Dripping from head to foot with blood and dirt
How many died because of Stalin's system remains a heated subject of debate. There is politically motivated over-counting from the anti-communist hard right and politically motivated under-counting by the Morning Star's CPB and other Stalinites. Jack Conrad investigates
Between 1928 and 1953 the ‘black tornado’ repeatedly struck the Soviet Union. Each time that meant arrests, torture, false confessions, deportations, disappearances, imprisonment and executions on a huge scale. Forced labour became the lot of millions - gulag economics. A 10-year sentence without correspondence effectively meant death.
Underlying the orgy of killing was an inability to make the transition from capitalism to communism. Isolated, the Russian Revolution turned into its opposite. Counterrevolution within the revolution. The working class was politically expropriated. The bureaucracy became uniquely free-floating, but could never cohere itself into a class. Hence the monocracy, the brutality, the irrationality and the constant stream of utterly absurd lies and triumphal claims.
One emergency adaptation followed another. The Soviet Union evolved as an ectopic social formation. Collapse was inevitable and eminently predictable. Leon Trotsky was convinced that the Soviet bureaucracy would not survive World War II. Needless to say, life conclusively proved him wrong. The Soviet Union not only emerged victorious from the carnage. Copies of it were exported to, or independently established in, eastern Europe, China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba. Seemingly a ‘second world’. Nonetheless, Trotsky’s basic prognosis was right: “Degeneration must inescapably end at a certain stage in downfall.”1 What happened in 1991 needs no elaboration here.
Production - both of the means of production and the means of consumption - is a determining determinate. That is why the best starting point of a political economy of the Soviet Union must be the Soviet product and its dual nature. Behind the statistically impressive quantitative facade of the initial five-year plans there crouched the emaciated, damaged or useless use-value. The source of unremitting complaint by general secretaries from Joseph Stalin to Mikhail Gorbachev. None could overcome the problem. Quality proved a chimera. The plan was not a plan: rather a system of targets which were never met. Use-value moved in contradiction with target-value.
Nor could labour be controlled by the managerial controllers. Workers exercised negative control. They were not worried about the threat of unemployment. They set their own pace of labour. There was no law of value. No law of the plan.
Terror substituted. That gave Stalin partial control over the product, partial control over labour and partial control over the managerial controllers. However, terror became self-perpetuating and self-consuming. No social stratum, no profession, no occupation, no national group was spared. Everyone lived in fear. Those at the very top especially. Extreme atomisation followed. Self-organisation became impossible. Leader-worship grew to asphyxiating proportions. Political debate, already hollowed and shrunken, died. Creative activity winked out in history, economics, painting, film, theatre, biology, linguistics, etc. Hell had arrived on earth.
Stalin, and under him the whole bureaucratic apparatus, hysterically targeted one after another “enemy of the people”. And in turn, the secret police, the NKVD, and other such repressive state agencies, sniffed out, pursued and mercilessly savaged ex-Mensheviks, kulaks, peasant grain hoarders, Trotskyite-Zinovievite oppositionists, treacherous generals, imperialist spies, children of former capitalists, tsarist aristocrats, skiving front-line workers, deceitful managers, Nazi sympathisers, Zionist nationalists and other so-called “dregs of humanity”.2 In fact, it was people in general, people of all kinds, who were the problem.
Mostly the nefarious alleged conspiracies to “restore capitalist slavery” by these “dregs of humanity” were pure invention, of course. Nonetheless, such stories, no matter how lurid, no matter how far-fetched, did excuse, did explain away, the endemic and constantly mounting failures of what was a dysfunctional system. Embittered, corrupted, crazed, these anti-Soviet elements were supposedly out to “wreck trains, destroy bridges, sabotage industry and try to secure the miscarriage of economic plans”.3
Not Stalin, not the politburo, not Gosplan, not the system, but these “dregs of humanity” were blamed for the shortages, the poverty, the frustrations and sheer craziness that blighted everyday life in the USSR. To divert discontent, to keep the population atomised, to remove even the hint of opposition, the regime repeatedly turned to campaigns of press denunciation, show trials, midnight arrests and state killings. Batch after batch of bewildered sacrificial victims were shovelled into the NKVD’s human mincer. The suffering, trauma, waste and loss of life was enormous. But just how enormous? How many died?
That question is the central concern of my article. Not, let me emphasise, why the terror hit some sections of the population more than others. Why some families were able to benefit from it or escape completely unscathed. Why the mass killings were exported. Why the purges finally came to a sudden halt.
Such questions, and many more besides, must be answered by Marxists: and to do so requires a comprehensive study of the Soviet Union and a general theory revealing its inner-laws of motion.4
One final point. Calculating how many died inevitably has a technical, almost a dry aspect to it. Census returns, archive documents, birth rates, etc. However, and this needs stressing, judging what statistics to include and what statistics to discount, what statistics need adjusting and what statistics ought to be further explored rests, in no small part, on political criteria, moral values and emotional sensibilities. So, without doubt we are dealing with what the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001) calls ‘institutional facts’, as opposed to ‘brute facts’.
Before Stalin’s oh-so-welcome death in March 1953 ‘official communists’ turned a blind eye, condoned or even celebrated the show trials and their associated round-ups, jailings and publicly announced executions.
Looking back from a disappointed old age, some of the same people now claim that they had no idea of what was going on. The forgetters. Eric Hobsbawm, historian and Eurocommunist nostalgiac, pleads in his autobiography: “Of course, we did not, and could not, envisage the sheer scale of what was being imposed on the Soviet peoples under Stalin at the time when we identified ourselves with him and the Comintern, and were reluctant to believe the few who told us what they knew or suspected.”5
So there were those “few” who knew or suspected something was very amiss.6 But the likes of Hobsbawm did not want to listen - indeed to openly criticise Stalin was to ensure banishment to the outer darknesses. I do, though, fully accept that Hobsbawm and co were completely unaware of the real magnitude of Stalin’s terror - incidentally so too were the Trotskyites and other leftwing critics.
