Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 26, 2016

Millennials and “unnatural” deaths under Stalin

Filed under: Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

I received this communication yesterday:

This almost comically red-baiting story seems to be making the rounds on the Internet:


Without in any way wishing to absolve Stalin of anything, it seems to me the framing here needs rebutting — viz., the article’s implicit assumption that the deaths for which Stalin was directly and indirectly responsible are more attributable to “the idea of communism” as such, than they are to “a disastrous and abortive attempt at realizing the idea of communism, by a monstrous lunatic, in a world dominated by other monstrous lunatics who will do absolutely everything in their power to fucking take you down if you even *think* about realizing the idea of communism in their fucking playground, you motherfucking pinko commie bastard.” Or words to that effect.

So, do either of you know of good pieces contextualizing deaths under Stalin with respect to “exogenous / non-voluntary factors” (my phrase; trying to figure this out as I go)? In other words, anything that makes a good-faith attempt at understanding and accounting for the various contextual factors (e.g., foreign subversion; natural calamity; etc.) that contributed to the dreadful actual legacy of the Soviet Union, especially under Stalin — without whitewashing?

Again, just to be clear, I have no interest in absolving Stalin of anything whatsoever. Only in a sober rebuttal to those who would scapegoat “socialism as such” on the basis of Stalin’s crimes (or Mao’s for that matter), while feigning to pretend that “capitalism as such” remains untainted by those of the Rockefellers, Kroks, Bushes and Ramaphosas. Not to mention Hitler. (Oops.)

My reply:

The article appears in PJ Media, a website that I haven’t looked at in over a decade. It used to be called Pajamas Media and was a primary outlet for neoconservative ideology and support for the Bush administration, especially his invasion of Iraq.

The purpose of the article is to paint millennials as a bunch of idiots because they believe that George W. Bush was responsible for more deaths than Stalin:

Under Stalin, the Soviet Union suffered an estimated 56 to 62 million “unnatural deaths,” with 34 to 49 million directly linked to the dictator. Under Bush, 6,648 U.S. service members died, and the number of Iraqis who died has been variously estimated at 112,114, 122,644, 151,000, and even 655,000. Even the highest number for Bush is roughly 700,000, while the lowest for Stalin would be 34 million.

Obviously to answer the PJ article properly would require a book but let me take a shot at brief reply, including some resources that might help.

To start with, while Stalin was a mass murderer, the numbers PJ cites are problematic. While there are no citations in the article, it is likely that the reference for 56 to 62 million “unnatural deaths” comes from a book titled “Unnatural Deaths in the U.S.S.R.: 1928-1954” written in 1983 by a Soviet geophysicist named Iosif G. Dyadkin who had no training as a demographer. To start with, he counts 30 million deaths during WWII at Nazi hands as “unnatural” as they surely were. Just ask any survivor of the siege of Leningrad who can tell you that it was Hitler rather than Stalin who bombed Leningrad and other Russian cities.

It is very difficult to come to an accurate count of those “unnatural” deaths that can be clearly attributed to Stalin. Most of the people working in this field are diehard anti-Communists who wouldn’t think twice about exaggerating the numbers just as neo-Nazi ideologues like David Irving had a vested interest in minimizing Hitler’s concentration camp deaths.

In 1996 Chris Harman of the British SWP wrote an article titled “Thinking it Through” that dealt with mass killings by dictatorships. Since this group emerged out of the Trotskyist movement, you can be sure that Harman would be the last person to minimize the number of people killed by Stalin. He writes:

Some right wing historians have carried the argument a stage further. Robert Conquest, for instance, has claimed that Stalin actually killed more people than Hitler (a figure mistakenly accepted by Roy Medvedev). It is only a short step from this to some German nationalist historians who argue that Nazism was a lesser evil than Stalinism. The century’s horrors originate then, not in capitalism, but in misguided attempts to overthrow it. It is an argument many socialists find hard to answer, as they recoil from the way much of the left used to apologise for Stalinism. Yet the argument is fundamentally wrong. The collapse of the USSR has opened up secret police files in Moscow for the first time. This has enabled historians like R.W. Davies (who co-authored some of the later volumes in E.H. Carr’s magnificent A History of Soviet Russia) and the late Alec Nove to initiate the first factually based discussion on exactly what was the death toll in Stalin’s Russia. Their conclusions point to Stalin’s regime being bloody in the extreme. There were 353,000 executions in 1937 and 239,000 in 1938. Over 140,000 people died during the deportation of minority nationalities between 1944 and 1948.

On top of this, the numbers of people in the ‘gulag’ of prisons and labour camps rose from 2.5 million in 1933 to 5.5 million in 1953, with a death rate in the camps of five to nine times that among the free population – implying perhaps two million deaths caused by ill-treatment and neglect over a 25 year period. Finally, the famine that was a result of collectivisation in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan led to up to 5 million further deaths. But the discussion also leads to two other conclusions.

