Revolution Online, December 3, 2009
Raymond Lotta Replies to Keith Jamieson: On Communism, Stalin, and Historical Accuracy
On November 11, Raymond Lotta spoke at the University of Chicago as part of the nationwide campus tour, "Everything You've Been Told About Communism Is Wrong, Capitalism Is a Failure, Revolution Is the Solution." The November 18 issue of the Chicago Weekly, which describes itself as a "student-written alternative weekly at the University of Chicago," published a piece by Keith Jamieson titled "Everything You Know About Communism is Right: What Raymond Lotta got wrong." The following is the text of Jamieson's article, and the reply to that article from Raymond Lotta.
Everything You Know About Communism is Right: What Raymond Lotta got wrong
Reprinted by permission.
Across the street from the Lubyanka prison, in Moscow, there stood in 1937 a nondescript building with a specially sloped floor, for drainage, and a wooden wall to muffle the sound of bullets. It was here that the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, executed enemies of the Communist regime. Between 1937 and 1938 this amounted to the deaths of at least 700,000 people, according to the Russian Memorial society. Among the victims were Nikolai Bukharin, once one of the chief Soviet economists; Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a Marshal of the Soviet Union; Genrikh Yagoda, former head of the secret police; and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people. Those who were not murdered outright were frequently deported to the Gulag prison camps, based on the katorga system that had existed under the tsars. These were scattered throughout Siberia and in 1939 housed over a million people, slowly freezing or being worked to death in some of the most hostile environments on earth.
Other crimes of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union include a terror famine in the Ukraine in 1933, the Holodomor, which killed well over a million people; a more general 1932–33 famine caused by Stalin's efforts to force farmers onto collectives; and various crimes against humanity perpetrated during the Russian Civil War, most prominently the use of chemical weapons and heavy artillery against peasants rebelling in protest of food requisition (the 1920-21 Tambov Rebellion). According to "The Black Book of Communism," a 1997 history of Communist atrocities that made use of recently opened state archives, by the time of its fall in 1991 the government of the Soviet Union had caused the deaths of some 15 to 20 million people. This does not include the deaths and misery suffered by the inhabitants of Soviet puppet states in Eastern Europe and the Third World, in which the names of the secret polices read like a nightmarish roll call: the Securitate, the AVH, the Stasi.
Now, if you've been on the University of Chicago's campus for the past two weeks or so, the above information may surprise you, because you're now aware that "everything you know about Communism is wrong." The statistics and figures that have been compiled over the decades by reputable historians working to ascertain the truth about Communist regimes must be incorrect (which makes sense, seeing as they're capitalists, and we all know that historians make the big captain of industry bucks). The true blazing light of historical verity can only be found in the agate lamp of the Revolutionary Communist Party, represented on our campus last week by Mr. Raymond Lotta, and the strange and glorious version of the past with which it sees fit to present us.
Thus we hear that the Soviet Union was "only country in the 1930s that stood against anti-Semitism," which is true insofar as Stalin cheerfully set aside swampland in far eastern Siberia as a homeland for Russia's Jews, cooperated with Nazi Germany, and after the war went about executing prominent Jewish leaders (including 23 poets and engineers on the single night of August 12, 1952). The Soviets also, we are assured, supported the ambitions of their country's non-Russian ethnic groups to an unprecedented degree, which explains why they were unwilling to let go of any of the oppressed territories of the former tsarist empire (and in fact re-annexed some of the few that got away, the three Baltic republics, in 1940) and systematically brutalized non-Russian peoples, including the murder of hundreds of thousands of anti-Communist Cossacks and the campaign of Russification in the Soviet Central Asian territories to the extent that, even today, a vast majority of Kazakhs speak Russian.
In fairness to Lotta, however, he is a Maoist scholar ("I'm pretty well-schooled in Mao's works," he says, "let me tell you"—and he does) and thus can't perhaps be expected to have a very solid grasp of things like Soviet policy at any point in the country's history. He did manage to discover that President Eisenhower in his "1952 inaugural address"—apparently delivered before Eisenhower's January 20, 1953, inauguration—"threatened to use atomic weapons against the People's Republic of China," something which cannot be found in the text itself but which is certainly in keeping with its spirit. (Sample sentences: "We stand ready to engage with any and all others in joint effort to remove the causes of mutual fear and distrust among nations…" and "We shall never use our strength to try to impress upon another people our own cherished political and economic institutions.")