Those who got shot deserved to be shot. Proven “fascist agents”. Those sent to the camps or exiled to the far east should consider themselves lucky to be treated so leniently by the vigilant workers’ and peasants’ state. That was the line. And to its ever lasting shame and discredit the ‘official’ CPGB published a string of scurrilous pamphlets to that effect: eg, WG Shepherd The Moscow trial (1936); R Page Arnot The socialist offensive (1937); Marjorie Pollitt Defeat of Trotskyism (1937); R Page Arnot and Tim Buck Fascist agents exposed in the Moscow trials (1938); Bill Wainwright Clear out Hitler’s agents (1942).7
Fellow travellers, not least a layer of reformist intellectuals, performed the exact same service: eg, Romain Rolland, Anna Louise Strong, Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, DN Pritt and the Webbs, Sidney and Beatrice. There was even Joseph E Davies, US ambassador to Moscow from 1936-38. He insisted that the great show trials revealed an “exceedingly serious plot” hatched by the Soviet Union’s deadly foes, internal and external.8
Then came the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which opened in late February 1956. A liminal moment. During its historic, charged, yet carefully choreographed closed session, Khrushchev, the newly incumbent Soviet leader, took a carefully aimed hammer to the Stalin personality cult. He condemned Stalin for taking the “path of repression and physical annihilation, not only against actual enemies, but also against individuals who had not committed any crimes against the party and the Soviet government”.9
True, Khrushchev fixed on the killing of thousands of loyal cadre and army officers. Leon Trotsky, Gregory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin, etc were notably missing from his frame of the innocent. So too were a multitude of unnamed others. Nevertheless, the wall of falsehood concealing the horrors of Stalin’s bureaucratic socialism could never be repaired. The truth, at least in part, had been admitted by the post-Stalin Stalinites themselves.
Despite that, there were those who inexcusably sought to pardon Stalin (and thus rescue their own tarnished reputations). Eg, the ‘official’ CPGB’s vice-chair and leading thinker, R Palme Dutt (1896-1974). Against those shamefaced former devotees who were rushing to disassociate themselves from the Stalin cult, Palme Dutt resorted to a weasel-worded defence of his old master:
“That there should be spots on any sun would only startle an inveterate Mithra-worshipper. Not about the now recognised abuses of the security organs in a period of heroic ordeal and achievement of the Soviet Union. To imagine that a great revolution can develop without a million cross-currents, hardships, injustices and excesses would be a delusion fit only for ivory-tower dwellers in fairyland who have still to learn that the thorny path of human advance moves forward, not only with unexampled heroism, but also with accompanying baseness, with tears and blood.”10
Nauseatingly, but often deviously, there are still those on what passes for the left who continue in that awful apologetic tradition. Arthur Scargill, George Galloway and Andrew Murray, the red-brown Communist Party of the Russian Federation, neo- and semi-Stalinite academics, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and what remains of Maoism and Enverism. They are the ‘usual suspects’. But there are varieties of Trotskyism too. It is easy to appreciate why. For most orthodox ‘Fourth Internationals’, and their many and various offshoots, the Soviet Union remained a workers’ state till 1991 (bizarrely, for some, even after that).
Whatever their exact origins, because this toxic mixture claims to speak in the name of Marxism, because there is substantial Chinese and Venezuelan patronage washing round, because the Stalinites still retain some considerable influence in the labour movement, they must be treated seriously. Eg, Mark Serwotka of PCS, Bob Crow of RMT and Derek Simpson of Unite spoke from the platform at the TUC fringe meeting organised by the Morning Star on September 9 2008.
In 1968 Robert Conquest published his groundbreaking book, The great terror. What was important about this work? Conquest had undertaken a wide-ranging research programme into the purges that tore over the Soviet Union between 1934 and 1939. Besides a forensic reinvestigation of causes célèbres - Kirov’s murder, the trials of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, etc - Conquest was concerned with the bigger picture.
Here he was able to draw on the correspondence, books, manuscripts, periodicals, files and investigative studies of the highly fragmented Russian émigré ‘community’. Exiled Mensheviks, anarchists, Ukrainian nationalists, Cadets, royalists and pan-Slavic rightwingers all widely published in the west (and not only in Russian). There was also the little flurry of memoirs published in the Soviet Union during the so-called 1956-64 Khrushchev thaw. In particular, Conquest closely studied and analysed official Soviet documents - crucially census returns.
Naturally, his point of departure was the Soviet Union’s 1926 (first full) census. There are problems with it. The situation, especially in the countryside, remained somewhat chaotic. Hence some western demographers consider the 1926 population count of 148 million to be an underestimation. Conquest is prepared to put that aside. He simply factored in the Soviet Union’s expected ‘natural’ growth. A ‘natural’ growth rate which would give a population of around 178,600,000 in 1937.
In January 1934 Stalin told delegates to the CPSU’s 17th Congress that the Soviet Union had a population exceeding 168 million. He also boasted of an annual increase of three million. The second five-year plan provided for a population of 180.7 million for the beginning of 1938. So the projected estimate of 178-179 million seems reasonable.
In danger of standing self-condemned, the results of the January 1937 census were hurriedly, guiltily, suppressed. Those who compiled it were either imprisoned, killed or disappeared. The NKVD had purportedly discovered a “serpent’s nest of traitors”. The man in charge of the census board, OA Kvitkin, a distinguished Sorbonne-educated statistician, was arrested on March 25 1937. The authorities explained that he had tried to diminish the Soviet Union’s population numbers. In reality, though, it was the Stalin regime that had done exactly that (and not by using pen and paper).
The Soviet Union was noticeably, embarrassingly, tragically short of people. Of course, Conquest did not then have the results of the 1937 census available to him. However, in post-Stalin demographic publications, the 1937 figures were referred to on a number of occasions. The most specific giving a population of 163,772,000. Others a rounded up 164 million. Either way, a shortfall of around 14 or 15 million people (note, this includes the unborn).
Conquest discusses the possibility that fertility rates crashed because of the turmoil caused by collectivisation. Doubtless that happened. But following such socially disruptive events, just like after wars and plagues, the number of births tends to shoot upwards ‘in compensation’ (surely helped in the case of the Soviet Union by the 1936 ban on abortion). Anyway, Conquest comes to a firm conclusion. The main factor behind the population shortfall is the terror system presided over by Stalin.
