Everything You Know About Communism is Right: What Raymond Lotta got wrong

Selectively vandalized flyer for Lotta's talk (Sam Feldman)

Selectively vandalized flyer for Lotta's talk (Sam Feldman)

Across the street from the Lubyanka prison, in Moscow, there stood in 1937 a nondescript building with a specially sloped floor, for drainage, and a wooden wall to muffle the sound of bullets. It was here that the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, executed enemies of the Communist regime. Between 1937 and 1938 this amounted to the deaths of at least 700,000 people, according to the Russian Memorial society. Among the victims were Nikolai Bukharin, once one of the chief Soviet economists; Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a Marshal of the Soviet Union; Genrikh Yagoda, former head of the secret police; and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people. Those who were not murdered outright were frequently deported to the Gulag prison camps, based on the katorga system that had existed under the tsars. These were scattered throughout Siberia and in 1939 housed over a million people, slowly freezing or being worked to death in some of the most hostile environments on earth.

Other crimes of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union include a terror famine in the Ukraine in 1933, the Holodomor, which killed well over a million people; a more general 1932—33 famine caused by Stalin’s efforts to force farmers onto collectives; and various crimes against humanity perpetrated during the Russian Civil War, most prominently the use of chemical weapons and heavy artillery against peasants rebelling in protest of food requisition (the 1920-21 Tambov Rebellion). According to “The Black Book of Communism,” a 1997 history of Communist atrocities that made use of recently opened state archives, by the time of its fall in 1991 the government of the Soviet Union had caused the deaths of some 15 to 20 million people. This does not include the deaths and misery suffered by the inhabitants of Soviet puppet states in Eastern Europe and the Third World, in which the names of the secret polices read like a nightmarish roll call: the Securitate, the AVH, the Stasi.

Now, if you’ve been on the University of Chicago’s campus for the past two weeks or so, the above information may surprise you, because you’re now aware that “everything you know about Communism is wrong.” The statistics and figures that have been compiled over the decades by reputable historians working to ascertain the truth about Communist regimes must be incorrect (which makes sense, seeing as they’re capitalists, and we all know that historians make the big captain of industry bucks). The true blazing light of historical verity can only be found in the agate lamp of the Revolutionary Communist Party, represented on our campus last week by Mr. Raymond Lotta, and the strange and glorious version of the past with which it sees fit to present us.

Thus we hear that the Soviet Union was “only country in the 1930s that stood against anti-Semitism,” which is true insofar as Stalin cheerfully set aside swampland in far eastern Siberia as a homeland for Russia’s Jews, cooperated with Nazi Germany, and after the war went about executing prominent Jewish leaders (including 23 poets and engineers on the single night of August 12, 1952). The Soviets also, we are assured, supported the ambitions of their country’s non-Russian ethnic groups to an unprecedented degree, which explains why they were unwilling to let go of any of the oppressed territories of the former tsarist empire (and in fact re-annexed some of the few that got away, the three Baltic republics, in 1940) and systematically brutalized non-Russian peoples, including the murder of hundreds of thousands of anti-Communist Cossacks and the campaign of Russification in the Soviet Central Asian territories to the extent that, even today, a vast majority of Kazakhs speak Russian.

In fairness to Lotta, however, he is a Maoist scholar (“I’m pretty well-schooled in Mao’s works,” he says, “let me tell you”–and he does) and thus can’t perhaps be expected to have a very solid grasp of things like Soviet policy at any point in the country’s history. He did manage to discover that President Eisenhower in his “1952 inaugural address”–apparently delivered before Eisenhower’s January 20, 1953, inauguration–“threatened to use atomic weapons against the People’s Republic of China,” something which cannot be found in the text itself but which is certainly in keeping with its spirit. (Sample sentences: “We stand ready to engage with any and all others in joint effort to remove the causes of mutual fear and distrust among nations…” and “We shall never use our strength to try to impress upon another people our own cherished political and economic institutions.”)

