One of the great myths concerning socialist collectivisation of agriculture is that it produced ‘man-made’ famines, since it is supposedly less ‘efficient’. This story is perpetrated by friend and foe alike.

Example 1: The famine of 1932-33 in the Soviet Union, which is supposed to have been ‘man-made’.

Let me set the context. During the ‘socialist offensive’ of the late 1920s and 1930s in the Soviet Union, a massive process of industrialisation and collectivisation took place.

The Soviet Union did not have access to and did not want to use capitalist modes of accumulating funds, namely, colonial expansion (dispossession of others) and international loans. So the industrialisation process had to rely on internal, or socialist accumulation. In order to generate such accumulation, the government set higher prices for the increasing abundance of manufactured goods, as a type of super-tax that would flow back into industry. Meanwhile, prices on agricultural goods were set lower, albeit with fluctuations depending on seasonal shortages and in light of the constant efforts at speculation. This tensions of this ‘scissors’ method of generating revenue for further industrialisation generated obvious problems, but these were exacerbated by a famine in 1927-28, requiring enforced requisitions of grain in response to some peasants withholding agricultural produce for speculation (Withholding of grain for the sake of raising prices was an old practice, appearing not only during the NEP of the mid-1920s, but also much earlier). Obviously, something had to be done, since the ‘scissors’ method could not continue – it was always conceived as a temporary measure.

Another persistent problem was that traditional Russian farming methods were inadequate in light of new developments and a rising population. I mean not the subsistence survival agriculture practised in many parts of the world for millennia, but the practice of landlords extracting food necessary for survival by farmers. In fact, rural famines were endemic to Russian life. In more recent memory, famine hit in 1890-91, the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 had taken place in the context of widespread famine, which added to socio-economic chaos. Famines also blighted 1918-20 and were exacerbated during 1920-21.

So the process of collectivisation was at one level an effort to deal with endemic famine.

Many of course will point to the famine of 1932-33, with some even suggesting it was a deliberate policy of ‘genocide’ focused on the Ukraine (the ‘Holodomur’). But the famine also affected Northern Caucasus, Volga Region and Kazakhstan, the South Urals, and West Siberia. Enough research has been done to show that the famine was the result of significant weather conditions (drought), low harvest, international blockade, and the profound turmoil and frequent violence of the 1930s.

Were there famines later? Yes. One could argue that the food shortage during the siege of Leningrad was a famine, but the reasons are obvious here. And after the devastation of war and the effort to defeat Hitler, a famine took place after a drought in 1947. Most importantly, despite the drought cycle, no further famines were experienced.

Obviously, collectivisation had a distinct result in dealing with the endemic problem of famines. Why? Collectivisation enabled mechanisation and increase in the amount of land under cultivation, so much so that in 1932 many farmers worked harder to ensure greater crop yield and overcome the famine by the next year.

Example 2: The Chinese famine of 1959-61, during the ‘Great Leap Forward’, is also described as ‘man-made’, a result of the ‘foolhardy’ effort at collectivisation.

Once again, famine was endemic to Chinese agriculture (see Losurdo’s War and Revolution, pp. 271-72). Restricting ourselves to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, famines occurred in 1810-11, 1846, 1849, 1876-79 (9-13 million died), 1896-97, 1907, 1911, 1920-21 (again in northern China), 1928-30 (3 million people died), 1936 (5 million), 1940-41 (2-3 million). In famine was a persistent problem.

If we add the semi-colonisation of China, invasions, insurrections, along with droughts, the deaths in China between 1850 and 1950 were by far the highest in the world.

Again, something obviously had to be done. Having seen the long-term success of the collectivisation in the Soviet Union in overcoming the persistent cycle of famine, collectivisation was also undertaken in China.

The problem now was not only the devastation of decades of civil war and Japanese occupation, but a deliberate policy of economic warfare and strangulation by the Truman regime. This included schematic bombing from Taiwan of any industrial facilities built on the eastern seaboard. The deliberate aim was to keep the new communist country below subsistence level so as to produce a catastrophic economic situation, if not disaster and collapse.

We need to add Mao’s impatience. Seeing the dire situation of the country in light of economic devastation and US policy, he sought to leap over stages of development in order to escape from the desperate trap. Again, the US regimes made the most of situation, seeking to exacerbate the situation and cause widespread devastation. By the early 1960s, the Kennedy regime, looking back on the famine of 1959-61, gloated that they succeeded in retarding Chinese economic development by decades.

Were there famines after this time in China? Again, no. The long history of endemic famine and the tragic lesson of 1959-61 meant that China has managed to put famine behind it.

Many strange things happen in Russia, but this is one of the more intriguing. Not so long ago, I was told while in Russia that one could not speak of Marxism directly in many circles. Marxism is a dirty word, I was told; indeed, there are no Marxists of any influence. The only way to undertake research on Marxism and find a job in a university was to focus on the various forms of the opposition to Lenin and Stalin.

