New Economic Policy (NEP)

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In the historiography of the USSR the term New Economic Policy (NEP) can refer specifically to the economic policy changes initiated by the Tenth Congress of the Communist Party in March 1921 or generally to the entire period of 1921 to 1927. As economic policy, NEP involved legalization of some private trade, as well as concessions to peasant farmers aimed at increasing agricultural output. But the term NEP has also become part of the periodization of Soviet history. Most scholars accept a division of early Soviet history into the periods of civil war (1918–1921), the New Economic Policy (1921–1927), and the First Five-Year Plan (1928–1932). In this schema NEP is often presented as a time of economic decentralization and relative cultural pluralism sandwiched between the more repressive eras of the civil war and the First Five-Year Plan.


During the Russian Civil War the Bolsheviks cobbled together a set of economic policies known as war communism. These included the forced confiscation of grain from peasants, a ban on private trade, and an attempt at state control of the entire economy, including distribution of food and consumer goods. In the chaos of the civil war, government coordination of production and rationing frequently failed, and the populace had to engage in illegal private economic activity on a massive scale in order to survive.

By 1921 the civil war and war communism had devastated the economy and depopulated many cities. Soviet rubles were nearly valueless. Confiscation of peasant grain supplies contributed to catastrophic declines in harvests and widespread famine. In industry and mining, production dropped to around one-fifth of prewar totals. Urban population dropped as unemployed factory workers and others fled the cities in search of food. By the end of the civil war, Bolshevik leaders were deeply worried by the decline in the urban working class, which they considered their base of support.

Economic disaster bred widespread resentment of Bolshevik rule. Even as the Red Army defeated the last major White forces in late 1920, peasant rebellions broke out in Tambov, Ukraine, western Siberia, Belarus, and several provinces along the Volga River. In the cities workers struck for better rations, more political freedom, and more control over their factories. In sympathy with strikers in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), sailors mutinied and seized control of the Kronstadt naval base in the Gulf of Finland in March 1921. The Kronstadt rebellion revealed that the regime had even lost support in the navy, one of their key political bases since 1917. The stage was set for radical policy changes.

At the Tenth Party Congress Vladimir Lenin announced the replacement of coercive grain requisitions with an agricultural tax in kind set at a level much lower than the requisitions. This was the beginning of the New Economic Policy, a series of measures intended to revive the Soviet economy and conciliate the peasants. NEP policies developed gradually throughout 1921–1922. One important provision was legalization of small-scale trade. Together with the end of grain requisitioning, this would encourage peasants to increase the amount of land they sowed and market their surplus production. The Soviet government also allowed private individuals to lease factories from the state in certain branches of industry. And in an effort to stabilize the Soviet currency, the government introduced a mandate (never fully implemented) that state-run enterprises balance their budgets.

Lenin described NEP as a temporary retreat necessary before advancing further down the road to socialism. Although some communist leaders, such as Nikolai Bukharin, apparently came to view NEP as a long-term solution to the problems of constructing socialism, most continued to view it with suspicion. Party commentators frequently complained that NEP "coddled class enemies" such as private entrepreneurs and well-off peasants (kulaks). Opponents of NEP feared it would lead to a renaissance of capitalism and ultimately to the overthrow of the Soviet government.


In the view of most party leaders, the party had to maintain tight discipline to prevent the NEP retreat from turning into a rout. In response to the rise of contending factions within the party, notably the so-called Workers Opposition, the Tenth Party Congress banned the organization of such groupings. Joseph Stalin used this ban to great effect in his battles for political domination, regularly accusing opponents of factionalism.

In spite of the ban on factionalism, the 1920s saw fierce political struggles as Stalin established a personal dictatorship over the party. Using his initial base as Central Committee secretary in charge of personnel decisions, along with the ban on factionalism, Stalin defeated several challenges to his policies and his personal rule. Following Lenin's final incapacitation by stroke in March 1923, he defeated a movement led by Commissar of Defense Leon Trotsky against the increasing "bureaucratism" of Soviet society and the decline of democracy within the party. In 1926–1927 he vanquished the so-called United Opposition that united Trotsky with Politburo members Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev against Stalin. At the end of this battle, in December 1927 the Fifteenth Party Congress expelled Trotsky from the party and exiled him to Central Asia. Finally, in 1928–1929 Stalin defeated a challenge to his personal rule by "rightists" opposed to the forced collectivization of the peasantry, led by his erst-while ally Nikolai Bukharin.