Since Conquest first published in 1968, the 1937 census, and some other closely related documents, were released by the post-Soviet authorities in Moscow. Far from the USSR having around 164 million people, the census gives a total of just over 162 million. The preliminary figure that the census board produced was 156 million. But that did not include the military, prisoners and journeying individuals. The number of prisoners was given as 2,653,035 and the military, including the NKVD, an estimated two million. By adding a few other categories the census board managed to top-up the numbers.11
That certainly confirms Conquest’s claim that there was a big population shortfall. Though nearer to 16 or 17 million (again, note that includes the unborn).
We also discover the human dilemma faced by census officials. Thus we read IA Kraval, head of Gosplan’s central administration for economic accounting. He worriedly reports, in a letter to Stalin and Molotov, on the results of the 1937 census: “The overall population, according to the census of January 6 1937, was 162,003,225.” Krevel knows that this will displease the beloved vozhd in the Kremlin. Desperately he tries to shift the blame. The gap between the anticipated population figure and the “actual one” established by the census is put down to flawed previous estimates.12 Krevel dares not mention the word “famine”.
Not surprisingly, the 1937 census shows a huge disparity between the number of men and women. Eg, within the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic there were 48,726,033 men and 55,241,891 women. A gender gap which could only be partially accounted for by - mainly male - deaths on the battlefields of World War I and the 1918-20 civil war.13
The compilers of the 1939 census desperately pumped up the numbers. Suspected then, thought highly likely in 1968, proven beyond doubt after 1991. A population of 170,467,186 was claimed. Maybe the statisticians and officials concerned were motivated by a selfish desire to save themselves, their families, their friends from the NKVD’s goons and sadistic torturers. That aside, their figures too show a huge population deficit, albeit not as large as the one that actually existed.
Despite the fog of falsification, the real situation could not be hidden. Using a searchlight of Russian sources, émigré accounts, statistical projections and the occasional well educated guess, Conquest details the causes - political famines, mass executions, deportations, neglect of gulag prisoners, etc.
He thereby helped to radically shift the focus of critical Soviet studies. Away from the undoubtedly horrendous injustices inflicted upon prominent individuals - the subject of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at noon (1940). Even the suffering and heroic resistance in the camps put up by rank and file Trotskyites, Zinovievites, Democratic Centralists, etc - as graphically reported by Anton Ciliga in The Russian enigma (1938).
Conquest shows how the Stalinite terror raged over the whole of Soviet society; not just elite individuals, left oppositionists, kulaks, former whites, expropriated capitalists, etc.
Others, such as the exiled Mensheviks David Dallin and Boris Nicolaevsky, in Forced labour in Soviet Russia (1948), paved the way for Conquest. They showed the extraordinary scale of oppression that happened under Stalin. But, without doubt, The great terror is of a higher order in terms of detail, scope … and popular appeal.
Naturally, cold war warriors everywhere were cock-a-hoop. Albeit over a rather longer period of time, Stalin’s regime equalled or surpassed Hitler’s Reich in terms of total internal deaths (within their empire the Nazis killed around 14 million - including, of course, between four and eight million Jews).
Further boosting his reputation on the right, Conquest excoriated leftwing luminaries such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Jean-Paul Sartre, Harold Laski and DN Pritt. He accused them of being Stalin’s dupes because of comments ridiculing, excusing or justifying various aspects of the purges. And, let us be honest, when it came to the post-1928 Soviet Union, that is exactly what they were. Dupes of Stalin. We have no reason to say anything different.
Cold war warrior
It is worth giving a thumbnail sketch of Conquest. Indisputably a complex character. No straight-as-a-die anti-communist. From an impeccable bourgeois background, no argument. Conquest’s father was a successful US-born businessman. As a boy he attended Winchester (self-credited as Britain’s most academic public school). Contemporaries talk of his smartness and self-confidence. Even his arrogance.
Nevertheless, in 1937, after studying in France, Conquest joined the Oxford University branch of the CPGB. An act of class treachery. Spain, anti-fascism and admiration of the Soviet Union were motivations. That and healthy youthful rebellion. So privilege combined with fellow feeling, talent and a desire to serve a great cause.
Sadly, by that time, the ‘official’ CPGB had been turned into a machine for the miseducation of such budding intellectuals. Hence the Marxism Conquest learnt was in part a worthwhile introduction to the classic writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin, in part a jaundiced rendition of historic events, in part mushy popular frontism and in part crude justification for the latest zig or zag of Soviet foreign policy.
Conquest describes his politics in the CPGB as those of a “left deviationist”. His best friend was a Trotskyite. Given this, Conquest’s newly acquired world outlook was always prone to hit the rocks. It soon did. He resigned from the CPGB after asking what the party’s attitude would be if Neville Chamberlain’s government decided to fight Nazi Germany. He received the curt reply: “Comrade, it is impossible that the bourgeois Chamberlain would ever declare war on Hitler.” This he found “oafish.” “I didn’t like the word ‘impossible’.”14
Typical of members of the League of Abandoned Hope - Koestler and Ciliga included - Conquest would not only suffer bitter disappointment. He rapidly moved from left to right (nonetheless, till the late 1970s he called himself a “Labour man”). By the end of World War II Conquest was a trusted member of the British diplomatic service. In all probability a Secret Intelligence Service agent. Assigned to the foreign office’s information research department, his CPGB training proved invaluable. After all, this innocuously named special unit was specifically designed to counter communist influence in the labour movement.
In 1956 Conquest embarked on a career as a freelance writer. Quite clearly, though, he not only maintained, but further developed, his relationship with the securocracy. In effect he became an MI6 asset, serving as a public mouthpiece of right social democratic anti-communism. On a personal level, this brought establishment acclamation and rich material rewards.
Amongst Conquest’s first books were those partly distributed through Praeger Press, a US-based company which acted under the guidance of the CIA. Eg, Power and politics in the USSR and Soviet deportation of nationalities. Other early works included: Soviet nationalities policy in practice, Industrial workers in the USSR, Justice and the legal system in the USSR and Agricultural workers in the USSR.
However, only the bone-headed would dismiss these books as just lying cold war propaganda. There is an unmistakable agenda, naturally. Yet there is truth too. Without that they would have had no lasting worth. Suffice to say, they have - being full of facts and figures, citations from the Soviet press, case studies, etc.
