The Capitalist Nature of The Soviet Famines

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.

Notes:

1.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodomor

2. See Chattopadhyay’s Did The Bolshevik Seizure of Power Inaugurate a Socialist Revolution? for a short discussion of the mir.

Bibliography:

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

 

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4 thoughts on “The Capitalist Nature of The Soviet Famines

  1. Hey, I read this article on Libcom.org and really liked it.

    Do you feel like it’s a fair assessment that peasants resisted collectivization the state was putting unfair demands on them and enforcing these demands through extremely brutal means?

    This is how I basically view the situation but I’m worried that as someone who thinks the USSR was an authoritarian state-capitalist regime I might be interpreting it this way for ideologically convenient reasons and not because it has any basis in fact.

    I’m worried that maybe peasants opposed collectivization because they were wealthier than average and didn’t want to give up any of their wealth to help poorer workers and peasants.

    This is obviously the argument that a lot of stalinists make. But I’m actually more concerned about how it’s a view that I think is implicitly shared by anti-communists who basically say that if you try to have a more equal society then people will die.

    Therefore this latter scenario is concerning to me because as a libertarian-communist it makes sense to me that the wealthier peasants should have shared some of their wealth or land to help less fortunate peasants and workers, especially during that time period where apparently there was signficant food shortages.

    But what if the peasants refused to do this and stopped producing and destroyed their crops and livestock because they didn’t want poor peasants and workers to have them? How would you go about trying to get peasants to give up their wealth without it leading to further food shortages?

    I’ve tried reading a lot on this subject but I find it all really confusing and I can’t get a clear picture if peasants typically had a similar standard of living and work conditions compared to other workers.

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    1. Hey, It’s really nice to see that people are reading these articles on libcom. Haven’t gotten much reception, good, bad, or indifferent from the libcom.org posters when I’ve posted my articles there recently. That out of the way, here is my best reply to your questions:

      It’s readily apparent that the Soviet state used brutal measures to carry out collectivization. Stalin’s forces went out into the countryside, destroyed the subsistence based lives of the peasants, forced them into collectives, took all of their personal wealth, and in some cases the Stalin forces became murderous (though this was a marginal “out of control” tenancy that was reigned in by Moscow). The problem that produced the collectivizations and ultimately famines was that the peasants weren’t selling their product on the market (forcing them to do so was the policy of “War Communism” during the civil war). The quick and easy solution for Stalin who at this point wanted rapid industrialization and economic development was violently breaking the independence and power of the peasants as a class (as was common practice in the agricultural transition to capitalism). I didn’t touch very much on the claim about “kulak” rich peasants hording their wealth for themselves in the article, but as said in it this claim was simply an ideological invention. By this time “dekulakization” had eliminated the kulaks as a class. Those who resisted collectivization were either middle class, or poor peasants. The regime leveled the charge of “kulak” at anyone who resisted grain quotas. This is further explained in the article “Causes and Consequences” cited in the bibliography of my piece. I will be able to provide PDFs of any of the source material referenced in the bibliography of my article.

      In terms of how you get self-sufficient peasants to participate in social transformation the Spanish Anarchists were instructive in this regard. While those who could work a small plot of land without any support from the rest of the peasants and their system were allowed to do so many of the small landowners voluntarily joined collectives. This was even the case when war demands made it so the collectives had to ask more from these voluntary collectivists. This was accomplished by the social movement of peasants themselves in pushing for collectivization. If the peasants in question are rich peasants who employ others on their land (kulaks) then they should simply be expropriated by the peasant/worker movement for common ownership of land.

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      1. Hopefully people will come across your articles and read them! I’m glad they’re there because libcom.org is such a good resource. I was able to find the PDFs of the texts in your footnotes and have been looking through them. The article by Bohdan Krawchenko is really helpful but I still am a bit confused.

        Do you feel the typical peasant had a similar level of wealth compared to the typical worker? I wish I could find some sort of comparison between peasant income vs. worker income, but it seems almost impossible to find.

        I’ve always thought that peasants and workers should be natural allies, producing for each other’s mutual benefit and distributing according to need. I don’t see why they couldn’t have done what the anarchists did in Spain with voluntary collectivization. Even one of the demands of the Kronstadt Rebellion was to basically do the same thing where peasants could form cooperatives or just farm the land so long as they didn’t use wage labour. This is also what the peasants were trying to accomplish during the revolution. I’ve also read that peasant communes were typically (although not always) fairly egalitarian- A lot of the communes would distribute land based on the number of workers and mouths to feed. It also seems that in Russia (as well as Spain) land repartition was done more or less non-violently and didn’t lead to famine when the peasants’ were the ones in charge of it.

