The Gulag was Stalin, Not Soviet

This past week I finished reading the book Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize winning effort. I found this book compelling with its first-hand accounts of the brutal and deadly conditions some 8 million Soviet citizens experienced as they passed through the Gulag system over the decades. And I found no problem with the book except for a couple of points.

First, she equates the concentration camps of Lenin and Trotsky to what the phenomenon later became under Stalin. Camps were in existence during the Russian Revolution, and Lenin did express the thought that maybe kulaks (rich, land owning peasants) and former White Army officers could use a good lesson in hard, manual labor. But those early concentration camps are nothing like the true Gulags under Stalin. Applebaum even relates this fact in the introductory portion of the book. But she should have realized that Stalin is the real monster here, not Lenin and Trotsky.

Second, Applebaum asks why so many memorialize and lionize the old Soviet system with the Gulags as part of its history. She even condemns Russia’s experiment in a radical leftist ideology with the belief that the Gulag was inherent in the Communist system. She further equates the Gulag system with the German death-camps of the Nazi’s. Some far leftists will wear a hammer and sickle t-shirt, but no one would almost never, where a shirt with a swastika on it, she argues.

Now I admit that the two can be equated, and, in my opinion, they both possessed the same level of brutality which I cannot believe ever took place in as late of a period as the 20th century. But the goal of exterminating the Jews and other minority groups in the 30’s and 40’s was a major tenet of the Nazi ideology. The Gulag system was just a deformed system of punishment used by a totalitarian government. The Soviets did not want any group of people to suffer and die in Gulags. It was just the form of punishment Stalin desired as a result of his uncontrollable paranoia and its brutal crackdowns. In the introduction Applebaum even covers the fact that labor camps for criminals were a part of Czarist Russia. It seems that the concentration camp, not the suffering, was Russian, not Soviet. And a strict form of genocide was not a truly cut out goal of the Gulag system.

In conclusion, after reading this book my belief that Stalin was one of history’s greatest monsters is confirmed, and I still refuse to express my belief in a Marxist system with Stalin’s words or image. But on the other hand, I have no problem with the use of Lenin, Marx and Engels, and the hammer and sickle emblem. They are not inherently related to the. Marx never wrote, “There is a specter haunting Europe, and let there be Gulags.”

I still recommend this book.

Communism: Learning from the Past and Present

As I have put forth in my previous posts, a socialist government is the best political system to be realized today in the interests of the 99%. But if we are going to move towards having the power taken back from the rich and given to its rightful owners, the workers, we must avoid making the mistakes made by Communist countries today and in the past.

One of the most dangerous actions taken by the radical leftist governments of the past is that they tried to realize unrealistic goals too soon. E.g., China had its “Great Leap Forward,” the Soviets under Stalin always put forth these “5 Year Plans” that hurt the Russian people at the hands of Stalin’s vain attempts at greatness, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia killed over a million of their countrymen partially due to economic reforms. And these often just occurred to catch up with capitalist countries in the areas of industry, science, military, and infrastructurevtoo fast. Foolish.

The are two reasons why this is true, namely:

  1. Revolutionaries have no idea how to run a country. This often leads to unspeakable hardships and suffering for the reasons mentioned above in the pursuit of grand ideals.
  2. The three countries outlined above, i.e., Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia, were ruled under brutal dictators, or very small groups of leaders, who ran authoritarian governments. They involved purges, gulags, and mass murders of so-called “enemies of the people.” And these things are still taking place in North Korea under the rule of the Kim family and their latest criminal, thug leader, Kim Jong Un.

But in terms of the socialist experiment in Cuba, we could learn a lot of positive things from them. The U.S. capitalist media would have you believe that the Castros are no different than Stalin or Un, but what they don’t report are the great strides towards equality taking place in the small island country. E.g., they have redistributed land to the peasants through land reform. Once the Cuban peasants were slaves to rich plantation owners, but as a result of the revolution, the land owned by the corporations and plantation owners has now been divided amongst the people who work the land. And that is just one example of the successful reforms. They have also gotten away from just being a sugar-dominated economy and even become a powerhouse in the research and development of new medicines that are often purchased, yes, by the U.S. government.

Yet this has succeeded by not having some grand goal of building a developing country into a society where they are immediately just as technologically advanced as  the U.S. These are examples of how ideas and policies could be learned from a socialist society to be translated instilled in a more equal America.

So in conclusion, the brutality of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge is due to harsh authoritarian governments, not an attempted realization of a fully socialist society. These dictatorships had vain rulers trying to advance mostly Third-World countries into global players too fast. Yet we can look to somewhere like Cuba for positive ideas to enact here in the U.S. in pursuit of a more egalitarian society.

Stalin and Modern Russia

05iht-edrachlin05-articleLargeA great piece in the NYT on how the Russian people have struggled with Stalin’s legacy over the decades. He was a tyrannical pragmatist who killed 32 million of his own people through purges, farming policies, and the NKVD, who were the secret police and forerunner of the KGB (at least Hitler was an ideologue who murdered perceived “others”). But he also industrialized the Soviet Union, built great cities, and furthered the cause of Communism. A great piece to be read.

Read Here.