Stalin Whitewashed? Not the first word that springs to mind

t-34

I have just been reading this piece by Lawrence Rees on the BBC website plugging his TV show on BBC 2 at 9 tonight on the origins of the non-aggression pact between the USSR and Germany. I hope that the programme will take account of the recent revelation of Stalin’s offer in August 1939 to send a million troops with armour and air support to the German border (with Polish agreement) if the British and French would agree a military alliance. The non-aggression pact was a response to the failure of the western powers – doubtless fuelled by the same anti-communism that saw them allow democracy in Spain to be crushed by fascism – to agree. I suspect though, that this won’t turn up in the programme, but will watch to see.

Rees has an excellent pedigree in making superb programmes on this period, and I look forward to tonight’s show very much. His piece I have linked to above, however, I find somewhat less compelling than his past shows. Here is the introduction (though admittedly it may be the work of a sub-editor).

He had the blood of millions on his hands, yet Joseph Stalin has escaped Hitler-style demonisation, and even become a trendy pin-up. Why has history been so kind to this murderous leader, asks Laurence Rees.

I find the idea that Stalin has escaped demonisation somewhat questionable, especially on the basis of one poster of him on a campus. However the recent video released by Russell Brand may suggest he has more of a point. It is actually nearly impossible to find a poster of Stalin or any of his writings in this day and age, unless you go to one of those post-ironic places on the net, or parts of Europe. Unlike, say Mein Kampf, which can be found in most Waterstone’s.

Rees argues that Uncle Joe has gotten off lightly as a result of wartime propaganda still shaping the popular consciousness (note in fact my use of Uncle Joe as conclusive and subconscious proof).

The trouble is that the legacy of these “expedient lies” has still not entirely left us. Which is why I hope people will come to realise just how appalling Stalin was, and students might think twice before hanging pictures of Stalin on their walls.

Nonsense. Firstly Stalin’s image in the popular consciousness is a lot closer to Hitler, especially among young people, than Rees allows. Secondly, if he has a better image that is simply because he ought to have. After all, it was the Red Army that, in Churchill’s words, ripped the guts out of the Nazis’ military machine, and the USSR backed the liberation struggles of many countries. Yes the USSR under Stalin could be a brutal and violent place, and huge mistakes were made. Equally, we know that the Communists were fighting for their lives, and at the same time transformed the lives of the peoples of the USSR immeasurably for the better in healthcare, literacy, life expectancy and other areas. As well as saving us all from fascism.

A commentator here uses the name Baku 26, after 26 Soviet commisars delievered up by the British for execution to the Whites during the civil war. There can be no doubt that Stalin et al faced death if the forces of counter-revolution succeeded against them at any point. Nor is there any doubt that there were real challenges and conspiracies, though paranoia overstimated them. As a historian, perhaps Rees could talk a bit more about these and spare us the moral judgments. The point of historical writing is to get inside the heads of those you are writing about – little or no effort to do so is made in this day and age with regard to the USSR under Stalin.

In a world where reactionary regimes in eastern Europe seek to use the EU to ban the teaching of anything positive about communism, we must fight to defend the truth. In all its ugliness, yes. But also in all its progress, hope, sacrifice, and, indeed, glory.

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19 Responses to “Stalin Whitewashed? Not the first word that springs to mind”

  1. TV Show on World War Two Starts Tonight « The Cedar Lounge Revolution Says:

    […] reputation today can be found here. My response to it and some of the issues it raises can be found here (those of a disposition inclined to be upset by discussions of Stalin and the USSR that are not […]

  2. Justin Says:

    Grover Furr, an American professor, has wriiten a two part treatise in which he “outlines Joseph Stalin’s attempts, from the 1930s until his death, to democratize the government of the Soviet Union.”

    Not the usual stuff one reads about Stalin and very intersting stuff.

    http://eserver.org/clogic/2005/furr.html Part One

    http://eserver.org/clogic/2005/furr2.html Part Two

    He’s also written a book on this topic, currently only available in Russian.

  3. Garibaldy Says:

    Thanks for those links Justin. I look forward to reading them. Although with a certain amount of scepticism I must confess.

  4. Mick Hall Says:

    No matter how much many of us admired the red army soldiers and loved the thought of a soviet state, we cannot over look that Stalinism was the grave digger of socialism as far as the 20th century was concerned. His butchery of many of the finest revolutionaries and red army officers was unforgivable. It was no accident that few workers defended the first workers state prior to the USSR crashing down, thanks to Stalinism and his ridiculous theory of socialism in one country it had become a living corps.

  5. Adam, London Says:

    “Yes the USSR under Stalin could be a brutal and violent place, and huge mistakes were made.”

    Mistakes? I’ve seen some under-statements in my time… but that one’s off the charts.

    I was under the impression that Stalin went out to deliberately and systematically murder anyone who presented even the slightest threat – real of perceived. By using that word, you are ( intentionally or not ) questionning whether the immeasurable brutality of the Soviet regime was deliberate.

    Could you get away with such a spectacular under-statement about the Nazis? For example, could you describe the Nazi’s mass murdering of Jews, as a mere “mistake”?