Certainly though, The great terror is his real and lasting achievement. Undoubtedly flawed, Conquest did not, could not, locate the Soviet Union in historical terms. Nor are underlying laws of motion sought out, let alone discovered and fully revealed. The method is essentially empirical. Nonetheless, The great terror must count as both an influential and an honest work of scholarship.
Eg, definitely in spite of himself, Conquest admits that there was a qualitative break between the emergency measures - justifiable and unjustifiable - ordered by Lenin, Trotsky and other communist leaders during the 1918-20 civil war and the post-1928 terror regime of Stalin.
Admittedly as a best estimate, Conquest concludes, in The great terror, that around one million were executed in the 1936-38 period alone and that from 1936 to 1950 some 12 million died in, or due to the effects of, the gulag system - probably an overestimate. There was also the huge death toll suffered by deportees, etc, which Conquest probably underestimated. Life in many exile colonies was little different from the gulag and we know that both prisoners and deportees were often released severely ill and on the verge of death. Anyway, in total, Conquest reckons that the Soviet Union lost some 20 million citizens because of the political decisions and actions of the regime under Stalin.
Quite rightly, his tally includes the human cost of Stalin’s forced collectivisation drive and its ghastly consequences. Conquest considers that some seven million died because of collectivisation - through being killed, imprisoned or deported, but above all because of subsequent starvation and disease.
Later, it should be noted, after more information became available, not least with the access given to the archives in Moscow, Conquest modified his total death toll - downwards. Introducing the 40th anniversary edition of The great terror, he attributed some 12-15 million deaths to the Stalin regime.15
Incidentally, showing that the archives do not provide researchers with neat and ready-rounded figures, we have The black book of communism (Harvard 1999), edited by Stephanie Courtois. It gives a 20-million-total death toll (albeit for the entire period between 1917 and 1991). Part one, consisting of 15 chapters, one quarter of the entire book, is written by Nicolas Werth, a member of the Paris Institute for Contemporary History. Along with many recent writers, he boasts of gaining “access to the newly opened archives”.
For my part, I have experienced no agonies in accepting Conquest’s broad estimate of the death toll which ought to be attributed to the Stalin regime - either due to murderous calculation, bureaucratic bungling or sullen indifference. Though a cold war warrior, albeit of the right social democratic variety, Conquest is, I believe, a basically reliable, though thoroughly partisan, authority. Hence I have conservatively written that “perhaps 10 or 20 million Soviet citizens” died because of Stalin’s terror system.16
Obviously this figure is deliberately inexact. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two exceedingly wide margins. Arriving at anything else is, I am convinced, completely illusory. No-one knows, or will ever know, how many died. Eg, in his memoirs, after recalling the harrowing experiences of mass starvation, even cannibalism, in Ukraine during the early 1930s famine, Nikita Khrushchev writes: “Perhaps we’ll never know how many perished directly as a result of collectivisation, or indirectly.”17 The records simply do not exist. No, not even in the famed archives.
People were executed in huge numbers after court judgement. True. But there were summary executions too - mass graves containing many tens of thousands of bodies have been discovered at Kuropaty, Bykivnia, Katyn and elsewhere. However, far, far more died, because the system simply did not value human life. No one in authority bothered to keep a proper count of those who were dying due to starvation during forced collectivisation; the savage treatment, exhaustion and malnutrition in the camps; lack of basic provisions and healthcare for those individuals, social groups and nationalities who were deported and confined to special colonies, etc.
The Stalin regime was, in this respect at least, very different from Nazi Germany. No master plan existed for genocidal extermination. It was just that Stalin’s regime put other priorities before human survival: eg, removing potentially dangerous elements and trying to meet plan targets.
I want to defend the guesstimate that between 10 to 20 million died because of the Stalin regime for three main reasons.
Firstly, though admittedly inexact, I think it is true.
Secondly, we must put the historic record straight and show that there was no inexorable line of continuation joining Stalin’s terror system with the emergency measures taken under the regime of Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev. There was a counterrevolutionary break in 1928. And, of course, amongst the first tranche of Stalin’s victims were the old Bolsheviks: ie, those who made the October revolution.
Thirdly, following on from this, there is the future. In the name of genuine communism and the project of universal human liberation, I want to take issue with two sets of contemporary political opponents.
On the right, those who hijack the memory of the gulags. The professional anti-communists who exaggerate, misdirect and muddle in the service of capital. On the other hand, and definitely more importantly, at least for our purposes, there are the leftwingers who belittle, deny or simply wish to forget.
Let us begin with the anti-communists. The hijackers. They blame the October revolution for virtually every unnatural death that occurred between 1917 and 1991.
That includes, believe it or not, the 1918-20 civil war against the white armies of Yudenich, Kolchak and Denikin, which in addition saw the intervention of troops from Britain, the US and France, along with a full-scale Japanese invasion of the far east.
Without the arms, supplies, training, finance and diplomatic support provided by the imperialist countries the whites would have been quickly trounced. Instead a protracted struggle ensued. The imperialist powers sponsored a string of counterrevolutionary states - Georgia, Estonia and Ukraine. Winston Churchill talked of “strangling communism in its cradle”.
To prevent a counterrevolutionary bloodbath destroying proletarian power, the Bolsheviks had to abandon key elements of their programme. Not least organising a standing army - consisting mainly of drafted peasants and staffed by former tsarist officers - instead of the workers’ militia. Civil war also led directly to war communism - forced grain requisitioning from peasant farmers, the banning of opposition parties and the militarisation of the Communist Party and Soviet society itself. All had far-reaching and thoroughly negative consequences. Seeds of counterrevolution within the revolution.
Not content with one gross historic travesty, the hijackers go on to blame the October revolution for a half-slice of the deaths caused by the post-civil war 1921-22 famine and typhus epidemic. Even the 1941-45 war with Nazi Germany - around five million German soldiers being killed on the eastern front.
