Don’t Dismiss Marxist History

A Response to Lawrence Bush‘s “Our Communist Past” (Autumn 2010 issue)

by Bob Cartwright

Bob Cartwright is a math teacher and veteran community organizer whose travels have taken him to Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Eastern Europe, Turkey, and numerous other lands.

I write neither as a red-diaper baby nor as a Jew. I am, however, one who has been a subscriber to Jewish Currents for most of the last three decades. I have been politically active for most of my life, yet I was never attracted to either the CPUSA or any of the alternative communist parties or pre-party formations largely because of my perception that they were dogmatic and stultifying and often simply wrong about major issues. I write, instead, as a descendant of serfs who somehow evaded the rather conservative political and social viewpoints of his parents and rebelled against their otherworldly religious beliefs. My parents were uneducated and uncultured, knowing little of liberal cosmopolitan life, let alone of socialist or communist thought. My mother was forced to quit school in 9th grade and follow her family into the factories of Passaic NJ.

I’d like to address two points made by Lawrence Bush in his article, “Our Communist Past” — first his use of numbers, and second his counterposition of Marxism and religion, specifically the questions of science and how we learn.

Rather than tossing Marxism away completely, can we not consider the possibility that we can actually learn from the Marxist-influenced attempts at socialism/communism that have been made during the last century in a way similar to the way that we can learn from the previous attempts at bringing about socialism/communism based on one’s spirituality and morals? Didn’t capitalists study the failures of early capitalist societies in order to learn how to bring about the future that they desired?

I have always been fascinated by numbers and thus became a mathematician and then a math teacher. In reading the piece by Mr. Bush, I wondered where the numbers come from and how responsibility was being allocated. Millions killed in purges. Other millions of deaths being laid at the feet of the Russian Communist Party rather than being blamed on the reactionary Ukrainian farmers who refused to provide food to the workers in the cities and then claimed to be persecuted by the bad bad communists who dared to take their grain to feed the starving folks in the cities. Somehow the fact that there was a rather organized counter-revolutionary campaign of sabotage taking place is dropped from the discussion. Such facts are not meant to excuse the steps taken, the methods used, but they are clearly necessary to remember if we are to learn anything from the period instead of merely concluding that socialism/communism is bad as the capitalists would wish us to believe.

And then there are the larger number of millions whose deaths are supposedly counted and then blamed on Mao because he was so horrible as to want to look for an alternative means of industrial development in China. Should we accept the capitalists’ status quo premise that trying something new must be successful immediately or one will be flogged in one’s grave for the failure?

I wondered how many of these numbers were concocted by the CIA, Voice of America and other such departments and bureaus? When I was married, my father-in-law, (a man who claimed that he was a former, but not current, CIA disinformation specialist) explained to me how important his training in both economics and psychology at Yale was to his success in planting news stories through Voice of America and Radio Free Europe that would then be dutifully reported as news by the New York Times and the rest of the media in the US and in fact throughout the world. His job was to interview/interrogate people who had migrated from the Soviet block to the West. Then he was to look for any glimmer of negative fact that could be turned into a “news” story that would be beamed into Eastern Europe as well as circulate through the West. The method was to find some kernel of truth that would be wrapped in horrendous and inflammatory claims.

He was clearly not alone. One can easily find other examples of the drivel produced during the last century by literally thousands of pro-capitalist academics, “foundations”, politicians and journalists, each one trying to outdo the others with tales of the cruelty if not insanity of every and all aspects of socialism/communism. Was it a thousand who died of hunger during the 1950s in China? Why not a million? I’ll up you to 20 million? And I’ll go further and say 40 million. Some go even further. Accusations that Mao refused to brush his teeth or bathe but had virgins imported from the countryside for group sex with him. The list goes on. And on. And on.

When one traces the history of fantastic criticisms of the Soviet Union one finds that the original source for much of what is repeated is the book The Great Terror by Robert Conquest, accompanied by his other works. It might pay to take a look at the man’s background. After getting involved in the 1940s with an anti-communist Bulgarian woman whom he helped “escape” to the West, he returned to Britain, divorced his wife, married the Bulgarian woman only to discover some time later that she suffered from schizophrenia which brought about a divorce. He then joined a unit of the British Foreign office, the Information Research Department (IRD), which was created to actively promote anti-communist ideas by forging relationships with journalists and other influential people. He eventually became a free lance writer getting his books published by a company with a strong relationship to the CIA, which published books at their request.

