A new article of mine is up at Philosophers for Change: The ‘Failure’ of Communism.

Update: I am told that this article has taken off somewhat, with more than 1,000 ‘likes’ on the facebook page for Philosophers for Change.

In the fashionable cynicism of post-USSR times, it is difficult to recapture the sheer euphoria at the achievement of the USSR itself. In 1922, after long and difficult negotiations, the excitement could hardly be contained. Here is Stalin in December of that year when the new agreement was announced.

here, in the world of Soviets, where the regime is based not on capital but on labour, where the regime is based not on private property, but on collective property, where the regime is based not on the exploitation of man by man, but on the struggle against such exploitation, here, on the contrary, the very nature of the regime fosters among the labouring masses a natural striving towards union in a single socialist family (Works, vol. 5, p. 153).

But, comrades, today is not only a day for summing up, it is at the same time the day of triumph of the new Russia over the old Russia, the Russia that was the gendarme of Europe, the Russia that was the hangman of Asia. Today is the day of triumph of the new Russia, which has smashed the chains of national oppression, organised victory over capital, created the dictatorship of the proletariat, awakened the peoples of the East, inspires the workers of the West, transformed the Red Flag from a Party banner into a State banner, and rallied around that banner the peoples of the Soviet republics in order to unite them into a single state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the prototype of the future World Soviet Socialist Republic.

We Communists are often abused and accused of being unable to build. Let the history of the Soviet power during these five years of its existence serve as proof that Communists are also able to build. Let today’s Congress of Soviets, whose function it is to ratify the Declaration and Treaty of Union of the Republics that were adopted at the Conference of Plenipotentiary Delegations yesterday, let this Union Congress demonstrate to all who have not yet lost the ability to understand, that Communists are as well able to build the new as they are to destroy the old (p. 161).

I am thoroughly enjoying Domenico Losurdo’s book on Stalin, not least because I am thrilled at being able to read the French text with relative ease. Plenty of food for thought, but three items struck me recently.

First, one of the great achievements of the Bolsheviks was to restore the Russian state, albeit in an entirely new way. For more than forty years, from the late nineteenth century, it had been unravelling. By the time of the Russian Revolution, it was well on the way to becoming a failed state. After the revolution, the ‘civil’ war was the time of the greatest danger, but with the victory of the Red Army against an array of international forces and the White Armies, the state began to be recreated. Losurdo points out that the brilliance and energy – and ‘foi furieuse’ – of the Bolsheviks played a huge role. By the 1930s and under Stalin’s leadership, that task had largely been achieved.

Second, Losurdo shoots down the common comparison between the Gulags, or re-education camps in the USSR, and the Nazi ‘concentration camps’. For the former, the purpose was to create potential ‘citizens’ and comrades’ and everything was geared in that direction. By contrast, the fascist concentration camps were fundamentally racist, setting out to destroy the Untermenschen. In that respect, the Nazi camps are of one with the treatment of African slaves in the USA, of indigenous peoples in Canada, and so on.

Third, Losurdo refers to Terry Martin’s Affirmative Action Empire (2001). Martin argues that the Soviet state was the world’s first state based on affirmative action. It fostered national consciousness among its many ethnic minorities, established institutions, encouraged locals to become involved in education,  government and industry, and mandated that local languages would be official. In some cases, the Soviet government had to create written languages where none existed. Immense resources were invested in the publication of books, journals and magazines in local languages, in film, theatre, art, and music. For Martin, ‘nothing comparable had been seen before’. It became standard socialist policy afterwards.

Belarus is a kick-arse country, usually off the radar for most. What’s so good about it? We arrived on a slow train from Moscow to find a country that is a model for what the Eastern Bloc should have done after 1989. Belarus had the balls to resists the vicious and retributive ‘shock therapy’ imposed by Western Europe and the USA in the 1990s. The result: nearly all industry is state-owned, unemployment is around 0.6 percent, Stalin-era buildings define a city like Minsk, the place is well-maintained and feels great to visit. In short, it is still very much a socialist country. More on Belarus soon, but a few choice morsels.

Lenin stands proudly outside the government buildings in Minsk:

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New constructions boast the USSR, such as this mural from the metro system (there’s plenty more around Minsk):

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The government continues good old soviet propaganda, like this around the construction site for the world ice hockey championships in 2014:

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They still have the KGB! This glorious building – the KGB headquarters – sits right on the main thoroughfare, so you can simply stroll past.

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And in a more reflective moment, you can find yourself at the crossroads between Marx and Lenin:

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If you want to see eastern European communism in the 21st century, get yourself to Belarus. We’ll definitely be back. (ht cp)

What was the deep source of Soviet success during the Second World War? A number of obvious factors played a role, such as Stalin’s leadership, excellent generals, German mistakes, tough discipline, good morale, and deal of luck. But underlying it all, as Geoffrey Roberts points out, was ‘a tremendous economic and organisational achievement’ (Stalin’s Wars, p. 163).