Incidentally, the 1921-22 famine and typhus epidemic can be used to illustrate the stark contrast between the Lenin and Stalin regimes. At great cost the communists had won the civil war. Millions died. The cities were depopulated. Economically Soviet Russia lay in ruins. The countryside, in particular Ukraine, could barely feed itself. A sudden drought triggered catastrophic crop failures, widespread hunger and then a rocketing curve of deaths. At least 20 million people were affected by the famine.
All given the widest publicity by Lenin’s commissars. Simultaneously, the utmost effort went into ensuring a good harvest for the next year. Decrees were issued cancelling tax demands on peasants, together with the evacuation of 100,000 inhabitants from the most hard-pressed areas. They were relocated in various parts of Siberia. Valued treasures were sold on the international art market to raise additional funds. An energetic worldwide agitational campaign was launched too. It demanded immediate aid to the starving people of Russia, Ukraine, the north Caucuses, etc.
In response, Herbert Hoover’s administration in Washington DC agreed to sponsor the American Relief Administration. It oversaw the distribution of massive food deliveries. Charities in the west followed suit. All were given a free hand. Though, it has to be said, the Daily Express insisted that reports about the scale of the famine were blatant exaggeration. Almost a hoax, designed to exact tribute from the gullible. Needless to say, the famine was all too real.
The respected historian, EH Carr (1892-1982), makes a worthwhile point: “… estimates of those who perished are unreliable, more especially since hunger is more often indirect than a direct cause of death.”18 Nonetheless, a figure of five million is widely quoted.
By way of contrast, in the early 30s Stalin criminally hid the famine in the Soviet Union’s black earth belt and callously mocked reports of its effects, even from close confidants. As we have already noted above, Conquest reckons some seven million died because of Stalin’s collectivisation drive and his subsequent refusal to order emergency food and medical deliveries to starving areas.19
Meanwhile, grain was exported abroad in order to get the hard currency required for purchasing German and American industrial equipment and technical know-how. Stalin was determined to “catch up” with the west, and in the shortest time possible. It was the anti-communist press that carried malevolent famine exposés. All indignantly denied, refuted or dismissed by Pravda.
By ignoring such subtle differences, by refusing to address real history, by employing statistical smoke and mirrors, the hijackers routinely produce bloated claims of 40, 50, 60 million deaths and more. Not untypical on the upper end of the scale is the website maintained by Rudy Rummel. A retired US academic, he is linked to the CIA and the neo-conservatives. With the supreme confidence befitting a rightwing ideologue Rummel informs us that 61,911,000 were “murdered by the Soviet Union” between 1917-1987.20 A figure both so large and so precise that it must be doubted.
Remember, the Soviet Union had a total population of around 148 million in 1926. By 1991 the somewhat expanded state territory is recorded as having a total population of 293,047,571. The Soviet Union lost at least 20 million people in World War II. Some suggest many more. Then there was Stalin’s regime and its mass killings (which almost unbelievably included large numbers of liberated Soviet soldiers who had been held in German POW camps).
Given a high, albeit declining birth rate - from 44 per thousand in 1926 to 18 per thousand in 1974 - the figures add up. But Rummel’s ‘murder’ count strikes me as morally objectionable. Not least because it includes an allotted 50% slice of the fatalities that occurred in the wars, famines and epidemics of 1918-22, along with the deaths inflicted upon Germany by the Soviet Union during World War II (without the latter his internal estimate for those “murdered by the Soviet Union” dips to 55 million).21
Rummel’s agenda is perfectly clear. One, inflate - include anything and everything that can be used to produce the biggest figure. The aim is to shock. Two, blame Marxism, the October revolution, Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev for the Stalinite terror. Three, gloss over the white terror, the imperialist-sponsored civil war and the subsequent strategy of economic boycott. Four, discount Stalin’s counterrevolution within the revolution. In short, equate Stalinism with socialism and exonerate capitalism.
Flatteringly, cynically, dishonestly, he, and others of his ilk, refer to 20th century Anglo-Saxon capitalism as ‘liberal democracy’. Thereby creating a categorical distinction between it and other capitalisms. Naturally, ‘liberal democracy’ escapes blame for World War I and World War II.
At this point, however, before proceeding further, we must take a short detour.
Each mode of production, each social formation has its associated morality, family arrangements, laws, accepted norms, common ideas, etc. Each too exhibits its own particular pattern of killing and death. Hence we have to include in our discussion, no matter how briefly, social relations and the level of development of the means of production (and means of destruction).
Class society, from its origins, has been characterised by a combination of surplus product and mass underconsumption (exacerbated by reoccurring famines - caused by over-taxation, banditry, soil exhaustion, drought, pests, etc). From that contradiction, from the never-ending fight over the surplus product, there follows the class, national and state struggles between exploited and exploiters and between exploiters and exploiters. War being merely the continuation of those struggles using violent means.
Bronze-tipped arrows, iron swords, heavy horse and lance, longbow, cannon and arquebus cost many lives, but ensured the surplus product necessary for the successive high cultures of the Asiatic, classical and feudal modes of production. And, let us note, the wherewithal for a good proportion of the ruling class male population to pursue their hereditary profession of making war.
Nomadic and semi-nomadic herding tribes living on the margins of these societies looked upon them as rich prizes. There for the picking. But, be they Hebrew, Arab or Mongol, no such invaders carried the seeds of a new, higher, more productive mode of production with them. After their own particular formative pattern of killing and plunder, the conquistadors took over what had existed before. Incoming elites replaced, partnered or merged with the old ruling class.
The bourgeoisie was different. After the mass deaths associated with primitive capitalist accumulation, the bourgeois system seemed to promise Immanuel Kant’s age of eternal peace and plenty. The means of production were revolutionised again and again. Civil society mastered state power. Nationalities were joined together. A world market created. GWF Hegel could seriously envisage the end of history.
However, free competition, Adam Smith, the night-watchman state and mature capitalism gave way to a declining capitalism. Cecil Rhodes, monopoly, finance capital, World War I, bureaucratic domination of the economy, Adolph Hitler, gas chambers, the atomic bomb, the cold war and John Maynard Keynes being symptoms. Gross national product increases. Meanwhile essential laws - crucially the law of value - retreat or take on transitionary forms. Organisation assumes greater and greater importance. But the system becomes ever more prone to malfunction. The never-ending war on terror, the unprecedented bail-outs of finance capital, the nationalisation of banks, the latest stock market gyrations reinforce the point.