        The only way it makes sense to me that there could potentially be a conflict is that if in the USSR the majority middle peasants were materially wealthier than the typical worker (and also poor peasants) and didn’t want to share their products in an egalitarian way. If these middle peasants were self-reliant enough it may have been possible for them to withhold their products unless workers and poor peasants purchased them at inflated costs. The workers and poor peasants wouldn’t be able to boycott them back since the middle peasants didn’t need their products to survive.

        I don’t know how likely a situation like this is because you’d think if the city workers had no capacity to produce anything useful for the farmers they could still move to the countryside and help the peasants farm. Even the peasants were wealthier I don’t think they would gain by just having starving workers in the cities.

        I also don’t think that just because one group of people is wealthier than another that this means their interests are in conflict- for example many striking auto-workers or teachers would likely support an increase in pay for fast-food workers and support for homeless people and the unemployed.

        But if the middle peasants were wealthier than the workers it at least makes the theory that they were against helping workers and poor peasants more plausible. In mainstream accounts I’ve read like Robert Conquest peasant resistance was one of the factors that contributed to the famines.

        I think this is a problem for me as a libertarian-communist because it makes sense to me that richer peasants should have shared some of their land, food or means of production with poor peasants and workers, especially if there were food shortages like there were just before collectivization.

        On the other hand if middle peasants had a similar level of wealth as a worker did then there would be no question that the peasants were being exploited for capitalist profit. The scapegoating of the peasants in that case may have been a bit similar to the scapegoating of immigrants and minorities we see today.

        So many of the accounts I’ve read like Robert Conquest seem to contradict themselves, switching between arguing that the stalinist state was trying to help poor peasants, middle peasants and workers at the expense of wealthy peasants (I think implying that seeking equality was to blame for the famines) while other times pointing out that poor and middle peasants were the primary victims and that there was barely any inequality in the countryside.

        In most of the anarchist texts I read like Voline, Berkman, Goldman, etc. they seem to view the peasants as being basically equal with the workers but they never seem to give any sources for this.

        In the Bohdan Krawchenko article he mentions that the poor and middle peasants were the leaders of the resistance however he doesn’t mention how their wealth compared to that of workers.

        I also like to read council-communist writings and they seem to go back and forth when talking about the peasants. In Western Europe they seemed to think that peasant and worker councils would work together. Meanwhile they also seemed to think that one of the main reasons for the failure in Russia was the fact that peasants inevitably had opposing class interests to the proletariat and that this conflict had no solution. This is despite at the same time sympathizing with the peasants for being really poor at least before the revolution and condemning Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin as monsters. The council-communist viewpoint really disturbs me because they don’t provide an alternative of what could have been done differently- to them the revolution was doomed to fail, even though they didn’t let that get in the way of them hating bolsheviks.

        I’ve believe that pretty much all the suffering that occurred in so-called “communist” countries happened because they were actually very unequal, unfree, and undemocratic societies. However sometimes I worry that it might have been more complicated than that. I don’t know, I guess I just want to be certain that those things never happen again and also because I want to be able to have a response to people who have genuine concerns that trying to make our world a better place will only make things worse.

        Anyway, thanks for reading and sorry for basically repeating myself lol.

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      2. Personally I don’t know the exact level of wealth for the peasants as compared with that of the workers in the cities. It probably varied between poor and middle peasants. It sounds like something worth looking into. The thing with Marxists about peasants is that they tend to believe that peasants are included in the social stratum of the aspiring, or small bourgeoisie.

        Marxists believe this because peasants generally control their own tools, or even their own land which allows them to make a self-sufficient living. This is in contrast to workers who own nothing, but their ability to work. The problem with this view as I see it is that regardless of peasant self-sufficiency where they exist they are often exploited as a subordinate class under the vestiges of feudal class structure. To take Russia as an example under the Czarist regime a feudal, landed nobility remained that exploited the peasantry.

        The fact that the remaining peasants and the existing, or burgeoning working class form, together, the exploited and subjugated classes in such situations, in my view, means they are class allies. This is how events unfolded in Russia. Despite the fact that at the time of the Revolution and for a significant period after word the country was majority peasant, the workers and peasants joined forces, specifically in the soviet councils of workers and soldiers, to carry out the goals of the revolution. Once the Bolsheviks started viewing the peasantry as an obstacle to economic development they erected capitalist mechanisms of exploitation against them. This is part of what lead to the death of the Russian Revolution, at least in my opinion.

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