“Ye Shall Know Them By Their Fruits”[i]
Observations on the Progressive Nature of the Soviet Union and its Inheritance by the Russian Federation
It is clear that much of the animus exhibited by the Western media towards increasing Russian assertion of its own national interests stems from perceptions of the Russian Federation created during the era of the Soviet Union. The late President Reagan’s reference to it as “the Evil Empire” sums up the received wisdom of “responsible opinion” on the former Union. In the popular mind, the image of the Soviets was an amalgam of exaggerated negative features. Every error and excess from the October Revolution through the Stalin era and on into the “era of stagnation” of Brezhnev became frozen in place. The West projected the past unchanged through the present and into the future, adding any further problems on the way.
This self-serving cartoon-villain remains firmly in place. After the collapse of the Soviet Union Yeltsin’s cabal offered Western elites slavish devotion to Western political and financial interests. The Western media falsely portray every step by Vladimir Putin away from that as some sort of recreation of Soviet “expansionism.” Policy-makers use the hysteria so created to forestall any serious discussion of exactly what is going on in Russian international relations and domestic policy. This allows the most brutal and reactionary factions in the West to carry the day. The cost of this brutality is becoming increasing untenable, and in dire need of change.
Clearly a necessary precondition of any informed, intelligent discussion of Russia’s role in international relations is a redress this willful distortion of the nature of the Soviet Union. Any objective reading of world history, from the end of the Great War to the present, will make clear the progressive nature of the Soviet Union. Further, it will suggest that the Russian Federation continues to act on this legacy – in part, because Western reactions force this role upon it, willingly or not.
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Progress & the West
First, a few remarks on the nature of human progress are in order. In human history, a few number of times and places have been fortunate enough to enjoy conditions that were conducive to genuine, broadly shared human progress. But as Marx and Engels argue throughout their works, what was progressive at the start inevitably becomes an impediment to further progress. The emergence of industrial capitalism and bourgeois democracy in Western Europe, and its spread through its physical and ideological expansion, is the latest example of this.
The Scientific Revolution and the intellectual Enlightenment freed many people, at least partially, from the fetters of unchanging tradition and superstition. Thomas Jefferson in America’s “Declaration of Independence” articulated the key Enlightenment principle in politics: amongst the self-evident truths of human society was that we are all endowed with the right to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” In crafting this document, Jefferson drew upon the work of John Locke. Locke held that legitimate political authority derives from the consent of the governed, and that when governments act to deny these rights, consent may be legitimately withdrawn. That is, the people could rightly overthrow a repressive government and restore liberty.
The United States inconsistently applied these principles, most notably in our “original sin” of slavery (the ending of which took a Civil War, which still stands as America’s most destructive war). Despite this, it was in its early years a progressive force in human affairs. It helped to precipitate and inspire the French Revolution, it served a place of refuge and comfort those displaced by war, poverty and repression, and its enterprising spirit fostered important innovations in science, technology, and industrial organization. Along with the parliamentary institutions of its English predecessor, it provided the modern forms of political organization.
The Soviet Union during the Era of Fascism and World War
Before I turn to more recent history, a number of difficult problems of Soviet history must be acknowledged, and the lines of approach to them sketched. A full discussion of these issues around collectivization, industrialization, and the Great Purges lies outside the scope of the present essay, and perhaps outside the purview of this particular website. Such a discussion awaits another time, but I can suggest general outlines of these problems and their resolution. I can do no better than to offer the analysis of the late Isaac Deutscher, the Polish former Stalinist and biographer of Trotsky and Stalin.
