To start off our interview, we asked Professor Furr to give his definition of words typically used to describe the 1930s Soviet Union. Words like “totalitarianism,” “Stalinism,” “dictator,” “terror,” “the GULAG,” “democracy,” and “socialism.”
These are among the key words used by people, whether scholars, the media, or elsewhere, to falsify the history of the Soviet Union during the Stalin period – that is, to slander it in one way or another, and also to avoid the issue of evidence about specific incidents or details. So I am going to ask you to give me these words one at a time. But I’m going to start with “totalitarian.”
The word “totalitarian,” if you look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), has been used to mean a number of things: the Christian religion, total warfare. But it is really used to try to make Stalin like Hitler, the Soviet Union like Nazi Germany, and communism like fascism. And it turns out that it was Leon Trotsky who first used the word “totalitarian” to apply to the Soviet Union. It had previously only been applied to fascist Italy, and to some extent to Nazi Germany.
Now, “totalitarian” really has no fixed meaning. The OED is pretty clear about that. It can mean a one-party state. But when we get to the issue of democracy, there’s a good case to be made that we have one-party state “democracies” anyway. In class societies, all parties serve the ruling class. So, it’s both a non-class way of discussing politics, and a way of making the Soviet Union sound like fascism by using the same term for both. So that’s totalitarianism.
And it’s true that Trotsky was the first to do this. I know this because the latest multi-volume biography of Trotsky, which is only in Russian, is by Yuri Fel’shtinsky and Georgi Cherniavsky, and they state in their final volume that Trotsky was the first to use “totalitarian” to apply to the Soviet Union during the Stalin period, during the 1930s. And in general, a lot of the anticommunist tropes that are directed at the Soviet Union in the Stalin period originate with Trotsky.
Stalinism: Again, “Stalinist” is a word that’s first used by the Trotskyist movement. I’m not sure whether it’s first used by Trotsky himself. It originates in the 1920s. Again, in the OED the first citation of that word in English is used to describe the Opposition demonstration in November, 1927 – the Oppositionists, led by Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and some others, had a demonstration against the official celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. And that’s the first time that that word appears in English. But it’s used in the ‘20s by the Oppositionists, particularly by the Trotskyists.
And of course, the term “Trotskyist” is also used. The term “Trotskyist” was actually first used by Lenin. “Stalinist” is used essentially as a word that has no fixed meaning, other than something very vague and negative. For example, it assumes – falsely – that Stalin was a dictator. But there is a lot of evidence that Stalin was not a dictator, and no evidence that he was a dictator. But the term “dictator” too is routinely falsely applied by falsifiers of history, or by people who don’t know any better, to Stalin, as though, somehow or other, it requires no proof, no demonstration. In fact, it does.
In 2004, Stephen Wheatcroft, who is a very prominent, mainstream historian of the Soviet Union of this period, actually published an article in which he describes Stalin’s method of political leadership in the 1930s as “Team Stalin.” That is, Stalin worked collectively. And in my most recent book, Stalin Waiting for … the Truth, I give some examples of this, some examples from the former Soviet archives. Stalin did not, in fact, “dictate” things to anybody. Wheatcroft goes on to say that in the post-WW2 period Stalin became a “tyrant,” but it’s interesting that he simply states this in the last two sentences of his article without giving any examples. One might assume that Wheatcroft does this in order to get his article published at all. Because to simply say that Stalin was not a dictator, without qualifying it in some way, is really unacceptable in mainstream discourse about the Stalin period.
What is the next word?
Well, the next two words are connected as well. So “terror” is the next word, and then “GULAG.” They often go together.
Well, yes, all of these words go together to dishonestly falsify the history of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, during the Stalin period. In Russian, the word “terror” means “assassination.” That is to say, it’s a cognate, but it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing in Russian as it does in English. In English, of course, it means “to frighten badly,” or, perhaps as in “terrorist,” to carry out some sort of atrocious act like a bombing on a large scale. In Russian, it means “assassination.” So it’s used in English language anticommunist writings in expressions like “the great terror” to imply, and sometimes to state outright, that everybody was frightened, that Stalin somehow ruled by intimidation, by threats of imprisonment or assassination, that everybody was terrified.
And there’s absolutely no evidence for any of this. In fact, there isn’t even any evidence that there was any widespread fear during the period 1937-1938, which is often narrowly defined as the period of the so-called “great terror.” Once again, it’s the Trotskyists who – although I don’t think that they invented this concept – who promote it widely. For example, on the site Marxists.org/ it is stated outright that Stalin ruled by terror. And this is completely false. There is no shred of evidence of any of it.
