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New Communist Party of Britain

Stalin's ‘crimes’ that saved humanity
by Alfred Browne

My previous article on the achievements of Joseph Stalin – [Architect of the workers' state] – received some criticism, summed up as "what about the other side then?" In reply to one critic, I said I had intended a response to the vilification, the coining of an adjective "Stalinist" to describe all that is bad. In fencing terms I was attempting not a parry but a riposte.

I have now been asked to attempt a parry, an answer to the "other side". Answer to what? One friend listed "show trials of the 30s, purges, famine used as a weapon of terror against peasantry, the gulag, the doctors' plot etcetera, etcetera, etcetera". His etceteras might include the pre-war German-Soviet "pact", the war with Finland and the start of the "Cold War".

My friend is getting on but not old enough to remember how things were in the 30s or earlier, the 20s, when a socialist state, the horror of many doing well in capitalism, had moved from a worrying idea to a reality. It was a threat to pockets, profits and prosperity which must be fought against, all possible allies, no matter how vile, to be welcomed.

IT WAS NOT SO BAD in the 20s, the aftermath of the First World War had seen no more revolutions, a general strike in Britain had been put down, and times were hard in the West but harder in Russia. Even so, plots were invented on the activities of a Soviet trade mission here to nourish the "Bolsheviks under the bed" alarm.

slump

By the 30s things had worsened in all ways. An economic slump, mass unemployment, hunger marches in capitalist countries, increased the fear of socialism. Fascism, as burgeoning idea in the 20s, had become a powerful, growing movement taking on an anti-communist guise in the sure belief that that would ensure its support by powerful but worried people in politics, industry and the press – worried by thoughts of socialism.

In the Soviet Union things had also changed. The 20s had been mainly a period of recuperation after the trials of the civil war and intervention; of recovery in industry and agriculture under Lenin's New Economic Policy, a limited return to capitalist ideas.

There was though, a division of views among party leaders, an ideological split simmering since those days of Stalin's youth in Georgia, between socialists and Economists (or Mensheviks).

The Economists had believed a bourgeois revolution and capitalism must precede a workers' revolution and socialism. Now they believed a single workers', non-capitalist country by itself would not be able to set up a thriving socialist economy. It would need the co-operation of others.

planned

Foremost among these was Trotsky but there were many among the old intellectuals of his way of thinking. Things came to a head with Stalin's idea of planned, rapid industrialisation.

An immediate problem came from an action of the early days of the revolution – the division of land among the whole peasantry.

Politically it succeeded; it got the peasants on the side of the workers. Economically it was disastrous. At once there were problems of getting food to feed the workers, by trade, taxation or requisition. Drought brought a terrible famine in 1921, with 22 million people reported to be starving to death.

Lenin's New Economic Policy was an attempt to solve the problem, by a relaxation of trading regulations and taxation and some encouragement of entrepreneurs.

Despite criticism by some party leaders that NEP was a return to capitalism, it was approved by a party congress at which Stalin spoke in its favour, a congress that saw the beginning of the eclipse of Trotsky.

The problem of the peasantry and the food supplies remained, dividing the party into a rightist group for more leniency in taxation and incentives, and a left for more coercion with collective amalgamation of the farmland.

socialism

In 1924 Stalin first floated the idea of "socialism in one country", the building of a socialist state without waiting for that revolution in more advanced countries which had signally failed to appear, even in defeated Germany.

Support was lacklustre at first but an article in January 1926, in which he dealt with the main obstacles and the need to prepare for a capitalist attack on an industrially weak Soviet Union, secured its endorsement at a party congress of that year.

Later he argued that hopes should not be put in a world revolution following the coming economic slump in the West, which he alone, among world statesmen, correctly forecast. The slump came, brought hunger marches but no revolution.

His most powerful argument for this policy had to wait until 1931 when there was discontent about the speed and pressures of the first five-year plan, which had begun in 1928.

The history of old Russia, he told a workers' conference, was that it was constantly beaten because of its backwardness, by Mongol Khans, Turkish Beys, Swedish feudal lords, Polish-Lithuanian nobles, Anglo-French capitalists and Japanese barons.
behind

"We are 50 to 100 years behind the advanced countries, we must make up this gap in 10 years," he said. "Either we do this or they crush us." How right he was.

He had set up the planning system and trained the planners. But all depended on getting agriculture to pay for the new industry, providing workers and feeding them – and backing trade to pay for imported machinery.

His answer to that was collectivisation and mechanisation, larger more efficient farms with machinery to run them. Under NEP some peasants had prospered, enlarging their holdings: the kulaks. Other had become impoverished.

In bourgeois industrialisation poverty forced farm labourers to become town workers. Would Russian farmers accept the general benefits of socialist collectivisation outweighed any personal upsets? Could they be urged? Should they be coerced?

There can be no doubt, with hindsight, that the benefits did outweigh the upsets. All became richer. Not many saw and welcomed that future though.

Coercion as well as, perhaps rather than, persuasion was needed for the plan to go ahead.

excessive

It cannot be denied that coercion was excessive. Stalin had based his plan on 20 per cent of farms, at the most, being collectivised by 1933, the end of the first five-year plan. By halfway the figure had reached 60 per cent.

Richer peasants, kulaks, who had withheld produce need to feed the towns, to build up their wealth had failed to pay their taxes, had that wealth taken away and were sent to work in new industries.

Poorer peasants, reluctant to hand over their meagre possessions for communal use, not comprehending their own benefits from it, slaughtered livestock by the million.

In March 1930, Pravda, the party newspaper, printed an article by Stalin: "Dizzy from success", a call for restraint on the excessive zeal of party officials in forcible collectivisation. Entry into the new farms must be voluntary.

