Soviet Affirmative Action: The Harvard Interview Project of 1950-51

The Soviet Union during Stalin’s era saw the world’s first and far-reaching affirmative action program. I have now read carefully Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action EmpireThis is a 500 page book, peerless in its use of archival material and chock full of insights. It has its shortcomings, especially in the theoretical area, thereby missing some of the complexities and dialectical tensions at work. All the same, he argues persuasively that the Soviet Union was not a nation-state, not a federation, nor indeed an empire (despite the title). Instead, its ‘imagined community’ was the friendship of the peoples, or ‘international nationalism’. (As someone suggested to me recently, China too is a new form of the state, developing further the experience of the Soviet Union.) What Martin does not do is use this to develop a Marxist theory of the state based on actual practice, but then he is not so interested in Marxist theory.

Let me return to the question of affirmative action, for not a few will be a little sceptical: sure, the Soviet government may have made many statements concerning affirmative action, and Stalin may have made many speeches to that effect and even shaped the 1936 constitution, but what about actual experiences? What happened on the ground? An extraordinary amount, as Martin shows. One small example comes from the Harvard Interview Project of 1950-51, which interviewed displaced persons – 250 Ukrainians, Belorussians and Russians – after the Second World War, from Smolensk and Leningrad.

The interviewers did not ask direct questions concerning ethnic conflict. Instead, they asked respondents to list the ‘distinguishing characteristics’ of Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Georgians, Armenians, Kalmyks and Tatars. To the astonishment of the interviewers, many of the respondents replied that there were no ethnic differences whatsoever. The interviewers pressed their case, but the respondents (as Martin points out) determined that there were two very different issues at stake. First, did the Soviet government treat nationalities differently, even persecuting them as the Nazis did? The responses: ‘Politically and in living standards, no. In national customs, yes’; ‘Yes, the Jews have the first place in the Soviet Union’. Second, the respondents inferred an interest by the interviewers in popular prejudice in the Soviet Union. In response: ‘Yes, of course there are [national differences]. But the nationalities are not enemies because of that’; ‘But that does not mean there are necessarily antagonistic feelings between us’.

Even more, many of the respondents connected the absence of popular prejudice and conflict to state policy. In response to the question concerning ‘distinguishing characteristics’, a dozen respondents asserted that the absence of open national prejudice was due to the very severe punishments for racial-hate speech. The responses are worth noting:

No, that is impossible. Everyone must love everyone in the Soviet Union … It is against the law to have national animosities.

There is no chauvinism. You can get ten years for it.

In the army, a soldier got seven years for calling a Jew ‘Zhid.’

All are alike. You cannot tell somebody that he is a Ukrainian and brag that you are a Russian or you would be arrested.

It is strictly forbidden by law to offend any member of any nationality, regardless of whether he is a Russian, Ukrainian, White Russian, or anything else.

If you cussed out a member of a minority group, there was serious trouble.

If you call a Jew a ‘zhid’, he can go to the police and you will get a prison sentence.

A primary school teacher told a personal story of how she had used a Russian proverb, ‘An untimely guest is worse than a Tatar’, and almost lost her job.

Martin observes, ‘When one considers that the interviewers neither asked about national prejudice nor about state policy, these spontaneous responses are impressive testimony to the success of the Soviet campaigns against great power chauvinism and in favor of internationalism and friendship among the Soviet peoples’ (p. 390).

What about the 1936 ‘Stalin’ constitution’s guarantee of national equality for all peoples? How did respondents see it? They initially opined that it was a complete fraud and not worth the paper on which it was written, but then pointed out, ‘correct’, this guarantee is observed; ‘in this case there is no conflict between the text of the constitution and reality’; ‘all nations have the same rights’. What a contrast with Russia now.

Bear in mind that these positions were also voiced in the context of immediate memories of Nazi racial theory and practice. And that they arose from the same period as the extensive purges of the 1930s – part of my investigation of the practical contributions to a materialist doctrine of evil, if not a thorough revision of Marxist theories of human nature.


On solipsism, Roosevelt and US exceptionalism

In December, 1933, Stalin did an interview with a correspondent from The New York Times. Already there is a glimmer of the potential for the cooperation between Stalin and Roosevelt in the Second World War, although his comment on United States solipsism still seems to apply.

Roosevelt, by all accounts, is a determined and courageous politician. There is a philosophical system, solipsism, which holds that the external world does not exist and the only thing that does exist is one’s own self. It long seemed that the American Government subscribed to this system and did not believe in the existence of the U.S.S.R. But Roosevelt evidently is not a supporter of this strange theory. He is a realist and knows that reality is as he sees it (Works, volume 13, pp. 284-85).

Indeed, a little earlier a certain Colonel Robins from the United States, also in an interview, expressed a strong wish for the two countries to work together.

I am not a Communist and do not understand very much about communism, but I should like America to participate in, to have the opportunity of associating itself with, the development that is taking place here in Soviet Russia, and I should like Americans to get this opportunity by means of recognition, by granting credits, by means of establishing normal relations between the two countries, for example, in the Far East, so as to safeguard the great and daring undertaking which is in process in your country, so that it may be brought to a successful conclusion (Works, vol. 13, p. 277).

Makes one wonder what might have been possible instead of the Cold War.

Can a religious person join the communist party?

Can a religious person join the communist party?