In his biography of Stalin, Deutscher begins his assessment by noting the similarities between Hitler and Stalin, which other commentators before and since have dwelt on. Both “suppressed opposition without mercy or scruple…. Each built up the machine of a totalitarian state and subjected the people to its constant, relentless pressure… But there the comparison ends….” Deutscher placed Stalin alongside Cromwell, Robespierre, and Napoleon, the other “great revolutionary despots…. Hitler was the leader of a sterile counterrevolution…” whose record consists “of absolute worthlessness and futility.” Hitler added nothing to the capabilities of the people, its culture or the economy and left its leadership in the hands of the Krupps, Thyssens, and Junkers, as he found it. Stalin had both lead and exploited “a tragic, self-contradictory but creative revolution” which turned a semi-feudal agrarian economy into an industrial powerhouse. Like Cromwell, he was with the revolution throughout its various transformation. Like Robespierre, “he bled white his own party.” Like the French Revolution under Napoleon, the Russian Revolution built “a half-conservative and half revolutionary empire” which its leaders carried beyond their own borders. “The better part of Stalin’s work is as certain to outlast Stalin himself, like the better parts of the work of Cromwell and Napoleon have outlasted them. But in order to save it for the future and to give it its full value, history may yet have to cleanse and reshape Stalin’s work as sternly” as it had that of the English and French Revolutions.[ii]
What J.P. Nettl[iii] termed The Soviet Achievement cannot be understood outside of the broader context of early Twentieth Century politics. The Bolsheviks undertook the October Revolution in the hope that they would ignite a broader, global socialist revolution. They were painfully aware that Tsarist Russia lacked the developed industrial economy that Marx and Engels held was the necessary foundation of the nascent communist mode of production. Germany nearly fulfilled the hopes of Lenin and his comrades. In order to suppress the revolutionary situation arising from the end of the First World War, the Social-Democrats who lead Weimar Germany willingly accepted the help that rump of the Imperial Army and General Staff offered it. The so-called Freikorps (“free corps” of demobilized soldiers supplemented by anti-Bolshevik civilians) were used to drown the Spartacist Rising and Bavarian Soviets in blood. They lived on as the “Black Reichswehr” (semi-official military formations used to circumvent the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles) and the brown-shirted storm troopers of the Nazi Party.
The victorious powers of the Entente (primarily, Britain, France), joined by their new ally, the United States, aided and abetted the isolation of the Bolsheviks. They supplied the White Armies and landed expeditionary forces in the Baltic, the Arctic, the Far East, and Black Sea. Though these efforts to strangle the October revolution failed, this gang of counter-revolutionaries forced Soviet Russia back onto its own meager resources. It turned to the harsh and coercive policies of forced collectivization and rapid industrialization.
While these policies caused immense and often needless suffering, they enjoyed a substantial degree of support amongst Soviet workers. The testimony of American radical John Scott in his Behind the Urals is a powerful account of the sacrifices willingly endured by many Soviet workers and peasants. Son of the noted progressive Scott Nearing, Scott went to the Soviet Union during the Great Depression and worked on the construction of the metallurgical complex at Magnitogorsk, rising from welder into a supervisory role. He wrote his account after America joined the struggle against fascism to explain to his countrymen their ally.[iv]
On his arrival, the site was a crude camp scratched out of the steppes near a primitive iron mine. When he left a few years later, it was a bustling modern city with fine housing supporting an immense steel works. He portrays his fellow workers and managers realistically, with feeling and colorful detail. I read extensively before and during graduate school. It is the only book I can recommend without reservation to any reader, without regard to academic or political background.
One person will do as an example of the complexity of the period. Amongst the laborers with whom he worked was a young kulak named Shabkov. Kulaks (literally, “fists”) were well-to-do peasant farmers with substantial holdings, often employing other peasants to work them. The “New Economic Policy” (Novaya Ekonomicheskaya Politika) after the Civil War favored them. These policies were an early iteration of what are styled today “market socialism.” They promoted agriculture and small-to-medium business through capitalist pricing and investment policies. “Is this what we made the Revolution for?” was a common complaint amongst the urban proletariat. When the Bolsheviks shifted to promoting state industry and the end of private property in land, they found enthusiastic support amongst food-insecure urban workers. The end of the kulaks control over the food supply was the object of the collectivization.