Capital and human need stand opposed as never before. The wealth more than exists to provide high-quality health services, education and housing for everyone on the face of the planet. And yet billions in the so-called third world go hungry, live in appalling squalor, have minimal or no schooling and healthcare. In the advanced capitalist countries there is overwork alongside rising levels of unemployment, the polarisation between rich and poor, a steady erosion of the welfare state and other such post-World War II concessions. Everything tells us that a complete transformation of all existing circumstances is urgently required. In a word communism.
What of bureaucratic socialism? It too shows its own pattern of exploitation, primitive accumulation, killing and death. A pattern that stems from humanity’s failure to make the transition to socialism/communism.
Capitalism was defeated in weak links of the imperialist chain. Russia, China, Yugoslavia, Albania, North Korea and Vietnam were peripheral to the global capitalist system and could never catch up with the metropoles (I count the German Democratic Republic, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc as being dependent outposts of the Soviet Union).
However, though the capitalist class had been expropriated, though there is a characteristic initial economic spurt, the peasant and working class masses remain slaves. There is organisation, but no democracy.
In fact, bureaucratic socialism cannot really be considered a mode of production - if by that is meant a mode of extended reproduction.
Because there is no spontaneous social control (commodity fetishism), because there is no positive social control from below (socialism/communism), bureaucratic socialism shows a tendency towards stagnation (and finally absolute regression).
In response, there is also a tendency towards capitalist restoration (supported not only by elements of the bureaucracy hankering after becoming capitalists, but wide swathes of the broader population too). Hence the extraordinary instability, sudden lurches and bouts of madness, as those at the top try to put off that outcome.
That explains why the bureaucracy itself, or at least decisive core sections of it, lift, elevate, transform one of their own into a god-like saviour, an all-wise superman, an iron-hard tyrant. Having accumulated, usurped or been granted extraordinary powers, their Moloch can crush the bureaucratic restorationists, keep the masses cowed and take the ruthless, pragmatic and swift decisions needed to get the wheels of the malfunctioning economy moving.
Awful, and often completely unintended, consequences, of course, flow from having a one-man dictatorship. Eg, Stalin’s doubling of the first five-year plan targets, the peasant’s feeding frenzy, the collectivisation famine, the purges, the gulag, the turn to capitalist norms of economic accounting in the early 50s; Mao’s great leap forward, the anti-rightist campaign, the cultural revolution; Pol Pot’s year zero, the de-urbanisation of Cambodia, the killing fields; etc.
It is still only too easy to find unreconstructed Stalinites. Surely the most prominent is Prachanda, the mono-named leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). With much, but often bemused, global media coverage, he was sworn in as the kingdom’s prime minister in August 2008.
Then there is José María Sison of the Communist Party of the Philippines. The CCP continues to conduct a low-key guerrilla struggle. Nor should we forget Abimael Guzmán, leader of Peru’s Shining Path. Though imprisoned and soundly defeated militarily, he continues to be the object of fascination for a certain kind of middle class radical.
Venturing into the thickets, the brave explorer will also find Ludo Martens, leader of the Belgium Party of Labour and author of a string of pro-Stalin books and pamphlets. A few wonderfully (mis)translated into English. In Britain the most notable unreconstructed Stalinite is Harpal Brar. Once of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party’s executive committee, he is now chair of the CPGB (ML). Brar also fronts the unashamedly named Stalin Society. Besides these individuals there are abundant Marxist-Leninist parties, Maoist parties, socialist parties, workers’ parties, communist parties with all manner of prefixes and suffixes.22
These ultra-Stalinites, needless to say, argue that there is nothing questionable about Stalin’s great show trials, forced collectivisation, the gulag system, the deportation of whole national groups during World War II, etc. No need to refute such claptrap in detail here.
The evidence is crystal clear. Put aside the human suffering and deaths for one moment. Bureaucratic socialism does not lead to communism and human liberation. Nor can it ever really hope to catch up with and then overtake the centres of advanced capitalism.
A long, debilitating and unnecessary detour, bureaucratic socialism leads back either to a bastard capitalism or a pro-capitalist dependency (proven by the Soviet Union and China - and North Korea and Cuba will surely go the same way). In other words, on the scales of history, there is no mitigating excuse for bureaucratic socialism.
In its own particular way, bureaucratic socialism proves no different from feudal, bourgeois, Christian, state or military socialism. Etc, etc. Bureaucratic socialism is a form of anti-socialism (we define socialism as working class domination, extreme democracy and international - all leading towards a classless, moneyless, stateless and human-centred communism). Bureaucratic socialism uses the language of the left, but in practice besmirches the programme of human liberation and perpetuates workers as a slave class.
When it comes to Stalin’s terror system, the absolute deniers inevitably exhibit an eerie similarity to rightwing deniers of the Nazi holocaust, such as David Hoggan, David Duke, Arthur Butz, David Ike and Nick Griffin.23 Not that we favour laws against either school of falsification. Free expression provides the best conditions for arriving at the truth.
The more sophisticated belittlers, deniers and forgetters are another matter. Not a few seek to achieve their ends by the device of concentrating on the hijackers - their sources, inconsistencies, exaggerations and paymasters. Easy. Simple. But, in the end facile and thoroughly unconvincing to anyone with a modicum of common sense.
Representative of this form of deception is the two-part article, ‘The new wave of anti-communism’, by Kenny Coyle.24 Coyle is a prominent member of the Morning Star’s CPB. Others include Kate Hudson, chair of CND, Graham Stevenson, national organiser for transport in the T&G section of Unite, Anita Halpin, a member the NUJ’s executive council and the TUC general council, and, of course, the already mentioned Andrew Murray, chair of Stop the War Coalition.
Coyle once served as the CPB’s international secretary, but nowadays he is glowingly described as a “noted academic and authority on Chinese matters during the period of communist rule”.25 Not insignificantly Coyle works and lives in Hong Kong. Put another way, within his ‘official communist’ circle, Coyle is admired for making half-believable excuses on behalf of the pro-capitalist government in Beijing.
