in a matter of days, and when they did, they would confiscate all private property. Rather than mourning, the village erupted into a feast. Every head of livestock was slaughtered and consumed, for if they were alive when the Communists came they would be confiscated. More rice was cooked and grain made into bread than anyone could eat. Anything that could be sold for money was, but when everyone tries to sell at the same time no one gets a good price. It was all for the better, for that money would soon prove worthless.

Just as the rumors foretold, the Communist Party arrived and announced that the village would be blended with other villages to create a large collective farm. Everything was taken: spoons, blankets, clothes...everything. You were told your country would take a “great leap forward” which would require considerable sacrifice now but would deliver paradise, eventually.

You could not protest. In fact, you could not even be stoic. Every person had to appear enthusiastic or they would be removed and “corrected.” Your father never really possessed a noble character, and once he saw that one could gain favoritism of the party by displaying an unending commitment to the Great Leap Forward he volunteered that your family's house be demolished for use as fertilizer. It was really a smart move. All houses would be torn down and plowed into the earth anyway, but by being the first to volunteer your family might be treated favorably.

The giving up of personal property wasn't that big of a deal. Your family didn't own much anyway. Being in a collective farm was actually nice, at first, as you had so many more other children to play with than you did in your village.

Though only thirteen years old your father volunteered your services to the party officials who managed the collective farms, and your job was to run between the farm and a party office ten miles away to deliver messages. Though you were told by the communists not to read the messages, your father ordered you to bring them to him first, and after opening the envelope and reading it he would write the identical message with his own hand, sealing it in another envelope, and charging you with delivering it as you were commanded.

The messages at first seemed mundane. The party wanted to know how much your collective farm “pledged” to give to the party. At first the farm volunteered 250 tons of rice, which was half of what everyone expected to produce, so it didn't seem unreasonable.

Time went by and things were actually a bit better than before collectivization, but three things started to go awry.

First, the amount the farm pledged kept going up. Other farms of a similar size were pledging more than your farm, which suggested you were not as dedicated to the Great Leap Forward as you should be. As a result, your farm pledged more and more. As the pledges across different farms rose, less and less would be left for the farmers and their families to eat.

Second, party officials started interfering with how the peasants farmed. At first you were told these were scientific agricultural methods, so you just assumed they would increase output, but when you found out what these scientific methods were, your father sadly remarked that they would never work

  • The party told you to apply 30 metric tons of fertilizer per hectare, much more than peasants had ever applied, and as the peasants predicted, it was too much, and nothing grew. This left no fertilizer for other fields, where very little was harvested.
  • Then you were told to plant in the early spring, even though it was too cold, and despite warnings by the peasants that it was too early, you planted as commanded. The result? You were able to harvest something, but nothing near what was typically harvested when peasants were left to make their own decisions. An amount barely in excess of what your farm pledged to give to the government.
  • Then you were told to transplant rice plants much closer than normal so that you could harvest more per acre. You knew it wouldn't work, and it didn't.
  • Rice production was possible because the soil was tightly compacted several feet below the surface. This was called a hardpan, and it prevented water from draining, but you didn't know this, and when you were ordered to employ deep ploughing methods you were optimistic it would produce more food. It was difficult work. All the livestock had been slaughtered for consumption before the confiscation and collectivization began, so you and others had to pull the plows yourself. As ordered, you plowed deep—so deep this hardpan was broken and the fields drained water quickly. It was too dry to grow rice and too wet to grow grain.

With every month that went by your food rations at the farm canteen dwindled.

Third came the command that peasants should not only farm but produce steel. Yes, the collective farm was ordered to find metals of any kind, and build its own steel furnaces. Told it had to meet its quota of steel the peasants tore down nearby forests for fuel and used iron farm implements as raw material for the furnace. Though you met the steel quota when next year rolled around there were not enough shovels, hoes, or plows to farm much land.

Meanwhile, the farm's pledge of grain production increased, so high that your father remarked there would not be enough food to feed everyone at the farm. He said it with an indifference towards the lives of others. He wasn't worried about the misery that starvation would bring. He was worried how to save his own hide.