Something has changed. It began with an invitation from Algoritm Press to write a book on Stalin that would be translated into Russian. Debate is heating up over Stalin’s legacy, with an increasing number of people calling for a reassessment. They also want foreign engagements with this debate. It has also generated works like Oleg Khlevniuk’s new biography of Stalin, which is an alarmed response to these developments.

But it really struck me this year at a couple of conferences, one celebrating 120 years since the death of Engels and the other called, innocuously, the World Cultural Forum. At the first conference, in Nanjing, a number of Russian scholars were present, with their journeys covered by the conference organisers. They spoke mostly of Chinese Marxism, although one chose to speak in Russian since it was ‘the language of Lenin’. However, one of them spoke of socialism as a cultural force, in both the Soviet Union and China, if not worldwide. Afterwards, I said to him, ‘I was told there are no Marxists in Russian any more’. He replied, ‘Well, I am one. She is one. He is one …’.

At the next conference, a few days later in Beijing, the handful of Russian scholars became scores. They had all attended an earlier conference there (which I had missed) called the ‘World Socialist Forum’ – which may be seen as the twenty-first century’s version of the Comintern. Now it became even more interesting. Some of the Russian speakers sought to draw upon and assess positively aspects of the Soviet Union. One spoke of Soviet education, another of Soviet cultural policy, another of Sino-Soviet ties. I dared to speak in front of such an audience (a little nervously) of the philosophical connections between the nationalities policy, affirmative action, anti-colonialism and the redefinition of ‘people’ and state in the Soviet Union. Quite a few came up to me afterwards with appreciative comments. One senior philosopher from the Academy of Sciences even told me that I had managed to identify some of the key philosophical developments he had been studying for 40 years.

So what is going on? I am not quite sure. Partly, it has to do with the recent development of very close ties between Russia and China, thereby negating much of the efforts of NATO and the USA. But it goes well beyond strategic and economic interests. Partly, it has to do with finding common ground between Russia and China, via the Soviet era, although an occasional Russian will assert that the Soviet Union was ‘more advanced’ than China. But I sense much more is under way, with both older scholars who spent most of their lives in the Soviet Union and younger scholars seeking to re-engage. What these developments might actually mean is still unclear to me.

Or what is China for that matter? It is becoming clearer in some of the more astute research that the Soviet Union was not a federation, not an empire, not a colonising power, not a nation-state, but an entirely new state formation.[1]

A federation assumes disparate groups that then slowly merge together to form a state, like the United States or Switzerland. The catch with the situation in the Soviet Union was that such disparate groups did not exist, except for a brief time after the ‘civil’ war that followed the October Revolution.

There are many still who like to apply the term ‘empire’ or ‘colonial power’ to the USSR, since these are known frameworks. Thus, it sought to impose its imperial will on subject peoples much like the tsarist autocracy that it overthrew, if not seek world domination; or it exploited the ‘border lands’ for the sake of raw material and was therefore a colonial power. But these do not get us very far. The Soviet government was extraordinarily careful to avoid replicating the patterns of the tsarist empire, which involved suppressing the many nationalities that made up the Soviet Union. Instead, they fostered the diversity of the cultures, languages and forms of governance of these nationalities (with the exception of some ‘enemy nationalities’ during the Second World War, who opted out of the project and toyed with aiding the enemy – they were, of course relocated). As for colonialism, the Soviets actually supported anti-colonial movements around the world, coming to see the October Revolution as in many respects also an anti-colonial revolution, especially among the various national groups within what became the USSR. For them, particularly the Belorussians, Latvians and Georgians, nationalism was a positive movement and was seen as one with the socialist project.

A nation-state is impossible to think now without Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined community’ argument. But in the intense debates among socialists (German and Austrian Marxists such as Karl Kautsky, Karl Renner and Otto Bauer; the members of the Bund, the Jewish Workers Party, and the Bolsheviks) in the early twentieth century, ‘nation’ meant not the nation-state but what might now be called ‘ethnic minorities’. However, the problem with that term is that the nations in question were not predicated on ethnicity and they included both minority and majority nations. In order to get away from the traps of using the term ‘nation’, it is perhaps better to use the term ‘nationality’. Indeed, in the Chinese context, this term is still used: minzu. In light of this situation, the Soviet Union itself was not a nationality, not a nation, and not a nation-state.

So what was it? The terms they used the describe the Soviet Union are instructive. They preferred to speak of the ‘Land of the Soviets’, the ‘Soviet people’ and even the ‘Soviet Motherland’. The favoured term of the 1936 Stalin Constitution was ‘friendship of the peoples’. For Terry Martin, this was the ‘imagined community’ of the Soviet Union. But I would like to go one step further and suggest that the Soviet Union was not a nation-state but a multi-national socialist state. In this way it provides one model as to how a socialist state formation might develop. The fact that this model deeply influenced China in the 1950s also suggests that China has also developed into a multi-national state, albeit with its own inflections since then.

[1] Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939  (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 15, 19, 461; Theodore R. Weeks, “Stalinism and Nationality,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6, no. 3 (2005): 567.