Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 24, 2010

A guest post on Timothy Snyder

Filed under: anti-Communism,Fascism,ussr,war — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

This originally appeared as comments by Dermokrat under my last post titled An American “Revisionist” Historian.  He buttresses his arguments with passages from Jacques Pauwel’s essential Myth of the Good War. Since it a major contribution to the discussion, I wanted to make sure that it received the widest attention.

Hi Louis,

I actually posted Kotz’s article on my facebook a while back, although not because of his refutation of Snyder, but because of his worthy condemnation of fanatic, anti-Soviet Baltic nationalism. Nevertheless, one of my friends took me to task over Katz’s argument vis-a-vis Snyder. I didn’t actually read the response by Snyder before I posted Katz’s commentary. My friend quickly pointed out that Snyder notes in his rebuttal:

I didn’t and don’t equate Hitler and Stalin. Katz puts ‘somewhat equal’ in quotations, but I never use any such phrase. Zuroff says that I ‘posit’ that the Soviet Union was Nazi Germany; I most certainly do no such thing. What I try to do, in the 28 September article and generally, is understand what it means for a vast east European territory and several east European peoples to have been touched by both Nazi and Soviet power. Despite some critical remarks of Bloodlands in an otherwise perceptive and generous (London) Times review of 26 September, which perhaps Zuroff and Katz read, I don’t equate Stalin with Hitler in that book either. Instead, I try to reckon with the crimes that both regimes committed in the lands between Berlin and Moscow, where 14 million people, including more than 5 million Jews, were killed in the 12 years that both Hitler and Stalin were in power.

He then pointed out that Katz undermines his own argument that Snyder fails to distinguish between the two when he writes:

And finally, it is not possible to ignore Snyder’s certainty that ‘Jews could not help but see the return of Soviet power as a liberation. Soviet policy was not especially friendly to Jews, but it was obviously better than a Holocaust.’

Indeed, in his rejoinder, Snyder writes: “I am not saying that [Soviet atrocities] were equivalent to the Holocaust. I am saying that a number of German and Soviet policies meet the standard of genocide.”

I pointed out to my friend that having read Snyder’s original piece and his response, I agreed that both Katz and Zuroff had somewhat exaggerated or misinterpreted Snyder’s arguments in the original article (excerpted from Bloodlands), but nevertheless make valid points re: the kind of historiography to which you refer at the beginning of your article (the kind that Baltic nationalists have adopted wholesale).

All that said, however, Snyder’s arguments about Soviet “genocide” are still unconvincing. To be sure, Stalin was a totalitarian monster who presided over mass slaughter of many innocent people, but it is difficult to claim that he was committing “genocide” as it is conventionally understood; i.e. “the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.” While the Ukrainian nationalists and American/British anti-communists have long claimed that Stalin intentionally engineered the famine to punish Ukraine or even exterminate Ukrainians, there is simply no evidence for this. The last most serious inquiry into this question was carried out by Terry Martin in his Affirmative Action Empire. After exhaustively examining the documentary record (including all of Stalin’s correspondence with Kaganovich and Molotov during those years), Martin concluded:

The Poliburo’s development of a national interpretation of their grain requisitions crisis in late 1932 helps explain both the pattern of terror and the role of the national factor during the 1932-1933 famine. The 1932-1933 terror campaign consisted of both a grain requisitions terror, whose primary target was the peasantry, both Russian and non-Russian, and a nationalities terror, whose primary target was Ukraine and subsequently Belorussia. The grain requisitions terror was the final and decisive culmination of a campaign begun in 1927-1928 to extract the maximum possible amount from a hostile peasantry. As such, its primary targets were the grain-producing regions of Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and the Lower Volga, though no grain-producing regions escaped the 1932-1933 grain requisitions terror entirely. Nationality was of minimal importance in this campaign. The famine was not an intentional act of genocide specifically targeting the Ukrainian nation (quote on p.305 but see 282-307 for the full explanation).