One would expect that the answer would be a resounding ‘no’. Is not Marxism a materialist philosophy and political movement, with no time for the mystifying effects of religion or indeed for reactionary religious institutions? The catch is that communist parties around the world have actually permitted religious people to join and be members.

Let us go back to the First International. It was accused by the reactionary right and indeed by former comrades of requiring atheism for its members. On the other side, the anarchists wanted the International to declare itself atheist, abolish cults and replace faith with science. What was the response of Marx and Engels? While Marx asserted that he was an atheist,[1] he made it quite clear that the International itself did not make atheism a prerequisite for membership – ‘As if one could declare by royal decree abolition of faith!’[2] As for Engels, he repeatedly pointed out that anyone who suggests that the International ‘wants to make atheism compulsory’ is simply guilty of a lie.[3]

Why did they take this position? The first reason was that they saw religion as a secondary phenomenon, arising from alienated socio-economic conditions. Any direct attack on religion would divert the movement from its main task. Second, ‘atheism, as the mere negation of, and referring only to, religion, would itself be nothing without it and is thus itself another religion’.[4] The third reason is that they would simply be copying a bourgeois anti-religious program, which would – and this is the fourth reason – split the workers from the prime task of overcoming socio-economic oppression.

The Second International took an even more explicit position. It followed the Erfurt Program of 1891, of the German Social-Democrats: ‘Declaration that religion is a private matter [Erklärung der Religion zur Privatsache]’.[5] A key question debated at the time was whether a priest or minister could join the party: the answer was yes, but if the minister found the party program conflicted with his own positions, then that was a matter for him to resolve.

Even the far Left that became the Spartacus Group in Germany held to this position. For example, Rosa Luxemburg asserted in Socialism and the Churches from 1905:

The Social-Democrats, those of the whole world and of our own country, regard conscience [Gewissen] and personal opinion [Überzeugung] as being sacred. Everyone is free to hold whatever faith and whatever opinions will ensure his happiness. No one has the right to persecute or to attack the particular religious opinion of others. Thus say the Social-Democrats.[6]

Perhaps Lenin and the Bolsheviks provide us with a clear example of demanding atheism from party members. Here too we will be disappointed, for Lenin – as a good ‘Erfurtian’ – took the position of the Erfurt Program.[7] To be sure, Lenin argued for a radical separation of church and state, and that the party must not leave religion alone in propagating its position – so that religion was also very much a public affair. Yet this did not lead Lenin to propose that party membership applications should include a question on religion and atheism. Even though a socialist may espouse a materialist worldview in which religion is but a medieval mildew, even though the party may undertake a very public and unhindered program of education against the influence of the church, and even though one hoped that the historical materialist position would persuade all of its truth, the party still did not stipulate atheism as a prerequisite for membership. Even more, no one would be excluded from party membership if he or she held to religious belief. As Lenin stated forcefully: ‘Organisations belonging to the R.S.D.L.P. have never distinguished their members according to religion, never asked them about their religion and never will’.[8]

Surely the Cuban Communist Party bans religion for its members. It did so initially, but even then many of the members professed atheism while maintaining religious observance at home. So at the fourth congress of 1991 it decided to remove ‘religious beliefs’ as an ‘obstacle’ anyone who sought to become a member. Indeed, in the Central Committee’s Report to the sixth congress of 2011, it was noted that ‘congruence between revolutionary doctrine and religious faith is rooted in the very foundations of the nation’. To back this up, a statement from none other than Fidel Castro (in 1971) was used: ‘I tell you that there are ten thousand times more coincidences of Christianity with Communism than there might be with Capitalism’.[9]

It is becoming difficult to find a communist party that requires atheism of its members – at least until we come to the Chinese Communist Party. Here at last is a party that officially bans religious belief among those seeking to become members. Indeed, in the process of becoming a member, a candidate is asked whether he or she has professed any religious beliefs. Anyone found to have done so is called upon to rectify such beliefs. According to Professor Li Yunlong, from the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, ‘Party members are banned from joining religions. Believing in communism and atheism is a basic requirement to become a Party member’.[10] At last we have a communist party that is explicitly atheist, banning aspiring members who might be otherwise.

Yet, there is a typical Chinese twist: one must be an atheist upon entry to the party, but should one become religious at a later point, then little is usually done – at least if one keeps such beliefs discreet and exercises them along officially recognised channels.

[1] ‘Record of Marx’s Interview with The World Correspondent’, 1871, MECW 22, p. 605.

[2] Marx, ‘Remarks on the Programme and Rules of the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy’, 1868, MECW 21, p. 208.

[3] Engels, ’ Account of Engels’s Speech on Mazzini’s Attitude Towards the International’, 1871, MECW, p. 608.

[4] Engels, ‘Engels to Eduard Bernstein in Zurich, London, July 1884’. 1884, MECW 47, p. 173.

[5] Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, Erfurt Program. In German History in Documents and Images: Wilhelmine Germany and the First World War, 1890–1918. Available at

[6] Rosa Luxemburg, Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, ed. Mary-Alice Walters, New York: Pathfinder, 1970, p. 132.

[7] Lenin, ‘The Attitude of the Workers’ Party towards Religion’, Collected Works 15, p. 404.

[8] Lenin, ‘Does the Jewish Proletariat Need an “Independent Political Party”?’ 1993, Collected Works 6, p. 331 fn.

[9] See