Such numbers strike me as much more plausible but that hardly lets Stalin off the hook. I am reminded of how horrific his Great Terror was from a documentary film I saw yesterday about Isaac Babel, arguably the finest novelist to have emerged out of the Russian Revolution. He wrote “Red Cavalry” that was based on his attachment to a Cossacks brigade fighting against the counter-revolution in the early 20s as well as “Odessa Tales” about Jewish life in the Ukraine. In 1939 he was charged with treason and executed, just one of millions in the 1930s.

For an unstinting analysis of the criminality of Stalin’s dictatorship, I strongly recommend Tony McKenna’s “The Dictator, The Revolution, The Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin” that will be available in a month or so. It is very useful in analyzing the underlying forces that led to millions being killed. I found the comparison with the Aztecs revealing:

One can discern, I think, a certain parity with the Stalinist phenomenon and the manner in which its bureaucracy was compelled to enact its own blood sacrifices. The difference lies only in this. If the Aztecs had failed to observe the ritualistic blood- letting, we are safe in assuming that the processes of nuclear fission which take place at the core of the sun would have remained indifferent to their lapse in religious piety, while the planets too would have been untroubled in their interminable, rolling motions. Not so with Stalinism however. If Stalinism had not launched an intermittent, cyclical series of purges, each one deeper and more far reaching than the last, then the Stalinist universe itself would have ground to a halt, col- lapsed under the weight of its own accumulated contradictions. The purges were as necessary to the internal dynamic of the political bureaucracy, as much as the mass repressions and the creation of the gu- lags were necessary to redefine the economic pattern of the country in and through a vast network of forced and slave labour. The two processes were in fact organically interlinked. Individual bureaucrats were able to fortify their positions by acquiring an increasing control over the means of repression which the Stalinist system used against the population in order to drive through its economic reforms and se- cure and bolster its own power. And yet, this very process generated a fundamental friction and destabilization of the bureaucracy itself – as its different elements were thrown into collision with one another in and through the marshalling of their own discrete powers and privileges. What we have here is what the greatest of all the classical German philosophers Hegel referred to as a “bad” or “spurious” infinite – that is, a contradiction whose solution simultaneously produces it anew at another level.

Finally, I believe that the real cause of such “unnatural” deaths under Stalin was the invasion of the USSR in 1918. To start with, there are estimates of between 7 to 12 million casualties, most of them civilian. And among these casualties were the most committed revolutionaries of the working class who saw the preservation of the socialist government as in their class interests. When they died on the battlefield, the heart of the revolution was effectively removed, thus leaving a vacuum that former bureaucrats of the Czarist regime could fill because they had experience as functionaries. These people provided the social base of the Stalinist machine.

Wikipedia provides details on the economic costs of the civil war:

The Russian economy was devastated by the war, with factories and bridges destroyed, cattle and raw materials pillaged, mines flooded and machines damaged. The industrial production value descended to one-seventh of the value of 1913 and agriculture to one-third. According to Pravda, “The workers of the towns and some of the villages choke in the throes of hunger. The railways barely crawl. The houses are crumbling. The towns are full of refuse. Epidemics spread and death strikes—industry is ruined.” It is estimated that the total output of mines and factories in 1921 had fallen to 20% of the pre-World War level, and many crucial items experienced an even more drastic decline. For example, cotton production fell to 5%, and iron to 2%, of pre-war levels.

With such a devastating economic collapse, the Soviets were forced to make concessions to the peasantry that was growing frustrated with a lack of manufactured goods. With 20 percent of the factories destroyed, there was an urgent need to get production going again even on a market basis incorporated in the NEP. The NEP provided a temporary amelioration but at some costs.

From the very beginning, the so-called “scissors” phenomenon characterized the NEP. Trotsky first drew attention to this phenomenon of rising industrial prices and declining agricultural prices, which appeared graphically as an opened scissor, in the first few years of the NEP. It was attributable to the discrepancy between a shattered state-owned industrial infrastructure and a relatively thriving capitalist agricultural economy. The effect of the “scissors” was to cause the kulak to hoard farm products in an attempt to blackmail the state into cutting the prices of consumer goods. When the kulak hoarded crops, the workers went hungry and misery increased in the towns. This, in brief, was the pattern that would repeat itself until Stalin declared war on the kulaks.

The peasants had discovered that holding grain was more prudent than holding money. The state authorities could not make the peasants budge. At Rostov in the Ukraine the authorities issued an order to have the peasants deliver 25% of all flour delivered to state mills at a fixed price in 1924. The state was able to collect only 1/3 of the grain. The peasants withheld the rest.

In addition to the growing tensions between private growers and public authorities, tensions also arose in the countryside between the wealthy peasant and the overwhelming majority of poor peasants. The 1917 revolution distributed millions of small lots to the tiller, but their prospects were uncertain. In these mini-farms, horses were often nonexistent let alone tractors. Peasants used their own muscles to plow the land. Many of these mini-farms failed and the peasants became wage laborers on the kulak’s farms.