Peasants seized on that. The proportion of farms collectivised fell from 60 per cent to fewer than 25 per cent in two months. During the summer Stalin fought for his policies, won over left and right at party congress and collectivisation was resumed in the autumn.

No doubt, there was still resistance, still some coercion. Collectivisation was made more acceptable by allowing farm members to retain small personal holdings and to trade privately in produce from them.

By mid 1931 over half the farmland had been collectivised; by 1934 over 90 per cent. The campaign was virtually over, despite another drought year.

vital

Collectivisation made it easier to mechanise agriculture. The slaughter of farm animals by their owners included the killing of horses, half the total. Tractors became vital. In the first year of the plan 30,000 tractors were handed over to farms – more than four times the existing total.

By 1935 Stalin told the party congress that two million farmers had been trained to drive tractors, as many in administration and 110,000 engineers and agronomists sent to the countryside.

There were improved veterinary and other services and irrigation schemes. Later a gigantic planting of shelter belts of trees, unequalled elsewhere in the world, transformed the agricultural climate, making the 1921 type drought a thing of the past.

By the end of the decade grain production had risen by between 30 and 40 million tons a year, equal to an extra pound and a half every day for every man, woman and child. That compares to a mere three to five million tons a year which had been all that it was possible to raise to feed the towns in the early 20s.

Industrially that first five-year plan had been an unquestioned success. Output, which had barely reached pre-war levels by 1927, exceeded it by 113 per cent four and a quarter years later. The only areas where targets were not reached were coal and iron production and there the future was assured by the opening up and linking of two vast new mineral production areas in the Urals and western Siberia.

What about the trials and the purges to come?

That "make up the gap in 10 years or be crushed" policy was making great demands on everyone, workers, peasants and administrators.

Inevitably there were mutterings and unrest, divisions at party congresses.

debates

Always though, Stalin won the support of congress after full debates.

Always he was re-elected to positions of authority. In the time of Lenin he had been the only member of all four main committees – "Who else could do the job?" as Lenin asked.

In the years that followed he had been the only one continually re-elected, whether the party line went to left or right. Debate and election alone decided the course of things.

On 1 December 1934 a new factor emerged: assassination. Sergei Kirov, a close comrade of Stalin since 1918, party leader in Leningrad since 1926, was shot in the back at his headquarters. His assassin was a 30-year-old party member, Nikolaev, who had been expelled but readmitted.

The inquiry that followed identified a group opposed to the intensity of industrialisation and its demands on people, some said to be Nikolaev's accomplices.

After trials some were executed, some imprisoned and some deported to work on Siberian projects.

There had been two previous efforts outside normal party practice to slow the pace of, or abandon the reconstruction — which the party had accepted, on Stalin's arguments as essential – but no action had been taken against the principals.

Now this was to change. Active sabotage of reconstruction was obviously criminal but so also became passive sabotage – attempts to slow the pace, to abandon the catch-up-in-10-years policy. This was at a time when Hitler was marching into the Rhineland, taking over Austria, preparing the assault on Czechoslovakia and preaching a "March to the east" crusade against Bolshevism.

Three trials took the stage, to worldwide publicity. Two of these were groups of politicians: one left-wing group including Zinoviev and Kamenev and one right-wing group including Bukharin, previous Politburo associates of Stalin. The third trial was of army commanders.

convicted

The politicians were convicted partly on their own confessions. Controversy has raged on how genuine they were – but not so much at the time. The Russian people, the diplomatic corps, including the American ambassador and opinion abroad were convinced the verdicts were correct.

As for the generals, whose contacts with German counterparts had gone on since 1923 and the Treaty of Rapallo between the Soviet Union and a then friendly Germany, their fellows accepted that a coup d’état had been planned.

They were executed for what was accepted as treason. Others opposing the national policy were sent to labour camps to work on industrial projects. It is ironic that when these were introduced in the 20s for the rehabilitation of prisoners by worthwhile work, at trade union rates, rather than sewing mail bags or breaking rocks, there were hailed by penologists as a great advance in prison reform.

How many suffered for other to benefit eventually by Stalin's policies? How many benefited? Unfortunately there are no absolutes in good and bad. All is comparative. All that can be hoped for in the greater good of the greater number.

What are the arguments against Stalin's policies?

suffered

Who suffered? Large numbers are bandied around. Twenty million dead say some veteran anti-Soviet writers, as many or more than would die of natural causes in that decade, nearer half decade.

Surely some of those foreign observers would have noticed. Millions in the gulag camps? Even Trotsky with his network of informants, put it lower: thousands dead, tens of thousands imprisoned.

Who benefited? The Soviet people as a whole. Stalin and most of the party believed that a change of policy, a slackening of the pace, would be disastrous. History supports that. In the end it was a very close run thing. That unparalleled increase in industrial strength proved only just sufficient to ward off attack when it came.

benefited

Who benefited? Not just the Soviet people, the whole of Europe, including us. In the summer of 1940 we like to say we stood alone. Not quite alone because to the east of Germany stood what Hitler saw as the one remaining obstacle to his mastery of Europe, despite that supposed pact.

We were no menace in Hitler's eyes. The Soviet Union was. We had lost an army at Dunkirk. Many soldiers escaped but their weapons were lost.

British troops would later hold the Germans at bay for a time in Greece and drive their expeditionary force out of north Africa but it would be four years before enough were replaced for Churchill to feel like directly taking on part of the German Wehrmacht with American assistance.

invasion

We who lived then thought invasion was inevitable in 1940. It did not come. Hitler left Goering and Raeder, his Luftwaffe and navy chiefs to play the threat of invasion while he worked out his real plans for the Balkans and Russia.

So it can be argued, Stalin saved us in 1940.