    I can only presume you think Robert Mugabe has made one or two “errors of judgement”.

    “In a world where reactionary regimes in eastern Europe seek to use the EU to ban the teaching of anything positive about communism, we must fight to defend the truth. In all its ugliness, yes. But also in all its progress, hope, sacrifice, and, indeed, glory.”

    Perhaps the the reason these “reactionary regimes” in Eastern Europe are so unapologetic about their anti-communist feelings, is because unlike the silly, middle class champaigne socialists in Western Europe, who preach about the glories of socialism – like the spoiled brats they are – the people of Eastern Europe actually KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE to live under the “glory” of socialism.

    Mind you, the people of Ireland got a their own taste recently of the true “democratic virtues” of the EU. Of course, they gave the “wrong answer” in their referendum on the EU Constitution ( er… “Treaty”, lol ) – the poor darlings just don’t know what’s best for them!

    Still, they’ll be told to keep voting again – until they please their unelected masters.

  6. Garibaldy Says:

    Mick,

    I think that the socialist states might well have maintained or recovered the support of the workers there had the economies not become oriented towards the military. I think that there was a lot in what Kruschev said about the need to build washing machines etc but the consequence of the world wars, especially the second, and the nuclear arms race was a paranoid determination to never be militarily vulnerable, which ensured that valuable resources were misdirected. This also helps to explain the nature of the political cultures and repression. These were huge errors, but we cannot overlook the extent to which the USSR inspired and aided numerous peoples around the world.

    Adam,

    Thanks for commenting. Much of what I’ve said above, I would say to you. I would not at all say that Stalin set out to physically annihilate his enemies the way Hitler did, and I can’t really think of anyone who would make this claim given the absence of death camps and the other means of industrialised slaughter deployed by the Nazi regime. I think the brutality of much of the early USSR was a consequence of the civil wars, and the threat to the regime. There is a very good book on violence and revolution in the USSR and the French Revolution called The Furies by Arno Mayer which you might find interesting.

    I agree with much of what you say about the EU. Hopefully we can ensure that the next referendum gets the same answer.

  7. Baku26 Says:

    The naive and facile comparisons frequently made between JV Stalin and Hitler do little to advance a reasoned analysis of Stalin or the Soviet Union on Stalin’s watch. Nazism was a system the core philosophy of which was exclusivist, murderous and anti-human. The ambitions, ideals and aspirations of socialism and communism were based on a desire for the social, political, economic and cultural advancement of humankind.

    Stalin was acutely aware of the threat of white and foreign reaction to the Revolution. In the 1930’s he witnessed the vicious nature of fascism in Spain and attempted to do something about it when the so-called liberal democracies stood aside. A short time later the Soviet Union was under a barbaric attack from Nazi Germany.

    From 1918 to 1945 liberal democracy would have been a fatal luxury for the peoples of the Soviet Union. Stalin may not have been a saint but neither was he a demon.

  8. Context. Or How to Ignore it When Making a Documentary « The Cedar Lounge Revolution Says:

    […] Ribbentrop, in Moscow to negotiate a non-aggression pact with Stalin. One of the questions from my post on my own blog in anticipation of tonight’s show was immediately answered. Not only was there […]

  9. Garibaldy Says:

    I think Baku26 that sums things up nicely.

  10. yourcousin Says:

    No, I think when you butcher a third of your own people you can safely be called a demon.

  11. Garibaldy Says:

    I don’t think, yourcousin, that that figure is at all credible. We have seen a kind of hyperinflation in the numbers of deaths attributed to Stalin, and to be honest we have now gotten in to numbers that make no sense. I also think that not everything that happened in the USSR while he was in charge is attributable to him – he did not know when a bird fell out of the sky. The Soviet Union had a very bad and nasty period, but to be honest, I find it hard to see how something of that nature was unavoidable given both the domestic and the external situations. I recognise of course that in all such circumstances gross instances of barbarism take place. But I feel as I said above that we cannot ignore Soviet achievements, and as I say in the review of the first part of this series at Cedar Lounge, we must look at this in context.

  12. yourcousin Says:

    I admit that off of the top of my head that I believe that number came from Solzhenitsyn who was responding to a heckler in a crowd upon his return to Russia. And while I admit the oft quoted 60 million is quite probably an exaggeration, I would like to know your cut off limit for Stalin being an “okay guy”? 5 million, 15 million, or is it all context? No not everything that happened in the Soviet Union was attributable to him but he did set policy and course, so things like forced collectivization, massive deportations, the secret police, and massive purges I think can be laid at his doorstep being that I doubt any one of those was implemented without his approval.

  13. Garibaldy Says:

    It’s a difficult question yourcousin, but there are several issues I think must be taken into account. The first is what we mean by being responsible for the deaths of. I don’t think that the death toll of people executed during the purges or forced collectivization is in the millions, and I am highly doubtful about accusations that the Ukrainian famine was a man-made act of deliberate policy.

