E.A. Preobrazhensky

From N.E.P. to Socialism

Biographical Note

Evgenii Alexeyevich Preobrazhensky was born in the province of Orel in 1886, the son of a priest. While still at school he was introduced to Marxist literature, and set about organizing Social-Democratic student circles. In 1903 he joined the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party and quickly attached himself to the Bolsheviks, carrying out Party work in Orel, Bryansk and Moscow from 1904-5, and attending the first Party conference at Tammerfors in December 1905. He then worked in the Urals during 1906-8, and was repeatedly arrested and eventually exiled from 1909-11. His defence lawyer at the trial, Kerensky, declared that Preobrazhensky was not involved in any revolutionary movement: Preobrazhensky immediately disavowed his lawyer and proclaimed his revolutionary convictions. In the winter of 1911 he escaped from exile, but was re-arrested late in 1912 and exiled again until 1915, when he took a leading role in the Siberian party organization, working in Irkutsk and Chita, and took part in the February revolution in Chita. He was elected a candidate member of the Central Committee at the Sixth Party Congress in Petrograd (July-August 1917) and returned to the Urals, where he led the party organization during the October revolution.

Early in 1918 he carne to Moscow and became associated with the group of young party intellectuals round Bukharin; he and Bukharin were regarded as the Party’s ablest economists. In the controversy over the Brest-Litovsk treaty in spring 1918 he joined Bukharin’s ‘Left-Communist’ faction which called for a revolutionary war, but which rejoined the party majority when the Civil War began in summer 1918. They collaborated again in the writing of a popular explanation of the Draft Party programme adopted at the 8th Party Congress in March 1919, published in October 1919 as The ABC of Communism. Preobrazhensky was also, under the same Bukharin, a member of the editorial board of Pravda.

During the Civil War he served on several fronts in various capacities, holding many responsible Party and governmental positions. He headed the Political Department of the Third Army, was active on the Eastern front against Kolchak; also chairman of the Party Committee of the Ufa Gubernia (Bashkiriya). Along with several colleagues he conflicted with Party policy on the self-determination of national minorities when in November 1919 his policies nearly led to an anti-Bashkir pogrom in Ufa. Only intervention from Moscow in the person of Trotsky (at the Sterlitamak conference in March 1920) averted an explosion in the charged political situation of that sector of the Civil War front, where the kulaks were up in arms. He was withdrawn from Ufa and drafted to the Southern front to supervise and speed up the concentration of the Red Army in October 1920 at the concluding phase of the Civil War.

He became a full member of the Central Committee at the Ninth Party Congress in April 1920, and was elected to the new three-man Secretariat of the CC (which took the place of Sverdlov after his death), along with Krestinsky and Serebryakov. At the following CC Plenum he was made a member of the Orgbureau and the Politbureau. At that time, like Bukharin, he welcomed the emergency measures of War Communism as a foretaste of the future socialist order. In 1920 he published a pamphlet – Paper Money in the Age of Proletarian Dictatorship – which hailed the headlong depreciation of the currency as a step on the road to the total disappearance of money under communism.

Together with his co-secretaries Krestinsky and Serebryakov, he supported Trotsky and Bukharin’s platform in the November 1920 party dispute over the militarization of trade unions. This was an extension of the policies of War Communism into the period of reconstruction, a course which was averted by the application of the New Economic Policy. Preobrazhensky himself at first opposed the NEP, seeing it as a capitulation to the peasantry and neo-capitalist forces in the countryside.

At the Tenth Party Congress (March 1921) which promulgated the NEP, he was removed from the secretariat of the CC along with his two colleagues through the machinations of the Stalin dique, the senior of the new secretaries being Molotov. He was not re-elected to the Orgbureau or the Central Committee, and was not again to hold a senior Party position, although in June 1921 he was a candidate member of the committee set up to purge the party of undesirable careerists. Instead, the Congress appointed him Chairman of the Financial Commission of the CC and the Sovnarkom, also a Collegium member of the People’s Commissariat of Finance. The Financial Commission was set up to review and work out financial measures to meet the consequences of the NEP. In this capacity he produced a draft thesis on work in the countryside for the Eleventh Party Congress (March 1922), which he attended as a non-voting delegate. His thesis expressed apprehension at the increasing concessions offered to the rich peasants and the growth of differentiation in the countryside, and called for the further development of Sovkozy and agricultural collectives to promote the transition from peasant to socialist agriculture, rather than ‘over-centralistic government’. However, the draft was considered unsuitable by Lenin, being over-occupied with principle and not with practice, and was not submitted to the congress.

Preobrazhensky continued to develop his analysis of the problems in the countryside, putting forward the basic idea of ‘primitive socialist accumulation’ – that the resources for the rapid expansion of industry would have to be transferred from the agricultural sector. This brought his views close to those of Trotsky, who also stressed the need for rapid industrialization to create a firmer base for the proletarian dictatorship and for an overall planned economy.

In the inner-party discussion on democratization of October 1923 he signed the Declaration of the 46, which denounced the ineffectiveness of the official economic policy in industrial planning; protested against the stifling of discussion and the arbitrary rule of Party secretaries; and called for the abolition of the ban on factions within the Party. During the subsequent bitter conflict with the Stalin-Kamenev-Zinoviev triumvirate, he became a leading member of the Left Opposition. At the 13th Party Conference in January 1924, in Trotsky’s absence, he defended the Declaration of the 46 against the attacks of the ruling clique.

His celebrated work The New Economics [1] (1926) was written as a blow against the economic policies of the triumvirate and in particular against Bukharin, who had swung sharply to the right and become the main spokesman for ‘socialism in one country’, advocating further concessions to the rich peasants, the denationalization of land, and abandoning the State monopoly of trade. The ruling clique had accepted that the rate of industrialization should be determined by the situation in the countryside: in the words of Bukharin, ‘riding into socialism on a peasant nag’. The main chapters of the book were based on a paper read by him in August 1924 to the Communist Academy on The Fundamental Law of Socialist Accumulation, where he argued that the backwardness of the Soviet economy in the face of world economy meant that, in order to survive, it would have to industrialize rapidly until the productive resources reached the highest level attained in any capitalist nation. This could only be done by maintaining the State monopoly of trade against the economic pressures of imperialism and subordinating to it the private sector, by the artificial fixing of prices so as to drain resources from agriculture and concentrate them in industry. There was no other way to accumulate the capital necessary for the development of new productive techniques and the expansion of the nationalized industries.

When Zinoviev and Kamenev split from Stalin he was sent from Moscow to Leningrad to establish links between the two opposition groups in that city. In December 1927 he was expelled from the Party for his part in an attempt to print the Platform of the Joint Opposition (he claimed full responsibility for the organization of the press). Together with other leading members of the Opposition he was exiled to Siberia. However, he soon began to waver, impressed by Stalin’s empirical left turn in 1928 to industrialization and collectivization, and called for a rapprochement with Stalin, insisting that the bureaucracy was the unconscious agent of historical necessity. After publicly dissociating himself from the theory of permanent revolution, he deserted the Opposition in 1929 and was allowed to return to Moscow. In July 1929 he signed a letter of recantation together with Smilga, and was re-admitted to the Party, only to be expelled again in 1931. He was present, however, at the 17th Party Congress in January 1934 (The Congress of Victors) where he denounced both himself and the Opposition. He was arrested in 1935 and, although named as a defendant at the second Moscow Trial, was never brought before the court since he refused to confess to the frame-up charges; finally executed in prison in 1937.


1. English translation by Brian Pearce, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1965.

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Last updated on 24.1.2009