Conquest is also seemingly the originator or at least grand propagator of the idea that Stalinism was a logical consequence of Marxism-Leninism, rather than an aberration from “true” communism. He argued the point for decades accusing those who disagreed with him of being “communist dupes”. He was referring to people like Bertol Brecht, George Bernard Shaw, and Jean-Paul Sartre. They were all apologists for Stalinism in his eyes and in his arguments.

Conquest’s numbers, as well as those from other similar sources, are refuted by perhaps the best scholarly work on the subject: Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence, authored by J. Arch Getty, Gábor T. Rittersporn and Viktor N. Zemskov, and published in the American Historical Review in 1993. Their data shows a Gulag population in the Soviet Union at its peak that was less than the current prison population in the USA. The bulk of those incarcerated were petty criminals rather than people repressed for political reasons. I do not mean to justify or exonerate those responsible. But clearly, the information needs to be put into a context where meaningful comparisons between social systems and transitions from one social system to another can be analyzed.

Similarly, while the number of executions in the Soviet Union during the 1930s was clearly horrendous, the numbers are a tiny fraction of those circulated by academics, journalists and others involved in trying to convince Americans and others of the evils of communism.

Many of the “facts” and “statistics” about the Soviet Union and China have been “reported” in the country’s paper of record – the New York Times. Their veracity must be tempered additionally by our knowledge of any of recent examples of NYT propaganda like that regarding the justifications for the giveaway of trillions of our tax dollars to the rich since late 2008, or the series of lies published as front-page stories to justify (or should I say rationalize) the invasion of Iraq, or the fear generated to justify the tremendous benefits accruing to managers and owners of corporations making profits from weapons, ‘security devices’ and the like, officers in the military making huge salaries and the enormous numbers of military retirees whose pensions go unthreatened at the same time that those of teachers and public workers are under attack.

If one is to try to honestly evaluate economic systems like communism and capitalism and reach conclusions not only about which one is preferred but also about which one deserves to be put into the dustbin of history, one must put forward facts regarding each. It is not reasonable to put forth dramatic numbers regarding supposed numbers of dead “caused” by communism not only in an unquestioned manner but to then make derogatory remarks about those who do question them by equating any challenge to the numbers as the equivalent of “Holocaust denial” especially when the largest part of one’s audience are Jews. Ironically, Holocaust deniers are amongst those who engage in exaggerations and at times fabrications of communist atrocities in order to further their belief in the justness of Nazi actions to ‘save’ Europe from the Bolshevik hordes. Even mainstream professors like Norman Davies use exaggerations and fabrications of communist atrocities to “explain” why the Nazis took the actions that they did.

But even if one were to believe every statistic of deaths due to communism ever promulgated by the Rush Limbaugh and Joe McCarthy’s of the world, the number is small compared to the deaths caused by the alternative system – capitalism. Take about two million Iraqi deaths due to the American invasions, bombardments and occupation of the last 20 years. Deaths caused by policies put forth by both Democrats and Republicans. Add the five million Vietnamese killed just during the American part of the war against those people. Add in the deaths in Cambodia and surrounding countries that were simply collateral damage of the American war against the Vietnamese. Add in the 50 million killed by capitalist countries during WWII Including almost 30 million dead communists. Toss in another 15-20 million killed by capitalist governments during WWI (and supported by the socialist non-communist parties of Western Europe). Add in some number of millions killed in Africa by pro-capitalist armies.

In America (whose revolution Mr. Bush praises), there is a legacy of millions of Africans killed, probably tens of millions of Native Americans killed – and the killing hasn’t stopped, it’s merely been exported in much the same way as working class jobs have.

Since Mr. Bush counts anyone who may have died of famine during communist regimes as a victim of communism, we should then add in all those who have died of starvation and disease under capitalist regimes. Here the counting gets difficult and more and more unbelievable as we get closer to the truth. Nevertheless, the numbers range upwards from the low hundreds of millions. We should include the millions of Russians who have died of starvation and disease since capitalism was restored
twenty years ago.

Even if one were to ignore 90% of these capitalist-caused deaths, the numbers would still dwarf those put forward by the most rabid pro-capitalist talk show host.

None of this exonerates Stalin or anyone else. But if one is to try to come to a conclusion about the relative merits (or demerits) of Marxism, communism, socialism, revolution, capitalism, etc. the numbers ought to at least be compared.

Next we should consider the hope lost, promises broken, people manipulated, untreated sicknesses, women going blind, children killed, people tortured, repressive laws enacted, ecosystems destroyed – all of which are the necessary by-products of the continuation of capitalism in both its fiercely competitive American mode, its “nicer” European mode, and its utterly horrendous “rest of the world” mode including what could be referred to as its new fascist Chinese mode.