    I also think we need to ask how and why those deaths came about. I think the best way to view collectivization is as the second round of the civil war. Basically it was a confrontation between the socialist state and the rural dwellers who had become rich during the NEP, and who represented a threat to the state due to their growing economic power and political viewpoints. We can see this is in the not infrequent massacres of communists and those associated with collectivization in this period. Such a confrontation was inevitable, and would have come about if Trotsky had been the Soviet leader following his plans, as is clear from a reading of his works. The choice facing the Soviet state was to allow the threat to continue or to crush it. In the context of the brutality of the Revolution and Civil War, there was going to be violence.

    The secret police and purges were the product of the fear and paranoia inherited from the Tsarist political culture and immeasurably strengthened by internal counter-revolution and the threat of external forces, again something demonstrated by the Civil War and the fate of other countries in Europe in the 1930s. These things take on a dynamic of their own. As I understand it, the current historiography stresses the local dynamic behind much of this rather than an overbearing central government.

    When we ask whether it is a good or bad thing that the Soviet state existed in this period – which is how I view things rather than whether or not Stalin was a good guy – then I think we must answer that it was. Good for the ordinary people of the USSR rather than a continuation of the Tsarist regime, or a republic dominated by the aristocracy and the church, as would have been the case had the state produced by the February Revolution survived (and remember the “liberals” tried to destroy the Bolsheviks in the months before October) or if a reactionary general like Kornilov had overturned the February Revolution. I think that realistically these were the choices that were faced. Not between a modern, secular, liberal, welfare state democracy and Stalinism. In those circumstances, I think it was better for the peoples of the USSR that the Soviet state existed.

  14. yourcousin Says:

    I’ve got to go to work (nothing like debating the merits of Soviet communism at 4am) but will think on it today and respond when I get home.

  15. Garibaldy Says:

    I admire your revolutionary ardour yourcousin! One of the worst aspects of American society for workers I think is definitely the 24 hour culture and the way it forces people to work such unsociable hours.

  16. yourcousin Says:

    I see that you’re almost to sixty comments over at CLR so a sensible person would simply join over there. That not being the case I’ll state my piece here and leave well enough alone. But, I think I’ll give this one a day or two as it look’s like you’ve got your hands full on CLR and I’m sure you have better things to do than to spend all your free time answering blog comments. I know that I certainly do. That does not mean I attend to those matters, only that I ignore them to my own detriment.

    I would say though, please don’t lose the forest for the trees. Context is a wonderful thing, but it is not everything. Morals and ethics exist in every situation that we encounter in life and in history. The fact that those choices which are moral and ethical are not always easy is not always an excuse. And as much one can argue that we must appreciate why certain decisions were made, that does inherently make those decisions right or justified. More later.

  17. Garibaldy Says:

    Hi yourcousin,

    Hope you had a good day at work. The conversation at CLR has not stuck to the topic of the programme, but has widened out into this type of discussion despite my best efforts. It seems to have stopped for now, although we will see what the morning brings. I suspect most people are fed up with it but you never know.

    I agree that context is not all, that morals exist, and that explanation is not the same as justification (something I’ve been trying to point out at the CLR). This is a complex one. At bottom, I guess I feel that the Bolsheviks were at risk of extermination from home and abroad, and that in such extreme circumstances – similar in many ways to that faced by the Jacobins during the French Revolution – brutal actions to defend the Revolution are justified. I am also pragmatic enough to know that in such circumstances people will take advantage, that suspicion and zeal, as well as score-settling and power plays, will bring the innocent as well as the guilty to the scaffold. I recognise the tragedy of these cases, and that there were many crimes and murders. But if the end result of seizing property, nationalising land, conscripting labour, and crushing opposition that has turned violent is the successful defence of the revolution against counter-revolutionary foes foreign and/or domestic, then it has to be considered whether it was worth it while acknowledging that a repeat of such things should be avoided if in any way possible. I think that the alternative to the Soviet regime would have been a nasty and aggressive, possibly fascistic, regime in Russia that would not have sought to positively tried to transform the lives of its people the way the Bolsheviks did.

    That is as you point out a very macro approach, concentrating on the wood and not the trees, which in this case are victims. It mightn’t be a perfect position to take, but it is the only one I can see as realistic. Perhaps had the civil war not happened as it did with foreign interference, or if the Left Social Revolutionaries and others had not turned to violence towards the regime instead of seeking to be a loyal opposition, or had the NEP not been necessary or more limited, or Hitler had never come to power, or had the western powers – themselves brutal imperialists of course – confronted fascism earlier, then things could and would and should have been very different. But the Soviets played the hand that was dealt them. Overall, I think it was better that they were in control than the alternative, despite all the problems.

  18. yourcousin Says:

    Damnit, I had a post all ready which would having been crushing in its logic and prose and would have forced all who beheld it to bow before its indisputable might, but I went and erased it by accident. So now you’ll have to settle for a naive and infantile post riddled with illogical statements, assumptions and infantile arguments. But not just yet as I’ve got other stuff going, but I haven’t forgotten.

  19. Garibaldy Says:

    Sorry to hear that yourcousin, though glad my world view has not being exploded at the same time 🙂

    No hurry, whenever you get the chance.

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