The famine is still to be blamed on Stalin and his henchmen, since it stemmed from the policy of forced collectivization, which in turn was pursued not out of a kind of Marxist orthodoxy (as anti-communists like to claim), but in order to facilitate grain exports to Europe to acquire the hard currency needed for industrialization (this was inspired by Preobrazhensky’s socialist primitive accumulation – see Kagarlitskii’s Empire of the Periphery for a good summary). In this way, the Ukraine/Kuban famine was very much like what the British did in India as documented so well by Mike Davis in his Late Victorian Holocausts (ironically, this would have been a nice comparative study for Conquest back when he was writing Harvest of Sorrow!). At any rate, the famine caused by collectivization and terror requisitions was indeed a small ‘h’ holocaust of sorts, but it was not genocide.

Moving on, Snyder writes: “It is hard not to see the Soviet “Polish Operation” of 1937-38 as genocidal: Polish fathers were shot, Polish mothers sent to Kazakhstan, and Polish children left in orphanages where they would lose their Polish identity. As more than 100,000 innocent people were killed on the spurious grounds that theirs was a disloyal ethnicity…”

There’s a lot to unpack here. Unfortunately, it was not just the Poles who were subjected to this. Many “diaspora” groups living along Soviet borders were subjected to this kind of treatment – basically any national minority groups that had a “national homeland” outside the USSR, especially those living along the borders, were considered suspect. Like the Polish and Germans, many members of these “alien” communities were forcibly relocated and/or arrested and shot. The Poles and Germans living in the Ukrainian borderlands were particularly targeted because they had been the most prone to insurrection during collectivization and the years that followed. In fact, throughout the early 30s many Polish and German rebels did make appeals to the German and Polish government for aid and hoped they would intervene against the Soviet government on their behalf. Obviously this resistance was blowback from the collectivization campaign, and change in Soviet policy should be compared with what Terry Martin terms “the Piedmont Principle” of 1920s, whereby the Soviets hoped these border communities would become a sort of showcase for their national comrades living across the border.

Unsurprisingly Soviet officialdom’s views changed rapidly in the post-collectivization years – a period that also coincided with a decidedly hostile international relations environment, where the Nazis and Polish governments made no secret of their desire to do the Soviets in (see Affirmative Action, passim and Craig Nation’s Black Earth, Red Star, pp. 74-112; and Hirsch’ Empire of Nations, pp. 273-308 for more details on these things). Ironically, Soviet nationality policy in the Ukrainian borderlands was a victim of its own success, which led to the paradoxical situation where the Soviets officially promoted all the trappings of national life (national education, newspapers, theater, etc), but then accused local officials in charge of these things of promoting nationalism. This situation is not irrelevant to understanding what happened in the region in the runup to the war. While Snyder is right that Poles were increasingly being deported from the borderlands in the mid to late 30s simply for being Poles (and not for “class” reasons), not all the Polish communities living in the border regions were affected. As Kate Brown points out in her study of Soviet nationalities policy in the Ukrainian borderlands:

Some commentators on Soviet history have interpreted the deportation of national minorities as a plan ordered from Moscow and motivated in large part by a growing ethnic xenophobia and Russian chauvinism, led in large part Joseph Stalin (himself, of course, member of a minority far from mainstream Russia). The 1935-36 deportations, however, did not emanate from a racial or biological understanding of the deported population. Despite the order to deport specifically Poles and Germans, security agents did not deport ALL Germans and Poles in the borderlands, but only Germans and Poles with suspicious biographies or personal connections. Instead of an encompassing racial conception of nationality, national categories informed existing political and class categories to determine who should go and who should stay. About half of Soviet Poles and Germans were deemed dangerous for the border zone, but the other half was cleared to stay. In 1936, to be Polish or German was still dependent on one’s actions, biography and personal connections…Border cleansing was not a universal policy. As mentioned above, Poles and Germans were not shipped from Belorussia at this time although its profile was very similar to that of Ukraine: both had mixed populations, a long history of a leading Polish elite, a substantial number of German colonists and other scattered groups. Both bordered on Polish territory and had volatile and rebellious records during the 1930 collectivization campaign. The major difference between the two territories is that Ukraine established its national minority program in 1925, while the Dzerzhinskii Polish Region in Belorussia was formed in 1932. The people in Belorussia had only a few years to live in nationalized space and create national behavior. Rather than a universal plan from Moscow to deport all diaspora borderland populations, this disparity suggests that policy grew out of a more specific connection to how land and populations were configured in various territories of the Soviet Union (A Biography of No Place, p. 147).