Those of my generation (I’m 62) have lived our whole lives being exposed to the continual propaganda emanating from the TV, radio, film industry, print media and now the new media, laying a groundwork, building a framework such that all claims of crimes against humanity by any and all of the actually existing socialist states seem believable. As one right-wing fanatic made an allegation that the next fanatic felt compelled to outdo, and the next one decided to up the ante even more, Reagan’s nightmare of the “evil empire” became more and more accepted as fact rather than the rhetorical excess of a corporate shill remembered best for trying to get women to put 20 Mule Team Borax into their washing machines. (Ironically that job is now done by Linda Cobb, the great-granddaughter of baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb.)

I’m currently reading a book on the history of a city — Wroclaw, formerly named Breslau. In the chapter on the Nazis coming to power and the discussion of crystal night, the Nuremberg laws, the Nazis killing off the socialists in their party as well as the executions of the members of the SA that had brought them to power, the author, a respected British historian, launches into a diatribe against communism, claiming that the atrocities of the Nazis are dwarfed by those committed by the Russians and unbelievably excusing the Nazis behavior by saying that they were ‘afraid’ of communism! Davies routinely documents the tiniest historical detail but suddenly grows silent about documenting any supposed communist transgressions. He evidently knows that Western readers never require any documentation – anti communist statements are just accepted no matter how outlandish.

Writers compound the difficulties in understanding communist societies by routinely calling housing “drab,” workers “dour,” bureaucrats “rigid,” etc. We are left to fill in the blanks that housing in the West is always colorful, workers are always smiling and happy and bureaucrats are always flexible and at our service.

In my humble opinion, we should instead 1) acknowledge the problems, mistakes, outrages, murders, torture and all the rest that has been done by socialists and communists. 2) put it into some sort of context, not as the relatives of Mr. Bush or anyone else did to excuse or ignore the actions but instead to try to understand the problems that communists and socialists faced so that they can be dealt with in a more humane way in the future.

It is perhaps too easy to be lulled into an anti-intellectual stupor after being exposed to the anti-communism that is one of the central core beliefs propagandized endlessly for the last 150 years by the capitalist media reaching a crescendo during the last few decades. If we are to learn anything from the history of the first attempts at building socialism, should we not at least consider whether or not there was an ongoing class warfare AFTER the 1917 Russian Revolution? Did all the capitalists simply give up in 1917? Never to be heard from again? Given our experience in this country with how viciously capitalists are willing to wage war against the rest of the human race, should we not at least consider that they may have been doing the same thing the day after the 1917 Russian Revolution? If they were, might that not be something that we have to consider in analyzing the events of the ensuing decades?

Similarly, are we to assume that there really were not kulaks simply because the capitalist press always puts the word “kulak” in quotes in order to make it seem that it was a fanciful concoction of self-justifying bolsheviks? If there were kulaks, is it so hard to believe that they engaged in class warfare vs. the urban working class? That having control over a country’s food supply is nothing to contend with?

Finally, what does one do when confronted with those who not only disagree with policy but aggressively and violently try to interfere? (We clearly have the experience of capitalists waging war against non-violent folks who disagree with this or that policy.) I think it’s important to realize that revolution releases the restraints on all types of people, be they merely free spirits or actually sociopaths. What proportion of the population do we think will take up arms against a successful revolution? 1%? 5%? More? Less? Do we think that capitalist journalists will speak honestly of these struggles? Or will they take every little tidbit of information and turn it into an attack on the whole revolutionary edifice? What does our knowledge of the last 50 years tell us about possible answers to these questions?

If today the reporting on red states vs blue states, demonized Republicans vs. demonized Democrats has caused at least some of us to give pause to OUR futures living in this country, does that not possibly tell us something about the level of struggle in a post-revolutionary society where the traditional social restraints have broken down?

Like it or not, the Soviet Union was under attack for 70 years. There were Soviet citizens who fought tooth and nail against the revolution and who did commit treason in allying themselves with the capitalist invaders. (What was it 20 countries that invaded Russia in 1918-9?) That really did make communists worried about the future of the revolution. Did the communists make the best decisions? No! But if we are to progress as a species (which I have my doubts about), similar problems will be faced in the future and hopefully there will be enough folks who will study the past and try to learn from it rather than throwing the baby out with the dirty bath water (to use a rather old and worn out communist expression).

The transition from Roman empire to medieval feudalism involved centuries of struggle, wars, cruelty against non-conformists whether they be early Christians refusing to pay homage to pagan gods, supposed “heretics” who disagreed with one aspect or another of the predominant Christian rulers, or Jews persecuted throughout the centuries.