When police came to evict the family, Shabkov’s brother was killed in an exchange of fire with them. They arrested him, his father and other family. Sent to Magnitogorsk for forced labor and been separated from his father and family, he heard his father had died, but was unsure where. Many of these deported peasants, known as “specials,” committed sabotage. But others, like Shabkov, were amongst the most productive workers on the site. They had been the most energetic amongst their fellow villages, Scott explains. Shabkov had risen to rigging foreman, supervising a crew of eighteen. He had lost two fingers and gladly worked in the harshest conditions.[v]
By building an advanced industrial economy overnight (in historic terms), the Communist Party gave the Soviet Union the means to defeat fascism. The First and Second Five Year Plans compressed centuries of capitalist development into a decade, taking the economy from feudalism to industrialism. By consciously building much of it far to the east of the traditional Russian industrial heartland of the Donbas, Leningrad, and Moscow, the Soviet leadership kept it out of the reach of the Nazis. This industrial capacity, combined with the heroic efforts of the Red Army and Soviet people, allowed the Soviet Union to inflict the fatal blow against fascism at Stalingrad. Not to diminish the bravery of the Anglo-American landing in Normandy, but D-Day only hastened but did not cause the defeat of the Third Reich. Though the Soviets might have done the bulk of the heavy lifting, it took sacrifice by all of the Allies to defeat fascism.
In a snarky review of the updated edition I read, Bill Keller (then Moscow correspondent and later the gullible editor of the New York Times who apologized for insufficient skepticism over the younger Mr. Bush’s “evidence” of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction) expressed suitably responsible skepticism. I came across it while researching this essay. It is fine example of mainstream opinion and propaganda techniques. Acknowledge a few unavoidable facts, damn them with faint praise to undercut them, and further obscure the truth with accusations and omissions.[vi]
Keller opens by taking the easy moral high ground of decrying “the chronic sacrifice of individual life and dignity” under Stalin. To belabor the obvious, this regrettable feature of human history is hardly unique to Stalin. He allows that Scott felt that “the casualties of Magnitogorsk were vindicated by the Soviet Union’s subsequent victory over Hitler, in which the tanks and guns from the Urals stronghold made a decisive difference.” But he qualifies this by piling on a whole series of hypotheticals. He cites editor Steven Kotkin’s introduction, and argues that “the notion that Stalin’s frenetic version of industrialization was vital to the defeat of fascism is arguable, even leaving aside the moral questions”. Morally, I think it clear that the bloodshed of the purges and the mass starvation of collectivization pale in comparison to the industrialization of death and the institutionalization of brutality as a policy practised by Hitler and his minions, with the willing cooperation of most of bourgeois Germany and much of occupied Europe. He goes on to invoke revisionist Soviet historians of that era of perestroika to argue “that the purges accompanying industrialization, not to mention Stalin’s decimation of his officer corps on the eve of the war, weakened the country before the Nazi onslaught.”[vii]
Originally I had here a long paragraph about “fifth columns” and the spy hysteria that proceeded the Great Purges. But I found a simpler rejoinder in Deutscher. Victory in the war rested upon industrialization, particularly of Siberia. “Nor could it have been won without the collectivization of large numbers of farms. The muzhik [the pre-revolutionary Russian peasant]… would have been little use in modern war. Collectivized farming, with its machine tractor stations [depots for farm equipment shared by several collective farms; RM] scattered all over the country, had been the peasants’ preparatory school for mechanized warfare.” It also allowed the state to build up reserves of food and materials that preserved cities and industries from the disruptions and shortages of the war.[viii]
The Soviet Union & the Cold War in Asia
Stalin declined to press fully press his advantages after Victory in Europe. American political mythology records Potsdam as a betrayal or an accommodation with Soviet expansionism. The reality is that marked another attempt by the Soviets to bring about “peaceful coexistence.” The Soviets abided by the division of spheres of influence that Churchill and Stalin agreed to there; Eastern Europe, the traditional route of Western invaders, was the sphere of the Soviets, while Western Europe fell the Anglo-American imperium. Stalin restrained the French and Italian Communists from pursuing power. Yugoslavia, under Tito, promoted the Greek Communists in their civil war, against the will of Moscow, and this was one factor in the enmity between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. The Western Allies obstructed the unified administration of occupied Germany, and promoted the rearmament of Western Germany. The Soviet blockade, broken by the Berlin Airlift, and the later Wall, marked responses to definite threats. They may have been aggressive, misguided failures, but hardly constituted unprovoked expansionism. The same can be said of the suppression of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In terms of their destructive violence and death tolls, they compare favorably to the contemporary American response to independent regimes in Indonesia, Guatemala, Iran, and the Congo in the Fifties and Sixties.