This probably explains why there were still roughly 200,000 Poles living in these borderlands in 1959, all still granted certain “national rights” – albeit highly circumscribed by that point, as they were for all national minorities. Yet if we believe Snyder, the Soviets engaged in a campaign with the Nazis to eliminate all educated Polish people in a bid to undermine their continued existence as a people (the Soviets then went on to maintain a Polish state after WWII – thoroughly Stalinized, of course, but that’s not the point).

By the way, it’s worth noting that the United States adopted a similar policy of deportation and internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Although it did not, to my knowledge, include summary executions, many peoples lives were ruined due to the fact that they were forcibly uprooted and sent to the camps. Does Snyder consider this American policy as genocidal?

Lastly, we should keep in mind that, despite Stalin’s seemingly best attempts to deform the sciences in the USSR, the Soviet Union – in stark contrast to Germany and much of the West at that time – was adamantly opposed to eugenics and race science. In fact they broke all research ties with Germany once such a science took root in German universities. According to Francine Hirsch:

…in 1931 the Soviet regime prevailed on its anthropologists and ethnographers to disprove German race theories. In particular, the Soviet experts were to wage a war against biological determinism: to prove to audiences at home and abroad that ‘all narodnosti can develop and flourish’ and that ‘there is no basis whatsoever for supposing the existence of some sort of racial or biological factors’ that would make it impossible for certain peoples to participate in ‘socialist construction’. Soviet ethnographers and anthropologists, most of whom were themselves troubled about the German turn to ‘Nordic race science’, and none of whom wanted to be accused of anti-Soviet tendencies, set out to refute German claims in scientific terms and prove that the Marxist vision of historical development – grounded in sociohistorical, not sociobiological, laws – was the correct one (empire of nations, p. 232).

These genocide equivalencies, however, were not Snyder’s principle claim. It was that the Soviets enabled Hitler’s Holocaust(s):

We all agree that Hitler had the horrible aspiration to eliminate the Jews from Europe. But how exactly was Hitler to do so in summer 1939, with fewer than 3% of European Jews under his control? Hitler needed war to eliminate the Jews, and it was Stalin who helped him to begin that war. As I said in my original article, we don’t know how the war would have proceeded without the treaty on borders and friendship; what we do know is that the war as it actually happened, with all of its atrocities, began with a German-Soviet alliance. What if the Soviets had simply opted for neutrality in 1939? How exactly would the Germans have overcome the British blockade without Soviet grain? Or bombed London without Soviet oil? Or won their lightening victory in France without security in the rear?

I think we can all agree that this is really cute. As the German historian Bernd Martin pointed out “Hitler’s fundamental political conviction, his self-imposed duty from the moment he had embarked on his political career was the eradication of Bolshevism [which he defined as a Jewish conspiracy].” This was understood by Western elites. As Jacques Pauwels points out:

Everywhere in the industrialized world there were statesmen, corporate leaders, press barons, and other influential personalities who encouraged him openly or discreetly to realize his great anti-Soviet ambition. In the United States, Nazi Germany was praised as a bulwark against communism and Hitler was encouraged to use the might of Germany to destroy the Soviet Union by people such as Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt’s predecessor in the White House (The Myth of the Good War, p. 44).

Pauwels points out, though, that “It was primarily in Europe itself that the social and political elites expected great anti-Soviet achievements of Hitler. In Great Britain, for example, the eastern ambitions of the Fuhrer enjoyed at an early stage the approval of respectable and influential politicians, such as Lloyd George, Lord Halifax, Lord Astor and his circle of friends, the so called “Cliveden Set”…The Duke of Windsor even traveled to Berchtesgardern to have tea with Hitler…and encouraged him in his ambition to attack Russia: ‘[Hitler] made me realize that Red Russia [sic] was the only enemy, and that Great Britain and all of Europe had an interest in encouraging Germany to march against the east and to crush communism once and for all…I thought that we ourselves would be able to watch as the Nazis and the Reds would fight each other (p.45).’”

