Saturday, October 24, 2015

Milne on the USSR

Like many, I thought Corbyn's decision to appoint Seamus Milne as the Labour Party's director of communications was a bad one - for me primarily because it looks like the consolidation of a faction that makes winning an election even more unlikely than it did before, rather than anything to do with his views on history.  However, following a conversation on Twitter, it is his views on history, specifically that of the Soviet Union, that this concerns.

What it relates to is the objection to the epithet 'Stalinist' to describe this journalist's views on the 'Red Terror' on the grounds that all he has insisted on is that Hitler was worse than Stalin and that attempts to equate them is a distortion of history.  The purpose of this short post is really just to explain why I don't agree that this is all he was doing.  If it was, I would find a fair bit of common ground.  That Hitler was worse than Stalin is something I agree with without equivocation and would also agree that, in as far as the Second World War is now seen by some as two totalitarianisms slugging it out on the Eastern Front, this represents a (very) vulgar interpretation of  the 'totalitarian thesis'.  (Although I think the tendency he describes is rather more commonly found among journalists than proper historians.)

There are a number of fairly well-known objections to the thesis.  Among these is that it is a static concept that cannot properly deal with what happens when some supposedly 'totalitarian' regimes succumb to the forces of routinisation.  Is it really satisfactory, for example, to describe Brezhnev's USSR as 'post-totalitarian'?  Then there's the fact that the total control of these regimes has purported to have attempted has never really been a historical reality.  Should we then describe 'totalitarianism' as an aspiration?  I'm not sure that makes much sense.  But my principle objection to the equation of Hitler and Stalin under this category is that it doesn't even properly use the concept as it was originally stated.   The thesis holds that 'totalitarian' regimes have more in common than separates them, not that they were the same thing.  The notion that Stalin was at least as bad as Hitler because he killed more people is a vulgarisation of this.  I do agree with Milne that this simple-minded interpretation does indeed seem to have gained an unjustified currency and I also agree that it shouldn't, not least because it is simply wrong.  Hitler and not Stalin started a war that led to at least 50 million dead and it is indeed right to remember that among these are included around 20 million Soviet deaths, including some three million Red Army POWs.

That Hitler was worse than Stalin is not a controversial view in my world but the objection to Milne is that it seems to me that he goes some way beyond that.  Churchill also took this view but could anyone seriously argue that you couldn't put a fag-paper between his and Milne's view of Soviet Communism?  One objection is that Milne seems to accept the vulgar terms of the debate and has produced in the past something even more vulgar.  The linked piece was from 1990.  The following year, evidence from the Soviet archives tended to suggest that Conquest's 20 million figure was more likely to be accurate than the 3.5 million he suggests.  I didn't get the impression from some of his post 1991 articles that he has taken this on board at all.  I don't think it is unreasonable to suggest that he has shown a tendency to down-play Stalin's crimes and he also seems to have an unfortunate habit of juxta-positioning this with acknowledging the USSR's considerable industrial modernisation under Stalin.  This is obviously a fact of economic history but the context in which this observation is made - and without noting the horrendous human cost of this - should, I think, make people uncomfortable.

Is it unfair to dub Milne 'Stalinist' for this?  I'm prepared to accept I could easily be wrong about this but I don't think it is.  Put it another way, if a similar process was applied to the Third Reich with someone suggesting that Hitler didn't kill as many people as is generally assumed whilst simultaneously inviting us to recognise he build some awesome roads, I don't think many people would have any difficulty in recognising that for what it was.

8 comments:

kailyard rules said...

Isn.t it too facile to say that Hitler started the WW2 ? There were surely other "players" / "events" on a backward timeline from 1939 involved in the machinations of political and economic machiavellian skullduggery.

Shuggy said...

What an extraordinary question. Hitler marched into the Rhineland, annexed Austria, took over the Sudeteland and then the rest of Czechoslovakia whilst the other 'players' did nothing until the rape of Poland. How can it be possibly 'facile' to state the obvious?

asdf said...

I'll agree with anyone who says that Hitler was worse than Stalin. I will also agree with anyone who says the opposite. When you reach the numbers we were talking about here it seems like a fruitless question. It also ignores the fact that the holodomor had a racial edge. And I think it is also significant that Stalin, not Hitler, sent a murderous philosophy to other regions.

Mike said...

We could resolve this if only Top Trumps had a deck for Dictators of the 20th Century.

sloppy said...

I suppose though, the real insinuation of most people decrying Stalin is that Communism and/or Socialism is A Bad Thing, and that big business and Thatcherite neo-liberalism is A Good Thing. We live in an age of almost-global neo-liberal consensus and this opinion isn't hard to find, even from some western leaders.

I think at the end of the day nobody actually denies that Stalin was a ruthless and murderous cult leader. If they do they are not taken entirely seriously. Then again, what was Tsar Nicholas II ? But that is perhaps besides the point.

My point is, a lot of (many, most?) people who decry Stalin do so in order to 1, decry Communism / Socialism / Left wing politics as a whole and simultaneously 2, defend or justify Thatcherism / Neo-liberalism / Right-wing politics as a whole.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but that doesn't make much sense. After all there was a USSR before Stalin was a major player in it, and Stalinism and socialism are not mutually exclusive.

sloppy said...

cf. 'Well, socialism wouldn't work, because Stalin killed 20 million people'.

That may seem stupid, but while studying politics at Glasgow university, I encountered this opinion quite a lot, even from a few lecturers.

Even just a simple Wikipedia search for Robert Conquest, in the first paragraph, informs us that he :
"Wrote more than a dozen books on the Soviet Union and was a traditional conservative."

Is it at all profane to suggest that he has his own political agenda, and in writing his books was pushing them?
There is no clear evidence that many people were killed, anyway, and I am always wary of making declarations when there is no clear evidence. Voters' polls are a good example of this. Unless there are continued, clear polls, you simply cannot say for sure that one outcome or another is going to happen.

But this is all besides the point. My point is, it is ridiculous to use Stalin as a reason why we should (e.g.) destroy the welfare state. This argument is made all the time, and it is as reactionary as it is wrong

Shuggy said...

"I suppose though, the real insinuation of most people decrying Stalin is that Communism and/or Socialism is A Bad Thing, and that big business and Thatcherite neo-liberalism is A Good Thing."

I disagree almost completely and would argue it's exactly that kind of logic - your suggestion that to condemn Stalin's crimes must be some kind of neo-con bad faith - is exactly what has lead people like Milne to where they are now.

Increasingly convinced that 'neo-liberalism' doesn't really mean anything other than 'capitalism'. Or if it does, what is it?

sloppy said...

I agree that Stalin was a brutal dictator. As were Pol Pot, Mao, various others.

I don't think it's neo-con bad faith to denounce Stalin. I do not look upon such tyrants with any sympathy - even given the harsh times he was operating in.

However, in my experience at least, Stalin is often used as a hammer to bash the Left as a whole. And I think this is inaccurate. I don't agree with Milne's analysis, but I don't agree with Conquest's analysis either. I think there is a middle line to be drawn there.

As for the definition of neo-liberalism... interesting point. I suppose the question then becomes, is capitalism a good thing or not?

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