If the Soviets effectively ceded Western Europe to NATO, they were far more assertive in what was styled, back in the day, the “Third World.” The industrial powers of the West, their clients (like Japan) and settler-colonies (like South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) marked the “First World,” a.k.a. the “Free World,”[ix] the Warsaw Pact (formed in response to NATO), the “Second World.” The Soviets provided vital political and economic aid to states and movements such as Egypt under Nasser and the African National Congress in South Africa for their independence and liberation. The Soviet model of centralized state planning marked an alternative economic strategy to post-colonial, neo-imperialist domination by the West through the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Vietnam stands as a good example of Soviet efforts to counter Western imperialism. Soviet military and political support was vital in the resistance of the Vietnamese people to the comprador regime left behind by French imperialism, which had tasted a bitter defeat at Diembienphu. Under prompting from Washington, the southern collaborationist refused to hold the elections promised by France in the settlement in 1954. The manifest incompetence and lack of popular support lead to growing American intervention. Many of the techniques that we see today got their early trials in Vietnam. The Pentagon manufactured the “Tonkin Gulf Incident,” falsely alleging that American destroyers, which had been shelling the North, had been attacked by Vietnamese naval forces. Diem’s regime proved too incompetent and corrupt for even American tastes. Washington suggested a coup, which killed Dieam and installed a more acceptable regime.
But despite the destruction of the country through bombing and deforestation, the Vietnamese prevailed in reuniting their country, as memorialized in the iconic image of copters airlifting embassy personnel and southern collaborators from roof of the embassy. We see lies leading to war and manipulation of the political system today in Iraq, and the fervent desire of responsible opinion “inside the Beltway”[x] is to avoid a repeat of the evacuation.
An examination of affairs on the Indian sub-continent is also instructive. Most states in the Third World professed to be “unaligned” (and indeed Tito’s leadership caused the Unaligned Movement to enjoy a passing phase in international relations). While they were not within the NATO or Warsaw Pact, however, many Third World states had patrons from these camps. On the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan enjoyed Western support, while India enjoyed that of the Soviets. India, it seems to me, is in better political, social, and economic condition than Pakistan.
First, we should note that British imperial administered the whole area as one colony. In the famous phrase, it was the “jewel of the crown” of its empire. When the Indian National Congress (more secular and indeed socialist than Hindu) began to challenge the colonial administration, the British gingered up the Moslem League as a counterweight. This was in concert with the standard British colonial practice of “divide and rule;” one group of colonials, such as the Hausa in Nigeria against the Ibo, was favored and the unity of the colonized undermined. The tensions thus stoked caused the division of British India into Muslim Pakistan and a largely Hindu India. We can see the results of this today.
It was Soviet aid, in part, that built industrial infrastructure in India that later governments have turned over to private hands. It supplied and advised the more professional military of India. While India has nuclear weapons, for example, it did not make a cottage industry of nuclear proliferation, as Pakistan did. Corruption and poverty is common throughout the Indian subcontinent. But India’s failures do not include secession (as in the former West Pakistan, now Bangladesh) and the routine toppling of democratic leaders by the military.
Indian occupation of Kashmir is dark stain upon its politics. The majority-Moslem population wished to join Pakistan upon the division in 1947, but India accepted the pleas of its Hindu prince and began its occupation. The cynical use by the Pakistani military of the separatists there reached its pinnacle in the terrorist assault on Mumbai, and presaged their involvement in Afghanistan. It is a deeper and far more destructive stain.
It is I think in Afghanistan that the contrast between Soviet and Western foreign policy is most clear. The Soviets intervened at the request of Afghan government. The PDPA (Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan) had come to power through a coup against the corrupt and ineffective royal government. Internal divisions produced another coup, and victors sought Soviet aid in stabilizing the country. They sought to introduce the education of women and reform the feudal land-tenure system there. Seeking to repay the Soviets for Vietnam with one of their own, Washington trained, armed, provisioned, and guided the mujahadeen in their viciously reactionary struggle with the Afghan government.
The generous supply of arms and money by Washington and Riyadh through Pakistan to the mujahadeen produced the desired effect. The Soviet public wearied of the losses. Gorbachev, again seeking the “Holy Grail” of accommodation and peaceful coexistence with capitalism, withdrew Soviet forces as a conciliatory gesture of his “new thinking in international relations.”