To set the scene: by the time of the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, the Germans occupied more than half of European Russia, about two million square kilometres. It was an area containing 40 per cent of the USSR’s population, about 80 million people. The occupied area covered 50 per cent of the USSR’s cultivated land, the production of 70 per cent of its pig iron, 60 per cent of its coal and steel and 40 per cent of its electricity. Still, by the end of 1942, the production of rifles had increased fourfold (to 6 million) compared to the previous year. Tank and artillery production increased fivefold to 24,500 and 287,000 per annum. The number of aeroplanes produced more than doubled from 8,200 to 21,700.

How was this possible? Roberts writes that it was due to the mass relocation of Soviet industry to the eastern USSR and out of harm’s way in 1941-2. One of Stalin’s first instructions after Hitler invaded was the establishment of an evacuation committee that arranged the move of more than 1,500 large industries to the east. With them went hundreds of thousands of workers and thereby the single most significant wave of resettlement in Siberia. It is not for nothing that you find cities in Siberia of more than a million people. On top of this, 3,500 new industries were established, most of them related to wartime production. It is no wonder that by the time of the battle of Stalingrad, the Soviets were able to field 90 fresh divisions, fully equipped with new weapons. Or indeed that after losing almost 5 million soldiers in the first months of Hitler’s invasion, they were able to field 11 million the following year. One million of those were women.

Initially, Roberts is in two minds on this achievement. He tends to sit on the fence, relating debates about wartime ‘free enterprise’ versus the planned economy. He mentions western aid (much emphasised in European and American accounts), but points out that it amounted to no more than 10 per cent of the total economy and that it came largely after the dire threat of 1941-2 and after victory at Stalingrad. In the end he comes down on the side of the planned economy. Stalin emphasised the need to keep the armies properly supplied, but otherwise he left the job to his economic managers. And they could do so only by means of ‘the mobilisation power of the Soviet economy’ (p. 163).

But what was that economy? Given the energetic collectivisation of farming in the late 1920s and 1930s and the Five Year Plans of industrialisation and economic transformation, the result was as full a communist economic system as one is likely to find. Does this mean that only a planned, communist economic system could have pulled it off? It seems so.

Why is it that in concealed (and farcical) one-party states, such as Australia, the USA or any ‘liberal democracy’, the range, strength and intensity of political debate is far less than in explicit and open one-party states, such as China or the former USSR?

Last night I had a long discussion with a person who seemed quite intelligent, but still she trotted out the standard line concerning the Russian Revolution that has been propagated by Western media and exiled Russian bourgeois critics since about 1918 – now filled out with all manner of gory details of unmitigated disaster. The revolution was a palace coup undertaken by a small band of intellectuals, Lenin was a sectarian autocrat, Stalin a monster, Russia sank into a new age of barbarism, with massive famines, industrial chaos, rampant killings and decades of sheer terror for the people.

It is reasonably easy to attribute such a narrative to the ingrained ideological and economic fabric of the West’s own justification for existence, especially by those keen to defend a dodgy project. But it is less forgivable for those on the Left to do so. To be sure, the narrative on the Left it has its refinements. I am reading Lenin Reloaded, a collection that seeks to offer a corrective to the perception of Lenin as an autocratic and doctrinaire thug bent on power. But then you get the standard ‘Fall narrative’: at some point the revolution lost its way, retreating first under a disillusioned Lenin in his last years, then completely waylaid by a paranoid Stalin, and then cementing the place of an autocratic new ruling class under Brezhnev.

The problem is that such a Fall narrative has difficulty dealing with some developments during the USSR. To begin with, as Norman Davies argues in his recent Europe at War, 1939-1945,  a key reason why the USSR under Stalin’s leadership won the Second World War was the reorganisation of economic and social life under communism. Leave aside the fact (which I have mentioned before) that he brilliantly led the war effort and drew together the best generals and strategists of the War – Zhukov, Chief of Staff Alexander Vasilevsky, and Chief of Operations Aleksei Antonov, all men of penetrating intelligence, exceptional abilities, and extraordinary character, and all encouraged to be dynamic and innovative, to argue, debate and counsel Stalin himself. Aside from that, the USSR underwent what Davies calls a ‘miraculous’ economic recovery in the midst of the war and after Hitler attacked in a mode of unprecedented viciousness and extermination. Such a recovery was possible only under the reorganisation brought by a communist system.

Further, as George Hallam pointed out in a comment to my earlier post on the Russian Revolution, biometric analysis of data from the time shows that children began to grow taller and weigh more. This is a telltale sign of increased nutrition, more physical activity and healthier lives.

Closely related to this development was kukharka: mass education for women and men. As Robert Allen shows in a recent study (From Farm to Factory, 2003), before the revolution Russia had the same demographic pattern as, for example, India – a high death rate and a higher birth rate. However, the USSR did not have the same population explosion. Why? It had nothing to do with the ‘civil’ war, Second World War or even the famines that came as a result. It was due to the massive increase in education and opportunity for women, who were instrumental in reducing the birth rate at the same time that children became healthier. A crucial factor was the communist feminist movement. If education had been restricted to men and the economic reorganisation had proceeded more slowly, the USSR’s population would have exploded, with dire economic consequences.

A final factor was the more open attitude to sexuality, which makes the West look like a breathless latecomer to the party. That’s the topic for another post, but these developments make the narrative of unmitigated disaster look decidedly untenable.