Gorbachev's Revolution

The leader of the Soviet Union believes that the time has come for the Communist Party to make good on its revolutionary promises of more than 70 years ago to provide land to a landless peasantry and bread to a hungry people.

In a speech of historic significance, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has called for all but eliminating the system of state and collective farms whose gross inefficiencies have contributed so greatly to denying the Soviet populace enough to eat. As the keystone of a new agricultural policy Gorbachev would turn land over to individual and family farmers on long-term leases, perhaps up to 50 years, in an effort to assure them that they would enjoy the fruits of their labors. The other assets of the country's 50,000 state and collective farms--livestock, equipment and the like--would similarly be made available to those who are ready to accept the risks and eager to reap the rewards from what would become, perhaps in everything but name, private for-profit farming.

Gorbachev once again did not shy away from saying before all the world what every Soviet citizen in any event knows all too well: "We have failed in providing an adequate supply of food." Much of that failure goes to the absence of incentives to raise productivity that is inherent in the collectivized agricultural system. Instead farmers are salaried employees of the state, assured of job security and of being paid whatever the effort they make. That, Gorbachev said, must end.

Sounding like the most hardhearted 19th Century capitalist, Gorbachev said, "Let this become the rule: Money should be earned . . . No one should receive any income if he does not produce . . . . " Karl Marx thought communism should mean "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." Never mind that, Gorbachev is saying in so many words. The standard from now on should be to each according to what he produces, and nothing for those who produce not.

If he can get his new policy launched--which among other things means if he can overcome the resistance of the state farm bureaucracy and the anxious inertia of farmers who feel secure within the collective system--then Gorbachev has good grounds for expecting the nation's food supply to improve. Already the tiny percentage of land allotted to private after-hours farming produces a disproportionately large share of the food reaching Soviet markets. The problem, to be sure, is not simply in production. Much of what is grown goes unharvested for lack of equipment or unconsumed for lack of adequate transportation, storage, processing and distribution facilities. Major investments in these areas are critical requirements.

Almost 60 years ago Josef Stalin began the process of forced agricultural collectivization that Gorbachev now bids to undo. That effort produced perhaps the most appalling chapter in the often-bloody history of the Soviet Union. Resistance to collectivization--both real and suspected--became the excuse for a policy under which millions of people were murdered by deliberately induced famine, while millions more died at the hands of executioners or in brutal Siberian labor camps. Agriculture was collectivized by terror. Gorbachev hopes to decollectivize it by executive order and persuasion. If he succeeds Soviets will start to eat better. If he fails, much of Stalin's terrible legacy will remain in place.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World