Chris Harman


Thinking it through

(June 1996)

From Socialist Review, No.198, June 1996.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The 20th century has been the century of horrific bloodletting on a scale unknown in previous history, reaching a horrific crescendo with the Holocaust by the Nazis of 90 percent of Europe’s Jewish population. Marxists argue that these horrors bear out Rosa Luxemburg’s warning of nearly a century ago that the choice facing humanity is socialism or barbarism. But in recent years liberal apologists for capitalism have, with increasing confidence, put forward a counter view. Stalin, they say, was as responsible for as many deaths as Hitler. And Stalin’s policies followed on directly from Lenin’s.

Some right wing historians have carried the argument a stage further. Robert Conquest, for instance, has claimed that Stalin actually killed more people than Hitler (a figure mistakenly accepted by Roy Medvedev). It is only a short step from this to some German nationalist historians who argue that Nazism was a lesser evil than Stalinism. The century’s horrors originate then, not in capitalism, but in misguided attempts to overthrow it. It is an argument many socialists find hard to answer, as they recoil from the way much of the left used to apologise for Stalinism. Yet the argument is fundamentally wrong. The collapse of the USSR has opened up secret police files in Moscow for the first time. This has enabled historians like R.W. Davies (who co-authored some of the later volumes in E.H. Carr’s magnificent A History of Soviet Russia) and the late Alec Nove to initiate the first factually based discussion on exactly what was the death toll in Stalin’s Russia. Their conclusions point to Stalin’s regime being bloody in the extreme. There were 353,000 executions in 1937 and 239,000 in 1938. Over 140,000 people died during the deportation of minority nationalities between 1944 and 1948.

On top of this, the numbers of people in the ‘gulag’ of prisons and labour camps rose from 2.5 million in 1933 to 5.5 million in 1953, with a death rate in the camps of five to nine times that among the free population – implying perhaps two million deaths caused by ill-treatment and neglect over a 25 year period. Finally, the famine that was a result of collectivisation in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan led to up to 5 million further deaths. But the discussion also leads to two other conclusions.

The figures given by Conquest are a gross overstatement. As Davies puts it, ‘We do not yet know with any precision the true figure for deaths from execution, harsh camp conditions and famine during the Stalin years. But the archival data are entirely incompatible with ... very high figures which continue to be cited as firm fact on Russian television and in Russian mass circulation newspapers and which are almost universally treated as proven fact by the Western media.’ There is a huge difference between the scale of repression in the revolutionary period immediately after 1917 and that in the 1930s.

In 1921, the revolutionary regime was still fighting for its life against the remnants of counter-revolutionary armies and murderous plots by Western agents. Yet the total number of executions was fewer than 3 percent of the number in 1937. Similarly, there were 100 times as many people in the camps in 1936 as before 1928-29, when Stalin finally consolidated his rule over the other old Bolsheviks.

Even if you were to conclude that Stalin was as murderous as Hitler, you certainly could not draw the inference that Lenin was in the same league as the two of them. Any thirtyfold increase in a death rate is more than a matter of degree; it is also a difference in kind. But the simple equation of Stalin with Hitler is itself mistaken. Both were murderous and vicious opponents of genuine socialism. But there were still important differences between them. Stalin’s barbarism was a result of his determination to industrialise Russia through the bloody methods used to carry through the industrial revolution in western countries like Britain – the use of force to drive the peasants from the land, the pillaging of the countryside to feed growing cities, the deployment of slave labour, the subjection of national minorities, child labour, the use of terror against those who might resist any of these policies. But he was intent on doing in a couple of decades what had taken 300 years in Britain. The result was a death toll not significantly different from that in, say, Britain but enormously concentrated in time.

So, for instance, the death toll in the labour camps was probably much lower than that of the Atlantic slave trade, but took place over 25 years not 300 years, while the death toll through famine in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan was probably lower than in the famines that resulted from the British pillage of Ireland and India.

The oppression of the national minorities by Stalinism was vicious. A quarter of the Chechens and other nationalities who were deported from the Caucasus to central Asia in 1944-45 died. But this is hardly more vicious than the onslaught of US capitalism against the native American population.

What is more, Stalin’s barbarism against the minorities was not ‘genocide’ in the Nazi sense of the killing of a whole people, right down to the last child and grandchild, because of their alleged ethnic characteristics. This points to the real difference with Hitler. Nazism was a political movement that developed in an already advanced capitalist country. Its barbarism was not just directed at its political enemies or those who opposed its schemes for increased exploitation. It was above all concerned with diverting the frustrations of a middle class hit by economic crisis into a crusade to physically exterminate the whole of Europe’s Jewish population, along with the Gypsies, gays, the mentally handicapped and so on.

Hitler did not merely build labour camps like Stalin’s in which large numbers died from brutality and neglect, but also death factories. The argument is still important. Stalinism itself does not threaten massive barbarism today. Its horrors belong to a past phase of history – at least in the advanced and newly industrialised countries. Nazism, by contrast, returns as a threat every time crisis, unemployment and insecurity increase. And part of the fight against that threat is to remind people of the unparalleled horror of the Holocaust in the face of various ‘revisionist’ attempts to deny or downplay it.

Last updated on 21 December 2009