The transition from feudalism to capitalism involved a few more centuries of seemingly unbounded cruelty, purges, wars, including a hundred years of cruel warfare eventually overthrowing the hegemony of Rome in the Christian world as a necessary condition for the economic development and the rise of the bourgeois. (It should be noted that the bulk of the investment capital of the bourgeois initially came voluntarily from the large landowners of feudal society and thus the conflict between the two systems was attenuated. This clearly bears little or no similarity to the transition from capitalism to socialism.)

Cruelty, deaths, stupidity, short-sightedness, infighting and all the rest are not at all unique to communists and socialists. The faults, problems and atrocities that Mr. Bush refers to have permeated all of human history as well as the transitions between epochs. So what else is new?

The clash between our hopes and ideals and the realities of being human can be quite depressing. Can lead to paralysis. Hopelessness. But it should not cause us to go backwards. Capitalism is no better now than it was 150 years ago. A difference is that the most abused are generally out of sight, usually in a far off country.

Today capitalism reigns supreme. Perhaps we will have a few decades or centuries to focus again (as some of our parents and grandparents did) on the atrocities of the hegemonic system. And maybe then, a new beginning.

It is rather ironic that Mr. Bush would have us discard Marxism to be replaced by socialism based on religious principles and spirituality. Ironic because Marxism was founded on a rather complete criticism of the failure of the often religiously based utopian socialism that Mr. Bush espouses.

To criticize Marxism because of its claim to be scientific demonstrates a lack of knowledge about “science”, Marxism, and their alternatives. The basic premise of any science (including scientific socialism) is that statements can be proved false. If you cannot show that a statement can possibly be false, then it is not a science. For example, creationism, which is merely religion in disguise. It is not possible, in the eyes of believers, to show that a god did NOT create the world. They BELIEVE that they are right and that’s that.

This was the essential conflict during the early modern period, between a religious establishment (one part of which actually directly claimed in 1870 that it was incapable of error) and a developing scientific method where ideas could be tested and then changed.

Prior to Marx, socialists based their views on morals, religion, spirituality. Their ideas were incapable of analysis. Could not be proved false.

The development made by Marx was to put the concept of socialism on a solid footing, allowing for errors, mistakes and incorrect analysis. This is not to say that all or even a majority of Marxists do the same. Romantic dogmatism seems to be a genetic pre-disposition amongst progressives.

It is, however, true that those who made use of his work often transformed his ideas into an approximation of religious beliefs. They did it by essentially eliminating the possibility of falsification, that is demonstrating that this or that idea was wrong. The irony of Mr. Bush’s critique is that he chooses to follow the same path as the parents and grandparents he rightfully criticizes. Replacing a distorted Marxism that imitated religious finality with the religious-based finality without the Marxism?

We must also deal with the fact that when we speak of communists in the U.S, we are dealing with a very special breed indeed. The heyday recruiting by the communist party was the middle to late 1930s. To me, it is a rather large question as to whether I would call the CPUSA of that era “communist” at all. It was not a party primarily based on the working class. It was not a party whose main purpose was advocating for socialism. It was not a party whose primary purpose was leading the working class in autonomous organizations. And it was clearly subservient to a Stalinized Soviet Union.

Instead, for the bulk of that time period it was a party that saw itself as the left wing of a larger anti-fascist coalition. It supported the capitalist Democratic Party in elections (and it still does to this day.) Its dalliance with unions with (few exceptions) amounted to following the precepts of the Roosevelt administration, acquiescing in the limits imposed by that capitalist government. So for example, the no-strike pledge during WWII, abiding by the Roosevelt administration’s strictures against sit-down strikes (after the 1937 strikes), generally no secondary boycotts, appealing to the courts rather than worker power, an utter refusal to use the general strike as a weapon (as the Trotskyists did), general support for the capitalist war, support for an unfair social benefits regime destined to an initial delay of benefits and later failure due to undemocratic taxation, and unending attacks on the few independent working class forces that DID attempt to fight against the capitalist Roosevelt administration.

Thus, one’s experience with family and friends who self-identified as “communists” must be tempered. These folks were mild reformers at best, often self-deluded into thinking that they were the leaders of a revolutionary working class. These were generally folks who joined an organization that was explicitly anti-fascist and thus worthy of emulation and support on that basis but having little to do with socialism, communism or revolution. Left liberal might be a more accurate term.

Like it or not, any future progressive movement will face questions as difficult as those faced by the Chinese, Russians, Cubans and others. How on earth can we be better prepared to answer them? We simply don’t have the choice of making believe that they will never arise again.

There are examples of people who have tried to analyze attempts at communism without resort to dogmatism, without trying to defend the indefensible, without blindly following the ideas of folks just because they disagreed with Stalin (e.g. Trotsky). One who comes to mind is Charles Bettelheim, author of a massive analysis of the history of the Soviet Union.