The feuding warlords, however, proved less effective as a government than the beleaguered PDPA. Upon taking Kabul, they murdered Najibullah, the most capable PDPA President of Afghanistan, while under United Nations protection, and turned to quarreling amongst themselves. With aid of Pakistani intelligence, the Taliban were able to displace them. While their puritanical, fundamentalist rule was doubtless more brutal, they were far less corrupt and did offer a modicum of peace and stability. Had they not fatefully offered a base to Osama bin Laden (a Saudi national who had taken part in organizing and equipping the mujahadeen) they might have been permitted to enjoy their victory. Bin Laden had been further radicalized when America abandoned the mujahadeen once the Soviets were out, and then by Saudi monarchy’s call for American troops when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The house of Saud declined his offer to organize domestic forces to drive out the Iraqis.
Rufus Magister is a former doctoral student in Soviet History, a part-time instructor in history and an intellectual of the old school variety. He was active in the Central American Solidarity movement in the 1980’s and in socialist politics as well. His journey began when out of intellectual curiosity, he read “The Communist Manifesto” and was immediately convinced of the veracity of Marx’s & Engel’s analysis.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Oceania Saker.
[i] Matthew 7:16, King James Version.
[ii] Isaac Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd. edition, 1966 [1981 reprint], pp. 566, 569-570. Deutscher further notes (p. 568-9) that where the Nazis had banned German classics that conflicted with their ideology, Stalin encouraged the study of both Russian and European classics generally. While tyrannical with artists of his own time, like Shostakovich and Mayakovsky, Stalin “displayed, on the whole, a strange pietism for the dead ones,” making the Soviets with unmatched in their “respect and love for the classical literature and art of other nations….” The Soviets looked down upon bezkulturnost’. Literally “unculturedness,” it described a narrow focus on one’s technical specialty and the neglect of arts, culture and history that one finds so common here in the States.
[iii] J.P. Nettl, The Soviet Achievement, (Norwich, U.K.: Harcourt, Brace & World; 1969 reprint of the 1967 1st. American ed.; History of European Civilization Library; G. Barraclough, General Editor). Nettl was the biographer of Rosa Luxemburg. The summary that follows is my own; I like Nettl’s styling, though “The Soviet Experiment” might be even more descriptive.
[iv] John Scott, Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973; Enlarged ed., prepared by S. Kotkin, reprinting the 1942 original edition of Houghton, Mifflin, Boston Mass.) It includes an introduction by Kotkin and a number of reports Scott prepared for the American Embassy while in Moscow. He there waited for 4 years for permission to return to the United States after the Purges with his wife, whom he met and married while at the site.
[v] For Shabkov, see ibid., pp. 17-19, 28-33. Scott reported (p. 85) that some 50,000 prisoners worked at Magnitogorsk, with about 18,000 “specials” and 20-35,000 common criminals at the site.
[vi] See “How One Russian Dream Went Awry,” published September 24, 1989; accessed 31 Aug. 2014 from http://www.nytimes.com/1989/09/24/books/university-presses-how-one-russian-dream-went-awry.html.
[vii] Scott describes the atmosphere at some length; as a foreigner, even an ideologically sympathetic one, he was caught up in the web of suspicion behind the Great Purges. (Scott, Behind the Urals, pp. 173-206). As losers at Versailles, the Soviets and Weimar Germany collaborated on developing weapons and tactics. Soviet fears that senior officers could have been spies might have been exaggerated, but they were not irrational. For those that might doubt the reality and power of such fears, please recall the hysteria in America after September 11.
[viii] See Deutcher, Stalin, p. 550. “The fifth column” is of Fascist origins. When the Falangists closed on Madrid, they had four columns of troops around the city. A general referred to their supporters within the city as a “fifth column.”
[ix] It is interesting to note that this styling has made a resurgence amongst conservative politicians of late. Revanchism, anyone?
[x] The Beltway is the ring road around Washington. The phrase refers to capital’s powerful politicians and well-placed political and journalistic operatives. Used flatteringly, it suggests superior knowledge derived from access to power, i.e., state secrets and political gossip. Pejoratively, as here, it implies isolation from and indifference to reality, a focus on the minutiae of politics and the resulting “groupthink”.