This explains the so called appeasement strategy. Per Pauwels:

And so it came to the infamous “appeasement” policy, the theme of a brilliant study by two Canadian historians…The quintessence of this policy was as follows: Great Britain and France ignored Stalin’s proposals for international cooperation against Hitler, and sought by means of all kinds of diplomatic contortions and spectacular concessions to stimulate Hitler’s anti-Soviet ambitions and to facilitate their realization. This policy reached its nadir in the Munich Pact of 1938, whereby Czechoslovakia was sacrificed to the Fuhrer as a kind of springboard for military aggression in the direction of Moscow. But Hitler ultimately demanded a higher price than the British and the French were prepared to pay, and this led in the summer of 1939 to a crisis over Poland. Stalin, who understood the true objectives of appeasement, took advantage of the opportunity and made a deal of his own with the German dictator in order to gain not only precious time but also glacis – a strategically important space – in Eastern Europe, without which the USSR would almost certainly not have survived the Nazi onslaught in 1941. Hitler himself was prepared to deal with his arch-enemy because he felt cheated by London and Paris, who refused him Poland. And so the appeasement policy of Great Britain and France collapsed in dismal failure, first because the USSR did not disappear from the face of the earth, and second, because after a short blitzkrieg in Poland, Nazi Germany would attack those who had hoped to manipulate in order to rid the earth of communism. The so-called ironies of history can be extremely cruel indeed (pp.45-46).

Even after the debacle in Poland, however, the French and British kept hoping Hitler would turn his guns on Russia. Pauwels writes, “The French and British governments and high commands busily hatched all sorts of plans of attack during the winter of 1939-1940, not against Germany, but against the USSR, for example in the form of an operation from the Middle East against the oil fields of Baku (p. 48). Similarly, “after Germany’s victory in Poland…the American ambassador in Berlin, Hugh R. Wilson, expressed the hope that the British and French would see fit to resolve their inconvenient conflict with Germany, so that the Fuhrer would finally have an opportunity to crush the Bolshevik experiment of the Soviets for the benefit of all ‘Western civilization’ (p.48).

Moreover, Snyder makes a big deal of the Soviet’s assistance to Germany in the form of trade, but this was marginal compared to the assistance the Reich received from America’s business elite (who, by the way, were no friend of the Jew), some of whom were actually receiving medals of honor from the Germany government (such as Mooney of GM, Henry Ford and Watson of IBM). On American business’ invaluable assistance to Hitler, Pauwels writes:

Without trucks, tanks, planes and other equipment supplied by the German subsidiaries of Ford and GM, and without the large quantities of strategic raw materials, notably rubber as well as diesel oil, lubricating oil, and other types of fuel shipped by Texaco and Standard Oil via Spanish ports, the German air and land forces would not have found it so easy to defeat their adversaries in 1939 and 1940. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and wartime armament minister, would later state that without certain kinds of synthetic fuel made by US firms, Hitler ‘would have never considered invading Poland’. The American historian Bradford Snell agrees, alluding to the controversial role played by Swiss banks during the war, he comments that “the Nazis could have attacked Poland and Russia without the Swiss banks, but not without General Motors.’ Hitler’s military successes were based on a new and extremely mobile form of warfare, the blitzkrieg, consisting of extremely swift and highly synchronized attacks by air and by land. But without the aforementioned American support and without state of the art communications and information technology provided by ITT and IBM, the Fuhrer could only have dreamed of blitzkrieg and blitzsiege (p.37).

Oh by the way, re: Churchill, Johann Hari reviewed a new book that examines his unsavory role in maintaining the British Empire:


As soon as he could, Churchill charged off to take his part in “a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples.” In the Swat valley, now part of Pakistan, he experienced, fleetingly, an instant of doubt. He realized that the local population was fighting back because of “the presence of British troops in lands the local people considered their own,” just as Britain would if she were invaded. But Churchill soon suppressed this thought, deciding instead that they were merely deranged jihadists whose violence was explained by a “strong aboriginal propensity to kill.”

He gladly took part in raids that laid waste to whole valleys, writing: “We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.” He then sped off to help reconquer the Sudan, where he bragged that he personally shot at least three “savages.”

The young Churchill charged through imperial atrocities, defending each in turn. When the first concentration camps were built in South Africa, he said they produced “the minimum of suffering” possible. At least 115,000 people were swept into them and 14,000 died, but he wrote only of his “irritation that kaffirs should be allowed to fire on white men.” Later, he boasted of his experiences. “That was before war degenerated,” he said. “It was great fun galloping about.”