Literature and the arts during the NEP years were less subordinated to an overt party agenda and more open to experimentation than under the high Stalinism that followed. Some private publishing houses continued to function early in the period. Newspapers presented some information in a neutral tone and published limited policy debates.

The situation in literature exemplifies that in other arts. Writers tended to sort themselves self-consciously into literary schools. Some writers, most notably the group known as the Serapion Brothers (among the Brothers were Yevgeny Zamyatin and Mikhail Zoshchenko), rejected the notion of writing to serve the party's political agenda. Other groups that sought to work with the party, such as the Left Front of Art, founded by the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, experimented with modernist and futurist literary techniques. "Proletarian" writers such as Fyodor Gladkov and Mikhail Sholokhov sought to develop literature by and for the working class. Throughout the period various literary groups competed fiercely with one another for state patronage.

In the 1980s and 1990s there was significant scholarly debate about whether NEP could be called a period of "pluralism," at least in culture. Certainly there was much artistic experimentation. However, the party allowed this not out of a commitment to pluralism per se but rather out of the sense that artists and writers would serve the Bolshevik agenda best if allowed to try new approaches. During NEP, party officials hoped to use the arts, literature, and journalism to "enlighten the masses"—to teach them to be model citizens of socialist society and work for the party's goals. It was this hope, rather than any commitment to pluralism, that motivated the relative freedom of artistic expression during the NEP years.


The winter of 1927–1928 may be regarded as the end of NEP. Throughout 1927 party/state officials had been shutting down private trade and cooperative producers. That winter Joseph Stalin, whose supporters now clearly dominated the party leadership, returned to a policy of forced grain requisitions in districts of the USSR where the government could not procure enough grain through purchase. At the Fifteenth Party Congress in December 1927 Stalin's supporters crushed the United Opposition, and by the spring of 1928 they had begun a campaign against "rightist" opponents of coercing the peasantry. This was the last open opposition movement within the party in Stalin's lifetime. In the winter of 1927–1928 the economic planning agency, Gosplan, formulated the first formal central economic plan. Finally, in the early spring of 1928 the party Central Committee began a campaign to force journalists and writers to promote the party's agenda actively in their work. Taken together, these developments suggest the end of an era.

A variety of considerations seem to have motivated the end of NEP. Among party leaders the conviction was growing that the Soviet Union needed a crash industrialization program to increase its military capacity in a threatening international environment. Stalin and his lieutenants concluded that the only way to finance such a program was to squeeze more grain out of the peasants at below-market prices. In general, party leaders may have despaired of the possibility of winning voluntary cooperation from the peasants. Overall suspicion of NEP policies as soft on "capitalism" and Stalin's drive to dominate the party/state also probably helped to catalyze policy changes.


Debate about NEP has revolved around the question of whether it constituted a viable "soft" communist alternative to Stalinism. Throughout the world communist reformers disillusioned with Stalinism's repression and failure to improve living standards have looked to the NEP period for alternatives. NEP-inspired reform efforts began in Eastern Europe in the 1950s and included the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reform efforts (perestroika) in the late 1980s. Most reformers focused on NEP as a model for making command economies more efficient by integrating small-scale market activity. A few, including Gorbachev, were also interested in allowing more freedom of expression in order to build popular support and make government more effective.

In U.S. scholarship the interpretation of NEP as a real alternative emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a challenge to the then widespread view of the Soviet system as static, totalitarian, and essentially Stalinist. In 1971 U.S. political scientist Stephen Cohen published a biography of Nikolai Bukharin that argued that NEP could have been a stable alternative developmental model for the USSR. The literary scholar Edward J. Brown emphasized the relative openness of NEP culture as early as 1963.

After about 1990, however, a number of scholars tried to qualify the developing view of the NEP years as a "soft," tolerant period of Soviet history and as a viable economic alternative. Christopher Read and Matthew Lenoe argued that party policy on culture had never been in any way "pluralistic." Michael David-Fox contended that party policy in higher education during the 1920s was never "soft-line" or tolerant, but rather aimed at revolutionary transformation of human consciousness. Vladimir Brovkin collected evidence of political repression throughout NEP. And the Hungarian economist Janos Kornai concluded (The Socialist System, 1992) that mixed economies of the NEP type were in the long run incompatible with single-party communist dictatorships.

See alsoCommunism; Lenin, Vladimir; Russian Civil War; Stalin, Joseph.


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Matthew Lenoe