Your father was able to feed himself by selling you and your brother to travelers. Though it sounds tragic, you were fortunate. Most everyone who remained at the village (save for your father) shrunk to skeletons. Collective farms began raiding each other trying to steal food, but found none. You heard that cannibalism had occurred to the east. Although he didn't do it out of love, your father selling you was the best thing he had ever done for you.

As you followed your new master to the city you noticed areas that once were farms but were now lakes. Overhearing others, you learned that the communists had built a large dam but didn't have the engineering knowledge to do it properly, and it only lasted four months. When the dam broke it diverted a river from its ancient path. Some fields growing grain were flooded, others relying on the river to irrigate its rice paddies were dry.

You also noticed that the birds seemed to have disappeared. When you asked about it you were told that Chairman Mao administered a sparrow eradication program, where every citizen was ordered to bang pots and pans, run through the fields, and step onto the roofs of houses to chase the sparrows away. Others were ordered to climb trees to knock out the sparrow nests—some of these fell to their death, another casualty from performing one's patriotic duty.

After explaining the sparrow fiasco, your master pointed to a field of rice destroyed by insects, saying, “See what havoc the insects did there [pointing to the field]? That didn't happen when we had the sparrows. It turned out the sparrows had been eating insects the whole time, we just didn't know.”

This master whom you now served was a party official, whose duty was to travel to various collective farms and verify that they were being administered by a true party official. At one farm you stayed for up to two weeks as he investigated a crime. You were there for the arrest. It was a small shed just a few miles from the collective farm's canteen. Coffins were scattered about the shed, their lids open, and smoke was coming from the shed's chimney. The man was arrested for making fertilizer, fertilizer made by human corpses simmered for days in a cauldron.

These corpses were just a few among the 55 million Chinese that would die from the famines: man-made famines, resulting directly from the central planning of the Chinese Communist party. And now the phosphorus in their bones was made into fertilizer, helping to grow the food they themselves were denied.

That is a brief excerpt from Chinese history, yet you probably think of China as a rising superpower, whose citizens are becoming richer every day. How did they overcome the obstacles to wealth erected by communism? They recognized the importance of markets, of prices, of property, as described in the video below.

Excerpt from China: A Century of Revolution

Selected References

Baum, Richard. 2010. Fall and Rise of China. The Great Courses. The Teaching Company.

Cawthorne, Andrew and Deisy Buitrago. November 14, 2013. "Venezuela jails 100 'bourgeois' businessmen in crackdown." Reuters.

Dikötter, Frank. 2010. Mao's Great Famine. Walker & Company: NY, NY.

The Economist. November 16, 2013. " Venequela's "economic war": Everything must go...except the president, at least for the time being." Page 42.

The Economist. March 8, 2013. "Briefing: Venequela after Chavez." Page 23.

Figes, Orlando. 2002. Natasha’s Dance. Picador: NY, NY.

Hammond, Kenneth J. From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History. The Great Courses. The Teaching Company.

Hamburg, Gary. 1996. Rise and Fall of Soviet Communism: A History of 20th-Century Russia. The Great Courses. The Teaching Company.

Hoffman, David L. 1994. Peasant Metropolis. Studies of the Harriman Institute: Columbia University, NY.

Longworth, Philip. 2005. Russia: The Once and Future Empire from Pre-History to Putin. St. Martin’s Press: NY, NY.

Martinez, Leopoldo. December 20, 2013. "Venequela is the Next Zimbabwe." The Wall Street Journal. A19.

Munoz, Sara Schaefer. August 19, 2013. "U.S. Rice Farmers Cash In on Venequelan Socialism." The Wall Street Journal. A1.

Taubman, William. 2003. Khruschchev: The Man and His Era. W. W. Norton & Company: NY, NY.

Williams, Sue [director, producer, and writer], Kathryn Dietz [co-director and producer]. 1994. China: A Century of Revolution. Zeitgeist Films.