After being elected to Parliament in 1900, he demanded a rolling program of more conquests, based on his belief that “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph.” As war secretary and then colonial secretary in the 1920s, he unleashed the notorious Black and Tans on Ireland’s Catholics, to burn homes and beat civilians. When the Kurds rebelled against British rule in Iraq, he said: “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes.” It “would spread a lively terror.” (Strangely, Toye doesn’t quote this.)

Of course, it’s easy to dismiss any criticism of these actions as anachronistic. Didn’t everybody in Britain think that way then? One of the most striking findings of Toye’s research is that they really didn’t: even at the time, Churchill was seen as standing at the most brutal and brutish end of the British imperialist spectrum. This was clearest in his attitude to India. When Gandhi began his campaign of peaceful resistance, Churchill raged that he “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.” He later added: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

This hatred killed. In 1943, to give just one example, a famine broke out in Bengal, caused, as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has proven, by British mismanagement. To the horror of many of his colleagues, Churchill raged that it was their own fault for “breeding like rabbits” and refused to offer any aid for months while hundreds of thousands died.


  1. Hari claims that Churchill was a ‘genuine’ anti Nazi rather than someone solely concerned with saving the British Empire (and the British ruling class), claiming that he could have done a deal with Hitler if the empire was his only concern. This isn’t true – Churchill realised that Hitler’s ambitions were a mortal threat, not least to Britain’s Middle East oil supplies. Also European continental dominance by one country was historically a no-no for British ‘interests’

    Comment by Doug — November 24, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

  2. Nice work, Louis. I am forwarding this piece to a friend of mine of many years who can’t quite get herself to break with her anglophile nonsense.

    Comment by M. Hureaux — November 24, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

  3. Pauwels book is very good. I’m not too familiar on who Snyder is or have read any of him; does he have an ideological axe to grind by framing Stalin and communism into an equation that makes them worse than fascism and Hitler? I do seem to recall back in my Modern History class in high school my teacher echoing the “Stalin was worse than Hitler” simply because of the fatalities that was supposedly attributed to the Soviet Union; that was a good fifteen years ago. I can see that that current has not slowed down but only gained more momentum as the years progressed.

    Comment by Joshua — November 25, 2010 @ 2:00 am

  4. Thanks for this Louis, and ‘Dermokrant’.

    Re: fatalities in Stalin’s USSR, does anyone know of a good, relatively objective breakdown of the figures, and the arguments for the higher and lower figures?

    Comment by Dr. X — November 25, 2010 @ 9:34 am

  5. Louis,

    I’m honored my comments have been elevated to post status – although now I’m embarrassed that I didn’t reread those comments and edit them a bit before posting…

    Dr. X – The best, most recent treatment of these numbers is in Moshe Lewin – The Soviet Century (pp. 98-126, particularly pp. 123-126), but if you have access to New Left Review, you can read RW Davies’ accounts:


    Reply to Conquest 1:

    Reply to Conquest 2:

    Comment by dermokrat — November 25, 2010 @ 6:45 pm

  6. Send me (lnp3@panix.com) an edited version and I will use it.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 25, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

  7. Here is a recent talk given by Snyder. Apart from the marketing inspired term, “Bloodlands”, the talk seems fairly straightforward. His insistence on juxtaposing the totalitarian—for want of a better term—regimes is not exactly new. The precise numbers he bandies about indicates a flippant attitude toward both hard sciences (such precision is not easily obtained in demographics, especially in earlier eras and societies that had recently undergone major upheavals) and the reality of “fog of war”.