Leave that aside. Coyle brandishes examples of Rummel and co, using rightwing Ukrainian nationalists, cold war warriors, Nazi-era publications, etc. Almost all he needs to do is to list them. He has proven his point. Amongst ‘official communists’ this is damning evidence. Enough for fools who want to be fooled.
Anyone who then accuses bureaucratic socialism of being responsible for deaths on a Hitlerite scale can without difficulty be dismissed out of hand. Meanwhile, Coyle serves up trite excuse after trite excuse for Stalin and bureaucratic socialism.
The peasants themselves were partially responsible for the famine because they slaughtered the livestock and destroyed “food stores and seed”. Local officials were “overenthusiastic” in handling collectivisation. There were “active members” of fascist organisations in Ukraine. Chechen separatists “attempted to secure Nazi support”. Many of Stalin’s prisoners were “common criminals” and would have been jailed in the US or Britain.26
All done with a certain cleverness. But not that clever. Why did the peasants gorge themselves rather than see their property collectivised? Why were local officials so brutal and so determined to enforce 100% collectivisation? How come people in Ukraine hated the Stalin regime so much that many enthusiastically welcomed the invading Nazis? Were the Chechen separatists fundamentally different from Indian, Egyptian and Irish nationalists, who looked to Germany as a potential ally against their imperial oppressor? Are not “common criminals” mostly social victims and is law not a means of class oppression? Coyle cannot even ask such elementary questions. It is easy to appreciate why. His trite excuses for Stalin and bureaucratic socialism turn out, even on a cursory inspection, to be further damning evidence against Stalin and bureaucratic socialism.
Totally giving the game away, Coyle actually cites Stalin’s notorious and utterly hypocritical, March 1930 Pravda article, ‘Dizzy with success’, as if it was a sincere corrective, rather than a crude attempt to blame subordinates for the “seamy side” of collectivisation.27 Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Perhaps the most evasive, artful, cunning line of argument employed by the belittlers and deniers wrests on definition. Many want to include only intentional or sanctioned state killings. Proven death warrants ordered under article 58 of the penal code - counterrevolutionary crimes - are required. Even the personal signature of Stalin himself.
Obviously, this narrowing approach deliberately excludes a whole raft of categories - so-called common criminals in the Siberian camps and those exiled to special colonies. Then there is the huge loss of life associated with the collectivisation famine. The extra-judicial punishment shootings carried out by Stalinite cadre, NKVD troikas and Red Army units during collectivisation are excluded too. And yet they were a daily occurrence in the early 30s. But hardly well documented in the archives.
In point of fact, the archives - State Archives of the Russian Federation, Central Archives of the Security Service of the Russian Federation, Archive of the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation, etc, etc - have been promoted into something of a cult. They thereby become almost the sole repository of truth.
That allows the adept to further ratchet down the figures. Unless documented in the files of the various archives, almost all other accounts, sources and estimates of deaths are to be cheerfully sidestepped, sneeringly discounted or zealously condemned.
Inevitably then, I have been lambasted for using Conquest as any sort of authority. Hence the grandly titled Orestes - the metaphoric meaning of his name being ‘a man who can conquer mountains’ - writing from Greece. Interestingly, he appears to consider himself an anti-Stalinite.
Anyway, he takes me to task for giving credence to Conquest’s figures. I am told it is “totally absurd and naive nowadays (after the opening of Soviet archives) to rely on him”. Conquest’s “facts” are “far from based on scientific research”. Therefore to use Conquest is to “discredit your work of trying to provide a Marxist-based analysis of the Soviet Union”.28
Instead of 10-20 million victims - supposedly a “cold war fabrication” - we are provided with the following breakdown.
- Gulag deaths (not executions): estimated at 1-1.5 million.
- Executions ordered: about 700,000-800,000 from 1921 to 1953. Most - 680,000 - being carried out between 1937 and 1938.
- Deportation deaths: around 200,000.
Orestes recognises that there is “debate as to whether we should add famine victims”, but aloofly brushing this aside he plumps for a total death toll of 2-2.5 million. However, he is determined to push things still lower. “Yes,” he breezily admits, “people died in gulags, but so do people in prisons every day.” Hence, while the Stalin-period bureaucracy can be blamed for “enlarging the gulag system” from 1929 onwards, that is “not to claim that the bureaucracy was to blame for every single death that occurred anywhere in the Soviet Union during those years”.
No-one that I know of takes such an absurd approach. “It is as natural to die as it is to be born” (Francis Bacon 1625). But it is absolutely clear that the gulag system cannot be compared with any ‘normal’ prison regime. It did not consist of extermination camps on the pattern of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka. Nonetheless, the gulags exterminated.
E.g. prisoners sent to the Siberian camps were to all intents and purposes handed a death sentence. They were slowly killed off by the freezing cold, overwork, dreadful diet, absence of adequate medical care, lack of suitable protective clothing - leave aside the casual beatings and general abuse. Few survived.
Orestes bases his case on the ‘discoveries’ of the revisionist school within academic Soviet studies: ie, those who downplay the crimes of Stalinism, usually by insisting on the archives as a unique source of reliable information, etc.
Revealingly, at least about Orestes, the revisionists and their friends give rather higher death counts than he does. Stephen G Wheatcroft writes of an “excess mortality rate” of between four and five million, Alec Nove a slightly lesser three to four million. Meanwhile, J Arch Getty comes up with a rough and ready three million figure.29
Before writing this article, quite naturally I consulted Hillel Ticktin. After all, he is an eminent Marxist scholar, a recognised authority on the Soviet Union and a political ally. Conquest, he assured me, “has researched the issue as well as anyone”. The comrade also comprehensively debunks the archive cult.
Despite modern myths to the contrary, the archives “are not open”. The secret police have not released the files. No-one outside the FSB - the institutional inheritor and continuation of the NKVD and KGB - has actually “seen the full files”. Access is granted when it suits. Even then the researcher has to ask the secret police archivist/librarian for particular files and they “may or may not” provide them.
And there is always the possibility that under Stalin the NKVD agent did not produce accurate reports for their superiors. Rather tell the boss what the boss wants to hear. That has been known - ask any former spook. There is yet another possibility - that the archives have been ‘cleansed’ by the FSB. Famously, the ministry for state security - the Stasi - in the former GDR shredded, shredded and shredded.