It’s taken for granted that the Stalin period was one of rule by terror. And many, many books carry the word “terror” in their title or subtitle, about the Stalin period. And no attempt is made to prove that this was the case. There was an interesting discussion in mainstream Soviet history back in the 1980s over the term “terror.” A very prominent scholar at that time, Robert Thursday, who taught at Miami of Ohio, published an article in a mainstream journal, Slavic Review, arguing that in fact there was no terror. He was directly confronting Robert Conquest, who wrote the book The Great Terror. Yet when his own book, when Thurston’s own book was published by Yale University Press in 1996, that press insisted on putting the word “terror” in the title. So it’s one of those words that you have to use if you want to be in the mainstream of historiography of the Stalin period. In fact, it’s quite false. There was no “rule by terror” and people were not “terrorized.”
The Gulag. The word actually means the administration of the Ministry – the Commissariat – of Internal Affairs. But it’s come to mean the penal system, broadly speaking. We have a very large quantity of primary source documents from the former Soviet archives. And it’s very clear that, with some exceptions, with some abuses, the conditions in the labor camps were comparable to, if not better than, conditions in the penal systems in Western capitalist countries. The workers were paid, they had time off their sentences for good behavior, more for productive workers, there were educational programs, cultural programs, programs for music, theater companies, there were a lot of facilities for prisoners to earn time off and also money.
There were some isolated cases of terrible abuses. The reason that we know about them is because they were investigated at the time and we have the documents of those investigations and evidence that the officials involved were brought to account in one way or another, punished in some way.
But the Gulag in the broader sense is used to refer not only to labor camps but also to exile and to prisons. There were prisons, normally for short periods of time but sometimes for longer periods of time, particularly for those defendants in the Moscow Trials who were not sentenced to death. They were sent to prisons. They didn’t have to work; they weren’t sent to a labor camp. And as for exiles, they were between 1 – 2 million people sent to exile. Exile did not mean imprisonment, it means that they were sent to some area remote from where they were, and then given work, normally in agriculture, but some of them might have been given work in trades. But that was formally part of the prison system or penal system. So Gulag means a lot of different things. But is often used as though everyone was sent to labor camps.
The second issue that I want to raise with respect to the Gulag: there’s this widespread belief, though it’s seldom stated outright, that people could be sent to the Gulag for more or less any reason, or for no reason, and without trial. And that’s not true. We know now that everyone who was arrested and brought up on charges was at least given a trial. We have lots and lots of transcripts, only a tiny proportion have been published. But people were tried.
It seems to me, in conclusion about Gulag, that with any penal system there are two main questions. One is: What were the conditions? I’ve dealt with that, outside of some abuses which were recognized at the time, the conditions were comparable to, if not better than, conditions in the West. And, second, is there some guarantee that the people who were sent to the Gulag had actually committed some crime or other? That is, they had had some sort of judicial procedure. And that is the case. That doesn’t mean, and I’m not trying to claim, that there were no cases where people who were perfectly innocent were sent to prison or labor camp. There must have been, because there are in all systems. But in those cases that I have looked at, there was a lot of evidence of guilt of the people who were convicted. Now, that doesn’t mean that the people actually were guilty. But there was a lot of evidence in those cases.
And a good example is the case of Evgenia Ginzburg, who wrote the book that became well-known in English called Out of the Whirlwind which describes her life in a labor camp. She had been a communist party activist and official, she was accused of being involved in clandestine oppositional activities. She always claimed that she was innocent. Under Khrushchev or after Khrushchev’s fall in 1964 she was released. She insisted that she was innocent. It is interesting that in the early ‘90s two of the investigative files were published, and if you read those, it is clear that there was a lot of testimony against her. So clearly she was sentenced on the basis of the evidence against her. That doesn’t mean that she was guilty. It just means that we know there was a lot of evidence against her.
So, yes, people were given trials, and the conditions were comparable to, if not better than, in the West. With two exceptions: First, there was a great famine in the Soviet Union in 1932-1933. There was very high mortality in the Soviet Union, and there was very high mortality in the Gulag labor camps at this time. Secondly, during the Second World War, particularly in 1942 and 1943, at the height of the war, there was simply not enough food to feed the whole population. It is the case – we have evidence of this – that workers were literally dying of starvation in the factories, producing war materiel or other matters of things. So in the economy of that time there was not enough food to feed the workers, workers were dying on the job. And there was a high mortality rate in the Army – huge numbers of Soviet soldiers were being killed at the battlefront. And there was a high mortality rate in the Gulag. So that was the case then. But these are the only two period where there was an unusually high mortality rate in the Gulag, and there was a high mortality rate in other areas of Soviet society at that time too.
We asked Grover what he thinks “democracy” means when spoken of in relation to the USSR.