    The pitfalls of “race for the crown of thorns” in the victimhood stakes are illustrated by something Gore Vidal wrote when Neocons were getting particularly brazen in their homophobia and racism (the latter continuing with Martin Peretz’s recent venom spouting that raised a few eyebrows for a change):

    A racial or religious or tribal identity is a kind of fact. Although sexual preference is an even more powerful fact, it is not one that creates any particular social or cultural or religious bond between those so-minded. Although Jews would doubtless be Jews is there was no anti-Semitism, same-sexers would think little or nothing at all about their preference if society ignored it. So there is a difference between the two estates. But there is no difference in the degree of hatred felt by the Christian majority for Christ-killers and Sodomites. In the German concentration camps, Jews wore yellow stars while homosexuals wore pink triangles. I was present when Christopher Isherwood tried to make this point to a young Jewish movie producer. “After all,” said Isherwood, “Hitler killed six hundred thousand homosexuals.” The young man was not impressed. “But Hitler killed six million Jews,” he said sternly. “What are you?” asked Isherwood. “In real estate?”

    Norman Finkelstein has also spoken and written repeatedly about the hidden politics of the comparison game:

    Would you prefer to have them in a gas chamber in Auschwitz or ground zero at Hiroshima? How do you compare? What’s the basis for the comparison? I call Plato in my introduction and he says you can’t compare the misery of any two people. And I have to say that to even embark on that kind of enterprise, to me means already taking the first steps in a morally degrading undertaking. My parents would never, looking at the bloated belly of a child in Central Africa, or looking at the incinerated flesh of a Vietnamese girl, they would never say, Norman, that’s terrible, but don’t compare it to us. What a morally repugnant stance to take.

    In the final analysis, the comparison is not between two demented dictatorships that fell into the dustbin of history generations ago, but it is between the liberal, high-minded Euro-Atlantic world and “them” at their beastly worst. Germany’s most prominent philosopher maintains that his country did not join “the West” until after WWII, and even managed to wring his hands when a minor contretemps cast a momentary shadow over this condominium—direct or indirect—over most of the planet. Snyder may or may not be a reactionary, but his work falls into a discourse that allows a weaponized humanitarianism to proceed apace by rattling off numbers of corpses of crimes of others in a demographic version of the old-time atrocitarian narrative. He wouldn’t be at Yale if he had been labeled “critical” or even if he got there he wouldn’t last long at that “Imperial University”. Without parsing all his writings, it’s safe to say that he is another of that breed which Gramsci described as “experts in legitimation”.

    Comment by sk — November 25, 2010 @ 7:51 pm

  8. As for coverage of the memory hole consigned Bengal famine, the British historian, John Newsinger has “a sort of test” to distinguish between works of scholarship on the British Empire:

    [Dennis] Judd is the author of a number of books on the British Empire, including an acclaimed general history, Empire, and the way he includes India among the positives is quite simple: he removes the great Bengal Famine of 1943 from the record. According to Lord Wavell, who took over as viceroy during the famine, it was “one of the greatest disasters that has ever befallen any people under British rule”.

    The nationalist leader Jawaharlal Nehru described it as “the final judgement on British rule” in India. The famine cost the lives of some three and a half million people—men, women and children—from starvation, disease and exposure. And to compound the horror, the prime minister, Winston Churchill, deliberately obstructed famine relief from motives of racist hatred.

    Judd is not alone in this exercise in historical amnesia. Of all the general histories of the British Empire available today, none of those written from a conservative, liberal or social democratic perspective so much as mentions the Bengal Famine. Not even the immensely prestigious Oxford History of the British Empire, the summation of Anglo-American academic work on the empire, can bring itself to memorialize the over three million Bengali famine victims. Only the two anti-imperialist histories, the books by Piers Brandon and me, even begin to confront the famine and its significance. This is no accident.

    Those Russian historians who conveniently forgot the terrible Ukrainian Famine of the early 1930s during the period of the Soviet Union are quite correctly dismissed as Stalinist apologists.

    It is difficult to see how writing the Bengal Famine out of the history textbooks today is any different. Russian historians at least had the very real excuse that they lived in a country where history was dictated by the secret police.

    Newsinger talks about his litmus test in the first 5 minutes of this audio talk on the Raj.