Those of us in attendance at Lotta's presentation were also invited to explore the possibility that the 1966–76 Chinese Cultural Revolution represented "the high point of socialist revolution in the twentieth century," that it included "massive political and intellectual debate," and that "high-ranking capitalists," who somehow still existed in a country that had been racked by war for thirty years and which had long since done away with all of its industrial titans, "planned" most of the violence that occurred during this period. This world doesn't quite jive with the one in which those who lived through the period (and the current Chinese government) inform us that the Cultural Revolution forced thousands of teachers and students onto collective farms, burned enough books to power a fleet of coal-fired airships, and killed over a million people, but that's no doubt the result of capitalist lies. Lotta also somehow forgot to mention Western misconceptions of the Great Leap Forward, a collectivization policy pursued between 1958 and 1961 that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions via famine.
This is a highly entertaining and, in many ways, kinder and fuzzier version of history than that which we are accustomed to. Sadly, it's also a total mischaracterization of the nature of the Soviet Union, the early People's Republic of China, and other Communist states. I wish I could believe that our facts were indeed wrong, because a world in which, as Lotta asserted, "people were viewing their actions through the moral lens of serving others," wouldn't seem to me like such a bad place to live. Alas, the past doesn't go away when you don't look at it. For those of us who choose to examine it, there are two possibilities: either Communist governments in the twentieth century killed millions upon millions of people, or all those people disappeared as the result of alien abduction or relocation to a series of underground caves. This—not that you can't buy as much chocolate as you want, nor that there aren't as many channels on TV—is the real reason why "Communism is bad." There are a hundred million plots of turned earth in Siberia and the Yangtze plain that, when Lotta denies what happened to their inhabitants, protest the injustice with a great, silent howl.
Raymond Lotta Replies to Keith Jamieson: On Communism, Stalin, and Historical Accuracy
Keith Jamieson's fevered account of my November 11 talk at the University of Chicago, "Everything You've Been Told About Communism Is Wrong," deserves a reply. Since the historical part of my talk focused on Mao and the Cultural Revolution, and since there is insufficient space to reply to each and every allegation from Jamieson, I want to make some points about the historical role of Stalin.
Jamieson cites statistics about deaths during the Stalin era. Leaving aside the bogus and easily refutable claim that the Soviet government "caused the death of some 15 to 20 million people," Jamieson provides no social or historical context. It's history by body count. It's as though one could understand the causes and significance of the French Revolution or of the U.S. Civil War by reciting numbers of the executed and killed (why not blame Abraham Lincoln, that obstinate defender of the Union, for the 700,000 deaths that resulted from that war?).
So how does one evaluate Stalin in larger historical perspective--with historical accuracy? Stalin's achievements as a revolutionary leader, his methodological shortcomings, and his errors, some of which had grievous consequences, are all part of the first wave of socialist revolution that opened new historical possibility for humanity in the first half of the 20th century. This historical experience is part of the "learning curve" of the communist project.
Following Lenin's death in 1924, Stalin stepped forward to lead a process of transforming, on a socialist basis, a backward and largely agrarian society (not that far out of its feudal past). Stalin articulated the need and basis for forging a socialist society that would contribute to the emancipation of the oppressed and exploited on this planet.
There was no blueprint, no previous historical experience, for how to develop socialist industry and agriculture. Nor did the Soviet leadership get to choose the circumstances in which it would undertake this bold experiment.
The Soviet Union faced unremitting imperialist encirclement and counterrevolution from within. In 1918-21, Western powers supported reactionary, ultra-nationalist forces in the Russian Civil War, and intervened with finance, arms, and troops (though by Jamieson's statistical reckoning, the Soviet government is responsible for all the deaths incurred both by the fighting and industrial-agricultural dislocation of that conflict).
But in the face of these challenges, and under Stalin's leadership, an extraordinary process of radical economic and social transformation took place in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
This had incredibly liberating effects for women breaking free of the oppressive bonds of religion and patriarchy, for people of the former oppressed nationalities (who enjoyed forms of regional autonomy and could carry on educational instruction in native languages), and for the creation of revolutionary culture. The working class was activated to remake industry and to change the relations of production.
