The Soviet Union is often viewed in the same manner as Nazi Germany in the circles of polite society. Likewise “communism” is often compared to Nazism and Fascism. One of the reasons for this is that in the early 1930s the Soviet Union experienced a series of brutal famines. Specifically the famine in Ukraine in this period has been claimed to be a deliberate act of genocide by the Soviet government against the Ukrainian people, thus being dubbed “Holodomor”. Wikipedia explains “Holodomor is a compound of the Ukrainian words holod meaning “hunger” and mor meaning “plague”. The expression moryty holodom means “to inflict death by hunger””1. In retaliation plenty of Stalinists, seeking to defend the political legacy of the Soviet Union as a model for socialism assert that the Ukrainian famine was not a genocide, and was either caused by weather, or, in some cases, never happened at all. The purpose of this article will be to explain the real nature of the Soviet famines, arguing that instead of being the result of the failures of communism, and instead of being completely natural, or made up conspiracies against the Soviet Union by it’s enemies, that the famines were a product of the Soviet Union as a capitalist society.
The first thing to understand is the Soviet Union is that it was not “communist”, or even a non-capitalist society. The Soviet Union didn’t even refer to itself as “communist”, but “socialist”, and saw communism as a far off future goal. While the Soviet Union’s official and governing ideology claimed that it was socialist, rather than capitalist, it’s system of production and distribution was in no way distinguishable from capitalism. The basic element of capitalist society, that defines what is and is not a capitalist society, is a system of production where all units of production produce things to be sold and where distribution takes place through buying and selling. The state owned firms of the Soviet Union produced, bought, and sold consumer items, raw materials, and means of production. These state firms even competed with one another to generate the most revenue for the state. Capitalism was not eliminated, but placed under state-direction.
The second thing to understand is that the famines were not a deliberate genocide of Ukrainians. The famines affected different parts of Russia, and were an incidental result of policy. At the time Soviet policies were directed toward carrying out industrial and agricultural development, not coming up with ways to eradicate and mass murder Ukrainians for whatever imagined reason. Despite this the famines certainly happened and were certainly not the simple result of bad weather.
The third thing to understand is that capitalism is an exploitative system. This means that in capitalist society one class of people forcefully makes use of the human energy of another for it’s own gain. This is accomplished by a small class of people privately owning resources and forcing the rest to work for it in exchange for money that can buy life sustaining goods such as shelter and food. What this labor produces is extracted as the private property of this class and turned into profit by selling it on the market. In the Soviet Union this capitalist class was the party bureaucracy that controlled the state which owned all production. Now to the famines themselves.
Russia, before the Russian Revolution and up until the time of the famines was underdeveloped economically. The roots of capitalist production had just taken hold in the country primarily through foreign investment by capitalists of other countries. This meant that the majority of the population were a self-sustaining peasantry rather than an exploitable working class with no property, but it’s ability to perform labor. Thus the Russian economy under the new Soviet Union was desperate for peasants to put their product up for sale on the market rather than simply consume it themselves, or horde it for a high price. Thus, once Stalin came to full power within the communist party he carried out a full scale industrial revolution. Deeply involved in this undertaking was complete and forceful expropriation of the peasants. Stalin’s forces in the countryside indiscriminately robbed the peasants blind and tore down their traditional institutions, forcing them into collective farms profited from by the state. This is an example of what Marx called “primitive accumulation”. Marx identified this as an important process in capitalist development.
Marx’s “primitive accumulation” describes the process by which coercion and trickery is used to rob the producer themself of what they produce. In this case the henchmen of the Stalinist state confiscated peasant property and destroyed the peasantry’s subsistence lifestyle. This process is essential for capitalist development because, once again, capitalism requires the exploitation of labor. This kind of naked coercion inevitably has human cost.
The combination the peasants being robbed of their subsistence resources and the ill-thought out implementation of the collectivization process on the part of the Soviet regime lead to famine in different parts of the country. Towards our argument that the famines were of capitalist origin they were kicked off by the extraction of grain for the International market. Millions of people met their ends, starvation ensued and resulted in parents mercy killing their children, consumption of tree bark, and cannibalism. The collective farms that the peasants were forced into ran as capitalist firms (just as all other units of production in the Soviet Union). Thus the collectivizations were the process of transforming the Russian peasants into a working class for labor exploitation. In resisting this “proletarianization” peasants burned crops, slaughtered livestock, and fought with state forces. Despite the fact that such peasants were predominantly middle class, or poor the regime labelled them “kulaks” (rich peasants). This label was applied liberally to any peasants that resisted grain requisition. Resisting peasants were killed, or deported to Siberia. This is reminiscent of a similar process in Europe where developing capitalism kicked peasants off of commonly owned land and punished them with death, or jail for not taking up wage labor jobs in capitalist production. Accordingly the collectivisations destroyed a peasant commune system in Russia called the “mir” in which peasants commonly owned land and organized life communally.
A “communist” society which is communist in more than name would not be one where a ruling class ruthlessly exploits the laboring classes for economic development to the point of famines with massive body counts. A communist society would have no ruling, or exploited class. Labor would be freely carried out and associated to provide for each member of society and thus there would be no reason for a coercive state apparatus in the first place. A really “communist” society would be much more akin to the mir communes than the Soviet Union and it’s collectivization policies. Thus the Soviet famines do not show the failure of “communism”. Despite this they do show the failure of the Soviet regime, not as an alternative to capitalism, or as “socialism”, but as a capitalist society. They show the system modern Stalinists wish to bring back to be just as miserable as any other capitalist set up. Accordingly the Soviet famines should not be put on communism’s rap sheet, but should be laid at the feet of the capitalist system which dominates global society to this day.
2. See Chattopadhyay’s Did The Bolshevik Seizure of Power Inaugurate a Socialist Revolution? for a short discussion of the mir.
The great famine of 1932–3 in Soviet Ukraine: Causes
and consequences, Bohdan Krawchenko
The Road to Terror Stalin and the Self-Destruction
of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939, J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov
State Capitalism: The wages System Under New Management, Adam Buick and John Crump
The So Called “Primitive Accumulation”, Karl Marx