    Comment by sk — November 25, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

  9. > it stemmed from the policy of forced collectivization, which in turn was pursued not out of a kind of Marxist orthodoxy (as anti-communists like to claim), but in order to facilitate grain exports to Europe to acquire the hard currency needed for industrialization

    This statement is not correct. The principal cause of the famine was natural disaster of which plant rust was perhaps the most critical feature. Soviet exports of food were very sharply reduced in the period of 1932-3. Although some food was exported even then, this is not at all sufficient to account for the famine. It was an actual food shortage caused by massive crop failure which created the famine. That crisis was certainly worsened by the fact that Soviet officials failed to comprehend the scale of real crop failure. This in turn was aggravted by the fact that plant rust can allow grain stalks to grow with much fewer grains than normal, thus creating the illusion of a plentiful crop. That partly accounts for the stories widely repeated by Conquest, Mace et al which assert that there was an abundant crop at the time of the famine. Soviet offcials wrongly assumed that the crop had been hidden away by Kulaks. For this reason they failed to call for an emergency importation of food as had been done in 1921-2. This worsened the famine considerably, but was not the root cause. The root cause was crop failure.

    The most detailed studies of this famine have been done by Mark Tauger. Some are online, for anyone interested:


    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — November 26, 2010 @ 10:35 pm

  10. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Swat Crisis, Derek Bryant. Derek Bryant said: Louis Proyect on US historians Hitler and Stalin http://bit.ly/hdegqp and a response http://bit.ly/fAhoxI […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention A guest post on Timothy Snyder « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist -- Topsy.com — November 27, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

  11. Stalin was not Hitler, he killed for “class” not “race”. Stalin’s anti kulak policy was “justified” because he created an economy that became the second most powerful in the world and then collapsed for no apparent reason. This is what I’m getting from this debate. Dermokrat is very learned and he might answer the question that’s bugging me. Why did Stalin begin the forced collectivization of agriculture in the late 1920’s early 1930’s with the disastrous results that ensued, when his attitude prior to that period was that the kulak should be left alone? Were there not advocates of more rational economic policies toward the kulak such as the Left Opposition? How come the Soviet economy collapsed in the 1990’s due mainly to the action of the most privileged layers of that society if “Socialism” even “Communism” had been created in “one country”. History records that Stalin murdered more revolutionists than Hitler, does that not qualify him as being worst than Hitler? Had he refrained from murdering a good deal of the Soviet general staff with fake “evidence” provided by Hitler’s secret service maybe somewhat less than 20 million Soviets might have perished in WWII.

    Comment by lextheimpaler — November 27, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

  12. > Why did Stalin begin the forced collectivization of agriculture in the late 1920′s early 1930′s with the disastrous results that ensued

    Grain shortages caused by bad weather created the conditions which necessitated a move away from NEP. Collectivization itself had good consequences, not bad ones. It improved grain production significantly. Collectivization ended in 1931. The famine which later occurred in 1932-3 was not brought about by collectivization as such. It was the result of natural disaster which created a crop failure. The Soviet leadership did not appreciate this fact and so responded badly to the famine, believing instead that Kulaks were hiding the grain. But the crop failure was not caused by collectivization. All of these details are documented carefully by Mark Tauger. Also, for more information about the crop crisis which preceded collectivization in the late 1920s, see James Hughes, STALINISM IN A RUSSIAN PROVINCE: COLLECTIVIZATION AND DEKULAKIZATION IN SIBERIA. Collectivization was a response to a real crisis and it did improve agricultural production significantly. The Soviet leadership just did not appreciate the specific, acute nature of the crop failure in 1932 caused by natural disaster. Cold War scholarship has propagated this error in reverse by writing out the facts of what the crop failure was and how it occurred and making everything sound as if “collectivization” as such was just a generic cause of famine. That was not in fact the case.

    > How come the Soviet economy collapsed in the 1990′s due mainly to the action of the most privileged layers of that society if “Socialism” even “Communism” had been created in “one country”.

    It hadn’t been. The USSR remained frozen as a bureaucratically degenerated workers state until the bureaucracy figured out how they could safely restore capitalism. Kind of like a trade union whose bosses fidget around for several years until they see the opportunity to sell everything down the river for a pot of gold.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — November 27, 2010 @ 9:15 pm

  13. PatrickSMcNally, thanks for the information. I remain unconvinced by your argument which is based on the works of two scholars who wrote on the subject decades after the fact. I would have to believe that the Soviet leadership was both blind and superhuman based on your argument. According to you they managed to misunderstand what was going on.”The famine which later occurred in 1932-3 was not brought about by collectivization as such. It was the result of natural disaster which created a crop failure. The Soviet leadership did not appreciate this fact and so responded badly to the famine, believing instead that Kulaks were hiding the grain.” and yet only good things resulted from their policy. You also make the following claim. “Grain shortages caused by bad weather created the conditions which necessitated a move away from NEP. Collectivization itself had good consequences, not bad ones.” Are you claiming that Collectivization solved the grain shortages based on bad weather? If you are please explain how the trick was done. I note that you pass in silence my claim that Stalin murdered more revolutionists than Hitler and was responsible for lack of preparation for WWII. Are we in agreement on those points? I’ll read the books you refer to to see if I find the argument you made more convincing.