By the mid-1930s, the international situation had grown perilous for the Soviet Union. In 1931, Japan had invaded Manchuria; not long after, Hitler consolidated power in Germany; conservative and pro-fascist forces had gained strength in Hungary, Bulgaria, and Rumania, and the Baltic countries, including Poland; in Spain, the Western powers stood idly as General Franco's 1936 uprising against the Spanish Republic was actively aided by Hitler and Mussolini; Germany and Japan had signed an Anti-Soviet Pact.
The growing danger of inter-imperialist war and the likelihood of massive imperialist assault on the Soviet Union (and some 26 million Soviets died as a result of the Nazi invasion of 1941) were an important part of what set the stage for the purges and executions of 1936-38.
The standard story line is that Stalin was a paranoid despot inventing conspiracies and fabricating enemies in order to consolidate absolute personal power and to exact total submission from the population. But the historical truth is that Stalin was fighting to defend the world's first and only socialist society against real threat.
As international tensions grew, Stalin and the revolutionary leadership had reason to be concerned about the state of the party and the armed forces.
Counterrevolution inside the Soviet Union was real: economic sabotage, assassination of party leaders and activists, diplomatic subversion, reactionary social movements in places like the Ukraine. Various political oppositions emerged within the high party leadership, and the reliability of regional party leaderships was also a source of worry. In the 1920s, Soviet and German military officers had collaborated as part of government-to-government agreements involving training and transfer of weaponry—and now, in the face of the war threat, there was growing concern about the reliability of the high-officer corps.
Stalin was not going to allow the socialist Soviet Union to go back to capitalism, or to cave in to imperialism. The problem was that Stalin sought to deal with danger of counterrevolution and imperialist onslaught with a kind of "fortress socialism" approach.
In society and economy, a premium was placed on order, discipline, and everything for production. Repression, which should only have been directed against enemies, was increasingly used against people who were merely expressing disagreements with policies or even with socialism--or making mistakes in their capacities as administrators and leaders.
In 1937-38, there was a wave of purges, arrests, and executions. Individual rights and due process were violated in an atmosphere of conspiracy and intrigue. Not only did innocent people suffer, but also the Soviet Union became an increasingly cold and conformist society--with people looking over their shoulders, "watching what they said."
But it was not some pathological hunger for power on Stalin's part that produced this outcome. Rather, it was a question of outlook, understanding, and method. Mao Tsetung pointed out that Stalin failed to distinguish between two types of contradictions under socialism: those among the people, and contradictions between the people and the enemy. Stalin did not differentiate between, on the one hand, active efforts to undermine and overthrow the socialist state, and dissent and opposition on the other.
It was Stalin's inability to correctly distinguish and utilize different methods in handling these two different types of contradictions--suppression and punishment for counter-revolution; and persuasion, debate, and ideological struggle in resolving contradictions among the people--that led to the harsh excesses of the late 1930s. The masses did not gain the ability to understand why new capitalist forces arose under socialism, nor of the forms of mass struggle needed to combat these forces.
Stalin had a mechanical approach to Marxism and towards socialism. He saw socialism as a society that would march forward, almost in lockstep, towards classless communist society. But as Bob Avakian has envisioned in a whole new way, socialism must be a society of great swirl, dissent, and experimentation. Stalin's mechanical view of socialism was also a factor that underlay the purges, arrests, and executions of 1936-38.
Here it is important to clarify that Stalin did not kill millions. Some 680,000 executions took place in 1937-38—but this total represented 87 percent of all death sentences carried out "for counterrevolutionary and state crimes" between 1930 and 1953.1 By 1939, this wave of arrests and executions was put a stop to by the Soviet leadership.
Mao's Cultural Revolution was a very different matter. Here is the "learning curve" of the communist project. Mao summed up Stalin's mistakes. The Cultural Revolution was a struggle against a new capitalist class and a struggle to keep the revolution on the socialist road. But rather than resorting to administrative and police measures from on high, Mao mobilized the masses from below to take up the burning political and ideological questions of the overall direction of society. The principal forms of struggle of the Cultural Revolution were mass debate, mass criticism, and mass political mobilization. Society was opened up rather than shuttered. Indeed, no modern society has ever seen this level of mass political debate and political transformation.