Comrade Ticktin concludes: “One cannot know what is there without looking.” So we can only deduce the number of Stalin’s victims by “various indirect methods”.30 I wholeheartedly agree.
Nevertheless, the revisionist school, inevitably followed by Kenny Coyle, etc, etc, has discovered its own “various indirect methods” of deducing - and reducing - the number of victims. Shift the blame for the terror downwards. Away from Stalin and the system of bureaucratic socialism and onto traditional peasant structures, onto angry rank and file workers, onto frustrated Stakhanovites, onto inter-departmental rivalries, etc.31
Of course, no-one should discount the role played by traditional peasant structures, angry rank and file workers, frustrated Stakhanovites, inter-departmental rivalries, etc. All such phenomena needs to be seriously studied. But none of that in and of itself can explain the orgy of killing under the Stalin regime. Needless to say, in the hands of the revisionist school, such “various indirect methods” serve to pass the buck for the mountain of skulls and ocean of blood. Apologetics. That is precisely what the belittlers, deniers and forgetters add up to in my opinion. Obviously, for Marxists, unconscionable.
We straightforwardly ask how many prematurely died directly or indirectly due to the workings of bureaucratic socialism. Not just because of Stalin’s orders and those of his minions (or the Pandora’s box of vengeance, deflected forms of class struggle and attempts at social advancement which were then released below).
We have a good idea of what the Soviet Union’s birth and death rates were between 1926 and 1991. But, taking into account material circumstances, how many men and women passed away quietly after a long and fulfilling life? How many lives were cruelly and unnecessarily cut short because of the political decisions, calculations and blunders of the regime? These two questions taken together constitute our bottom line when it comes to judging Stalin’s system.
Take the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Any study which only counted deaths ordered and duly recorded in the diaries of the American slavocracy would rightly be shot down in flames.
Plantation-owners were anyway just one point of a triangular system which joined the purchase of human beings in Africa with the selling of American tobacco, sugar, cotton, etc in Britain. Hence, it follows, any calculation of the slave trade’s death toll ought to include the system on both sides of the Atlantic.
Africans killed resisting or trying to escape the slave hauls conducted by Arab and native slavers cannot be ignored. Nor the deaths experienced during the course of the fraught land journey to the west African ports. A Luanda merchant in the late 18th century, Raymond Jalama, is quoted as saying that “nearly half of those captured inland were dead by the time they reached the coast”.32
Then there is transit. The cargo losses suffered while crossing the Atlantic. Milton Meltzer estimates that 10 million slaves were delivered to the Americas. There was, though, he says, a 12.5% death rate during the crossing and a further 4%-5% loss while waiting in harbour.33 Hugh Thomas gives not dissimilar figures. In his The slave trade (1997), Thomas reckons that 13 million slaves were shipped from Africa. Only 11,328,000 arrived, he says.
There was, it is agreed, also a huge death toll associated with the so-called ‘seasoning’ period (the initial three years of slavery). Meltzer gives a 33% mortality rate for the first year alone. Overwork, crowded, airless barracks, inadequate diet, lack of elementary healthcare, the gang rapes, floggings, beatings and other brutal punishments should be counted too. All significantly shortened life. Hence, in total, the Atlantic slave system - which obviously included the internal reproduction of slaves within the Americas - is estimated to have caused between 15 and 20 million premature deaths.34
Marx, we can usefully add, mercilessly derided the apologists of his day. A sworn enemy of anything and everything that demeaned the human spirit, that diminished human potential, that wasted human life. Hence Marx’s meticulously documented, theoretically elegant, but fiercely condemnatory conclusion to volume one of Capital.
Part eight includes a searing indictment of the primitive accumulation of capital. Marx blisteringly details the human costs of the land thefts, the enclosures, the forced clearances, the replacement of people by sheep. He attacks with bitter irony the enslaving of black Africans, the callous destruction of aboriginal populations and the looting of colonies. The child-labour, overwork and atrocious conditions endured in the factories, etc.
Like Jeremiah in the Old testament, Marx seethes with moral indignation. Unforgettably, he describes capital as coming into the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”.35 Stalin’s bureaucratic socialism could be described with the exact same words.
1. L Trotsky In defence of Marxism London 1982, p16.
2. History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) Moscow 1939, p346.
4. To get a flavour of this writer’s efforts on this score, see my three Weekly Worker supplements - they appeared on January 29, February 5 and February 12 1997 and together they form the last chapter of a first volume of what I envisage will be a multi-volumed work.
5. E Hobsbawm Interesting times London 2002, p139.
6. See P Flewers The new civilization? London 2008.
8. JE Davies Mission to Moscow London 1942, p179.
10. Labour Monthly May 1956.
11. See www.eastview.com/xq/ASP/sku=RC010137/1937/USSR/Census//Russian/Census//qx/research-collections/product_view.asp
13. See marxists.anu.edu.au/history/ussr/government/1937/census/distribution.htm
15. R Conquest The great terror: a reassessment Oxford 2007.
16. ‘Genesis of bureaucratic socialism’ Weekly Worker February 12 1997.
17. N Khrushchev Khrushchev remembers London 1971, p60.
18. EH Carr The Bolshevik revolution Harmondsworth 1976, p284.
19. R Conquest The harvest of sorrow, London 2002, p306.
22. See www.broadleft.org/antirevi.htm
23. Nick Griffin has never renounced his views on the Nazi holocaust that landed him with a suspended prison sentence in 1998. Writing in The Rune - he was appointed editor in 1995 - Griffin denied that the holocaust had ever taken place. Contemptuously he dubbed it the “holohoax”. This resulted in a conviction for inciting racial hatred under the public order act. Griffin also attacked David Irving, Britain’s leading holocaust denier, accusing him of “backtracking on the old gas chamber lie”. Irving admits that some Jews were exterminated by the Nazis (www.searchlightmagazine.com/index.php?link =template&story=219).
24. Communist Review Nos 31-32, spring to summer 2000, subsequently republished as a CPB pamphlet.
26. Communist Review No32, summer 2000.
27. JV Stalin Works Vol 12, Moscow 19