    Comment by lextheimpaler — November 30, 2010 @ 1:02 am

  14. “The famine is still to be blamed on Stalin and his henchmen, since it stemmed from the policy of forced collectivization, which in turn was pursued not out of a kind of Marxist orthodoxy (as anti-communists like to claim), but in order to facilitate grain exports to Europe to acquire the hard currency needed for industrialization (this was inspired by Preobrazhensky’s socialist primitive accumulation – see Kagarlitskii’s Empire of the Periphery for a good summary).”

    Forced collectivization of one sort or another was necessary, going past the textbook material of Marx and Engels.


    What led to the peasant resistance and the government retaliation was the wrong type of forced collectivization policy: kolkhozization vs. sovkhozization (under the directorial likes of those like Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko).

    Comment by Jacob Richter — December 1, 2010 @ 7:03 am

  15. > According to you they managed to misunderstand what was going on… and yet only good things resulted from their policy.

    No, you’re twisting words. There is a major distinction which needs to be made between the policy of collectivization followed in 1928-31 and the policy response to the major grain crop failure which occurred in 1932-3 and had nothing to do with collectivization, except insofar as the politically charged atmosphere of the collectivization years set the framework for understanding crop failure crisis. You’re just blurring these distinctions out. Collectivization as a policy was for the better and it did improve grain production from 1934 onwards in ways which made it worthwhile. The particular crisis of natural disaster which led to the crop failure of 1932-3 was badly understood by Soviet officials and their response aggravated the problem. But that is separate from the issue of collectivization.

    > Are you claiming that Collectivization solved the grain shortages based on bad weather?

    As a long-term issue, sure. That does not alter the fact that the response to the crisis of 1932-3 was badly done. Tauger’s works on “Natural Disaster and Human Actions in the Soviet Famine of 1931-1933” and “Statistical Falsification in the Soviet Union: A Comparison Case Study of Projections, Biases, and Trust” are the most thorough treatments of these issues.

    > Stalin murdered more revolutionists than Hitler


    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — December 1, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

  16. [Stalin murdered more revolutionists than Hitler]

    Except for their families there’s probably nobody more bitter than me about Stalin’s murder of revolutionists in general and Trotsky in particular.

    According to Trotsky, however, most Russian revolutionists were killed in the Civil War and were gone by the time of Kronstadt. The slain revolutionists were replaced by opportunists and carreerists, he argued, which is precisely why a mediocre figure like Stalin was able to maneuver, thrive & falsify.

    So I’m not sure the hundreds or even thousands of revolutionists left in the Politburo and the Left & Right Oppositions means Stalin, the product of a Thermodorian Reaction to a great social revolution that changed property relations, surpasses Hilter, the product of imperialist reaction amidst world capitalist depression and stampeding petty-bourgousie terrified by Bolshevism, who was responsible directly and indirectly for wiping out communists all over Europe and Asia.

    Of course Stalin was responsible for millions of deaths. But it was a proletarian revolution and only a small percentage of those killed were actual proletarians. The majority killed were landowners and their sons & daughters resisting expropriation & collectivization. More proletarians were killed by his managerial incompetence and military blunders than any premeditated policy.

    Of course the beheading of the top military staff was one of his greatest blunders and crimes against the Soviet people for it did allow Hitler to inflict infinitely more suffering than would otherwise have been possible but most of those Generals weren’t revolutionists but rather carry overs from the Czar’s army recruited by Lenin & Trotsky to the Red Army during the civil war.

    Debating “who killed more” divorced from historical and social context is at best comparing apples to oranges and at worst an exercise in futility.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 5, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

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