The purpose of my speaking tour is to stimulate discussion, debate, and critical thinking about the first wave of socialist revolutions and to help people learn about how Bob Avakian has been re-envisioning the communist project. Keith Jamieson is incredulous that historians would so pervasively misrepresent this historical experience.
But the fact is: people have been lied to about communism. The dominant and self-serving narrative in capitalist society prevents people from accurately understanding what the revolutions in the Soviet Union and China set out to do, the real obstacles they faced, the extraordinary things they accomplished, and their real problems and shortcomings. Why should this be any surprise? After all, the legitimacy of this system rests on the notion that capitalism is the best of all possible worlds, or the "end of history." And let's not forget that the American people were systematically lied to about the Vietnam War (that cost the lives of at least two million Vietnamese people) and fed a bill of goods as to why the U.S. had to invade Iraq in 2003. In the late 1960s and 1970s, there was huge ideological struggle and new research undertaken to expose America as an empire and its real origins in genocide against the Native Americans and the enslavement and subjugation of African Americans.
The world cries out for revolution, for emancipatory change. That's what's riding on the search for the truth about socialism and communism: we can create a radically different and better world.
One last factual point. In my University of Chicago talk, I mistakenly referred to newly elected U.S. President Eisenhower threatening socialist China with nuclear attack in his 1953 inaugural speech. I meant to refer to veiled threats in Eisenhower's 1953 State of the Union address—where Eisenhower asserted the "retaliatory power" of the U.S. and stated that the Seventh Fleet would "no longer be employed to shield Communist China." On May 20, 1953, at a National Security Council meeting, Eisenhower concluded that if the U.S. were to pursue more effective action vis-à-vis North Korea, the Korean War would need to be expanded beyond Korea and it would be necessary to use atomic bombs if the Chinese and North Koreans did not sign the Armistice Agreement (this message was to be relayed to the Chinese through third parties). As additional warning, missiles with nuclear warheads were transferred to Okinawa in early spring 1953. On November 6, 1953, NSC document 166/1 spelled out that in a conflict with China, U.S. power "employing all available weapons, could impose decisive damage on the Chinese Communist air force and its facilities."2
For more on the question of Stalin, listen to the segment "On Leadership" from Bob Avakian's radio interview series with Michael Slate, available online at bobavakian.net/audio4.html
1. This estimate of executions is based on archival data of the NKVD (the internal security organ of the Soviet state) and research by Russian and Western scholars in archives opened in the former Soviet Union after 1990. J. Arch Getty, Gabor T. Rittersporn, and Viktor N. Zemskov reach the conclusion that the number of executed "was more likely a question of hundreds of thousands than of millions" ("Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-war Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence," American Historical Review 98, no. 4, October 1993, p. 1022). Robert Thurston, Arno Mayer, and Lewis Siegelbaum are among other scholars whose work offers insights into the Stalin era who have cited this broad assessment of the numbers of executed under Stalin. This research counters the grossly inflated (in essence manufactured) claims circulating for years in the West that "Stalin executed millions." That the vast bulk of executions during the entire 1930-1953 period took place in the two years 1937-1938 (see Lewis Siegelbaum, chapter 11 in Gregory Freeze, ed., Russia: A History, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 311-315) and that regional and local political officials had a strong hand in who was targeted and put to death points to the particular—and, evidently at times, out-of-control--character of much of the repression of the late 1930s. Further research and analysis as to what was going on is required. [back]
2. On Eisenhower's nuclear threats and nuclear war planning against Maoist China in the early 1950s, see John Wilson Lewis and Xue Lita, China Builds the Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), chapters one and two; Rosemary J. Foot, "Nuclear Coercion and the Ending of the Korean Conflict," International Security, Winter 1988/89 (Vol. 13, No. 3); Mathew Jones, "Targeting China: U.S. Nuclear Planning and `Massive Retaliation' in East Asia, 1953-1955," Journal of Cold War Studies, Fall 2008 (Vol. 10, No. 4); and "For Eisenhower, 2 Goals if Bomb Was to Be Used," New York Times, June 8, 1984 and Bernard Gwertzman, "U.S. Papers Tell of '53 Policy to Use A-Bomb in Korea," New York Times, June 8, 1984. [back]
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