Democracy: We are always told, of course, that the Soviet Union was not democratic. And the implication is that the countries which today, or in the post-war period, are described as “democratic” really are democratic. And there are two things to say about that. First of all, as I pointed out in an article back in 2005, and again in my book Yezhov vs Stalin, Joseph Stalin wanted to make the Soviet system more democratic in a way which we today would recognize as similar to, say, social democratic countries in Europe. The 1936 constitution contains provisions for contested elections. We know that Stalin fought hard for this. He was defeated. Evidently, he was not even able to gain a majority in the Soviet Politburo, not in the Central Committee, and so contested elections were not held. But, as I say, in 2005 I wrote a fairly long two-part article about this in Cultural Logic which you can find in the page for CL or on my Home Page.
Secondly, to say that Western countries are ‘democratic’ is really not true. Western countries are all ruled by financiers and capitalists who retain political power. Whereas in different countries there are mechanisms for choosing representatives of these forces who rule, nevertheless, these forces still rule. Sometimes overtly, but very often behind the scenes. So that Western countries that call themselves democratic are not really democratic in the sense that most of us would understand as democratic, that is, that the common people actually rule. We could talk more about democracy, but the fact is that today Russia is democratic in the way that Western countries are democratic. Venezuela is democratic in the way that Western countries use the term, but President Maduro is still called a dictator by American politicians because they don’t like him. So the term “democracy” is used to try to draw a line, to say that capitalist imperialist countries are “good” but the Soviet Union was not “good.”
And then finally, there’s this issue. It’s the Western capitalist countries that were imperialist, that had large-scale empires, with hundreds of millions of people, all around the world, and they never promoted democracy in their empires. So the idea that Western countries have ever been truly democratic is a farce. They have never been truly democratic. And when they had the chance to grant, or institute, democracy in their possessions, they never did it.
In fact, they fought against it. The United States, of course, has fought actively in the post-War period – to say nothing about the pre-War period, the United States has fought actively to suppress democracy in South America, in Iran, in Vietnam, in many, many places around the world. So that it’s necessary to see through this term, which is really a propaganda term, and is meant in the case of the Soviet Union to somehow say that Western capitalist countries are “superior” in their system to the Soviet Union, especially in the Stalin period. I think that that is just not true.
And finally, we asked Grover what he thinks of the word “socialism.”
Socialism: I try not to use the term, and here’s why: Socialism has no fixed meaning. It had no fixed meaning more than a century ago before the First World War, when it was the avowed goal of the Social Democratic parties of the world in the Second International. It didn’t have a fixed meaning then. It could mean a capitalist state, which somehow had been persuaded or compelled to provide wide-scale social welfare benefits to its working class. And it could also mean a state like Soviet Russia, where a working-class party like the Bolshevik Party held state power and had state control over production. It can be used in either of those sense, and there are probably others in which it can be used. And so the term is not really useful in analytic terms. And even in the 1930s, say, after the First Five-Year Plan, Stalin vacillated between saying “We have achieved socialism,” and “We have not achieved socialism.”
Lenin talked about the need for socialism to encompass many or a number of industrialized countries, but then he also ended up saying that they could build socialism in one country. Stalin believed in building socialism in one country. Trotsky said socialism was not possible in one country. But the question of what is socialism was never carefully defined. So for analytical purposes, it isn’t really helpful. The Trotskyists still use it, basically because Trotsky used it, and said, “Oh well, socialism is not possible in one country, and we see that, therefore, the Soviet Union could not possibly have been socialist.” But that’s just by definition – they define socialism in such a way that it doesn’t apply to the Soviet Union in the Stalin period, or perhaps in any period. But they still don’t define precisely what it means. And as a result, in China today, they can say either that we, the Chinese Communist Party, preside over a country that is “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” or we are struggling to bring about a society that will be “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” It’s something that does exist now, or will exist sometime in the future. In short, for analytical purposes, the term “socialism” is not really useful.
And I think that’s one of the problems in the history of the socialist movement, or communist movement, in the 20th century. Because there was no definition of socialism, there was no yardstick. Khrushchev implemented what he regarded as reforms but what others regarded as the abandonment of communist principles, and then when more and more cost accounting, the profit motive was introduced gradually in the Khrushchev and post-Khrushchev period in the Soviet Union, these steps were not recognized as being moves away from socialism because socialism really had no fixed definition. So that’s the problem with that term.
Sometimes, in the talks that I have given, mostly to people who are either hostile to or very skeptical of, Stalin and the Stalin period, I start off by saying; “I am the only non-Stalinist in this room.” And people kind of look puzzled, and what I say is “Those of you who describe yourselves as socialist are tacitly assuming the definition of socialism that was assumed in the Soviet Union. And we can now see that that definition of socialism didn’t work. It did not end up being the stage between capitalism and communism. So therefore, however you understand the definition of socialism as it was used in the communist movement of the 20th century, it is inadequate. It must be examined and critiqued, and certainly not imitated, because in addition to whatever great achievements were made under socialism – and there were great achievements – at the same time, it did not prove to be the next step toward a communist society. I hope that some of that is clear.