Were there any easy solutions to these contradictions? It is impossible to say since by the time they had mounted to the boiling point, the Marxists in the USSR had been silence or forced into exile. People like those at PJ Media believe that Russia would have been better off with capitalism. It was a lot easier to make such an argument in the 1950s and early 60s when the post-WWII recovery was still going strong.

That is not the case today when young people (the millennials) can’t find a job and are confronted by capitalist failure rather than what took place in the USSR in the 1930s. The rightwing is worried about the growing popularity of socialism, even if that only means the words used by Bernie Sanders that has little to do with what the Bolsheviks were trying to do in 1917. There will come a point when a new paradigmatic revolution takes place not in the periphery but in the heart of the advanced capitalist countries. As difficult the road we must travel to help such a revolution take place, we can at least be reassured that the task of overthrowing it will not be an easy task especially if the USA is where it takes place.


  1. This is a very well-focused article that makes an important point.

    I wonder how many millennials actually hold the beliefs attributed to them by the Pajamas kiddies. I believe that education in general, especially in recent decades, has been dumbed down–something that is clearly in the interests of a manipulative ruling class. Furthermore, IMHO, this widespread ignorance and neglect of fundamental numeracy and literacy–especially historical and scientific literacy–has generated a tidal wave of ignorance that fuels Trumpism and all manner of ills. But I can’t believe that millenials are nothing more than the passive objects of this manipulation or that they have no way of fighting or avoiding it.

    A dogmatic “marxist-leninist” of my acquaintance years ago had a set response to my then-not-very-well-informed denunciation of Stalin. “Anti-stalinism,” he he would say “is usually a front for anti-communism.” Despite the canned rhetoric (and the old-fashioned reference to “communism”), there is the core of a valid point there that, as the PeeJays illustrate, grows ever green.

    It’s good to hear this precisely tuned response from someone who cannot sanely be called a Stalinist.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — October 27, 2016 @ 2:11 pm

  2. This response, while certainly worth repeating since it’s so often forgotten and ignored, was actually “precisely tuned” long ago (by Trotsky actually) as this was how I learned Soviet history as a kid from older comrades in the SWP in the late 60’s about the same time Louis joined.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 27, 2016 @ 2:52 pm

  3. Old men tend to live in the past. It’s a pity, but I suppose all of us go that way sooner or later.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — October 27, 2016 @ 7:29 pm

  4. Trump’s support is concentrated among older voters, which is the opposite of what you’d expect to see if it was the result of dumbed down education.

    Comment by Articulus — October 28, 2016 @ 7:38 pm

  5. Looky here. When you talk about “older voters” in the USA it’s like Chomsky says, you may as well be “polling old people in Sicily” as this is the same demographic that keeps an ignorant reactionary fucktard like Bill O’Rielly #1 in Prime Time ratings. When people on this blog think of “old people” we think of ourselves, people that are educated and wise that grew up in class struggle. The reality is most of our age wise contemporaries died young in class struggle, burning candles at both ends, so what’s left besides us (the minority) are the reactionaries that supported the Vietnam War and Police Dogs and water cannons in the South. These under-educated jagoffs were reactionaries as youths and are practically fascists today so of course they’re for uneducated shitheads like Trump. They’re that last white bastion in fear of a Brown planet. They’re old, scared, congenitally racist, functionally illiterate — and really fucking stupid, the proof being they idolize morons like Hannity, Savage, Limbaugh and O’Rielly. To the extent the old adage “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks is true” then if there were a real revolution the new society would soon be compelled, albeit with reluctance and much debate, to shoot them like Batista’s Prison Guards, as they’re so hopeless a burden to moving forward.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 29, 2016 @ 12:57 am

  6. “Articulus”

    Dumbing down has been going on steadily since World War II. It expresses itself in all current age groups. The fact that some millennials may be bucking the trend in no way falsifies this, it merely confirms that people can make change even under unfavorable circumstances. That is why there is hope for revolution.

    Your simple-minded comment is a good example of the dumb-down in action–as is the pretentious Latinate pseudonym behind which you are cowering.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — October 31, 2016 @ 1:19 pm

  7. Pete, the revolution you are waiting for has arrived & it flies a Trump banner. It’s participants are varied and include some very brilliant and intuitive minds. You won’t find them wasting time on a site such as this.

    Comment by Globayashi 🌐 🐸 (@GriffinlySwords) — October 31, 2016 @ 2:55 pm

  8. @Globayashi. Thank you for proving, by wasting your time here, that you are neither brilliant nor intuitive. Not that it isn’t obvious.

    Feel free to kiss my brilliant ass whenever you’ve washed your filthy Nazi face, you affected twerp.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — November 1, 2016 @ 2:54 pm

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