Any progressive change will confront reaction. There are those who will fight tooth and nail to protect their privilege. The specifics of the conflict are impossible to discern, but the conflict will inevitably occur – UNLESS one BELIEVES that those rich folks will somehow find religion and give up peacefully. I, for one, cannot see that as a possibility.

We can see the broad outlines of the future but no more. Living standards for the bulk of the population will go down as will those in Western Europe. India and China will show more consumerism accompanied by an intensification of the work day. Struggles will develop not over virtual realities like the exchange rate between the Chinese and American currencies, but instead, over the real realities of resources especially oil and what are called “rare earth metals” needed for a variety of industrial processes. Given the sustained bellicosity of the U.S. over the last 150 years, war is inevitable. It may be 10 years from now or 200. Impossible to predict.

As Americans we must come to grips with the fact that the impact of this country on those in other countries differs only in magnitude from that of Nazi Germany. Wars and threats of invasions have become routine replacing any traditional notion of diplomacy. So far, we can count those killed directly by the US military in the single digit millions. That is likely to change for the worse given the propensity of American progressives (including both current and former communists) to look for the nuances between Democrats and Republicans rather than see that they all generally support the grotesque obscene amounts of military spending and outrageous conduct toward the rest of the world. This group used to be called “cold war liberals”. Now it includes just about the whole politically involved portion of the population. Only those who have dropped out politically are exempt from blame.

Day by day our civil liberties are eroded by Democrats that most progressives helped put into power. The Obama regime consistently sides with the most reactionary Republicans on civil liberties issues. Recently, for example, the regime sided with police who decided to enter a home without a warrant by knocking down the door because they ‘smelled’ marijuana. The Obama regime claims that an emergency existed to justify the action!! The economic structure of the society including bailouts of the rich, privatization of education, transfer of income to the rich through changes in taxation, and cuts in social benefits have not slowed under the Democrats, they’ve intensified. Progressives must face up to the fact that they are utterly powerless today and no repetition of past behavior is likely to change that. [See William Grieder’s recent piece for confirmation from an unlikely source.] Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is when one does the same thing over and over but expects different results.

No amount of faith, spirituality or studying the problems and solutions from two millennia ago is likely to help bring about a halt to the downward spiral that is America today. On the other hand, analysis, debate, synthesis based on testing ideas in the crucible of experience (to borrow another old CP phrase) may offer a way out. But we must begin.

Thus, to say that we are going to get rid of Marx and replace his ideas with a religious or spiritual basis means to deny us the ability (or perhaps the right) to use scientific methods to discern truth from falsehood.

It’s sort of ironic that Mr. Bush would pin his hopes on religious impulses as a source for the energy necessary to bring about dramatic social change because from the beginnings of capitalism, religious feelings have been used to stir people up against workers demanding their rights. It’s happened against simple trade unions, against socialists and against communists. To my knowledge there is only one instance where religion has been used for positive purposes and that is Venezuela under Chavez, and it has been roundly criticized by defenders of the capitalist road (essentially all American politicians and the Zionist right) and attacked, including a coup attempt orchestrated by the U.S. government about 8 years ago.

Given the facts that progressive change will not come everywhere at the same time and that it is inevitable that progressive change necessarily means that some in our society will lose power and privilege and will fight by any and all means to preserve them, how does a new type of society protect and defend itself from attacks that will be both physical and ideological? The first attempts at both socialism and communism failed miserably in doing so. Can we not learn anything that might be useful in the future to the generation that succeeds in the next attempt at creating a progressive society?

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Comments (5)

  1. Well said, Bob Cartwright.

    OK! I was a Communist dupe! So I fell for the CPUSA, changed my job, tried to organise the working class. Then it was Henry Wallace followed by Ralph Nader. My first mainstream presidential vote was for Lyndon, 1964. And now Obama!

    In my dwindling years, I finally see the futility of half-assed political decisions.

    So, Cartwright’s arguments resonate with me. That’s what I think we need.

  2. The piece has value only to the extent that it shifts the “blame” to “the other side.” But it is raather a poorly written and dated exposition: All the emphasis on Bush, whose influence was never great and who is no longer in a position of power or influence! Commits the same errors of exaggeration of numbers that, he says, have been committed by myriad sources, starting, perhaps, with Robert Conquest. Seemingly purported to be a treatise in social science, the author shows he is no social scientist by his lack of rigor and lack of specific citations drawn from specific sources he alleges have committed the egregious errors.

    Thanks for posting, to get the discussion going.

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