Those of us in attendance at Lotta’s presentation were also invited to explore the possibility that the 1966—76 Chinese Cultural Revolution represented “the high point of socialist revolution in the twentieth century,” that it included “massive political and intellectual debate,” and that “high-ranking capitalists,” who somehow still existed in a country that had been racked by war for thirty years and which had long since done away with all of its industrial titans, “planned” most of the violence that occurred during this period. This world doesn’t quite jive with the one in which those who lived through the period (and the current Chinese government) inform us that the Cultural Revolution forced thousands of teachers and students onto collective farms, burned enough books to power a fleet of coal-fired airships, and killed over a million people, but that’s no doubt the result of capitalist lies. Lotta also somehow forgot to mention Western misconceptions of the Great Leap Forward, a collectivization policy pursued between 1958 and 1961 that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions via famine.

This is a highly entertaining and, in many ways, kinder and fuzzier version of history than that which we are accustomed to. Sadly, it’s also a total mischaracterization of the nature of the Soviet Union, the early People’s Republic of China, and other Communist states. I wish I could believe that our facts were indeed wrong, because a world in which, as Lotta asserted, “people were viewing their actions through the moral lens of serving others,” wouldn’t seem to me like such a bad place to live. Alas, the past doesn’t go away when you don’t look at it. For those of us who choose to examine it, there are two possibilities: either Communist governments in the twentieth century killed millions upon millions of people, or all those people disappeared as the result of alien abduction or relocation to a series of underground caves. This–not that you can’t buy as much chocolate as you want, nor that there aren’t as many channels on TV–is the real reason why “Communism is bad.” There are a hundred million plots of turned earth in Siberia and the Yangtze plain that, when Lotta denies what happened to their inhabitants, protest the injustice with a great, silent howl.

4 comments for “Everything You Know About Communism is Right: What Raymond Lotta got wrong

  1. Lindsay T
    November 18, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    You’re not even attempting to deal with Lotta’s arguments. For example, check out “Why Did the Heavens Not Darken”, a 1988 book from Arno Mayer which clearly documents that equal rights for Jews was a significant feature, legally and politically in the Soviet Union (policies continued, I will mention, by Joseph Stalin). One of the fliers at the event’s literature table (available at the website of Lotta’s project to Set the Record Straight about the history of communism, thisiscommunism.org) brought out how the Russian Revolution of 1917 brought political and social emancipation to Jews in a country with a history of virulent anti-Semitism and violent anti-Jewish pogroms. And this was at a time when most of the Jewish people in the world lived in central and Eastern Europe, facing organized fascist movements and institutionalized anti-semitism (for example in Romania, Poland and Hungary). Yes, people have been lied to about all of this–and they should check this out for themselves.

  2. Keith Jamieson
    November 20, 2009 at 7:19 pm
  3. November 28, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    (I don’t speak for revcom.us)
    A hundred million? So, what’s your source? Siberia and the Yangtze plain must be chock full of plots of turned earth to accomodate all these corpses, by your logic…
    This article is actually not as critical and reactionary as much of what I;ve run into in the context of this speaking tour by Raymond Lotta. The examples of repression of the Cossacks, the Ukrainian famine supposedly willfully “caused” by Stalin himself, and the other suffering that (according to Jamieson) occured on a mass scale as a direct result of the Soviet Union and Peoples’ Republic of China—-Mathiesen really doesn’t give enough context to prove these two foundational claims of his article. He also assumes that without state power in the hands of communists, fewer, as opposed to more, people would have been executed or starved in these societies.
    If the Ukrainian famine was a willful policy objective of the Soviets, how come when the archives came out, they indicated that this famine caught the Soviet leadership by surprise? Was there or was there not a pro-Nazi movement in the Ukraine, the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, that among other things was purposefully witholding grain from the state? If so, what was any government supposed to do—just be hands off and let the urban population starve when it was clear there would be a German invasion in due time? This is not to justify how Stalin specifically handled that issue, BUT, if all the farmers in the Midwest decided not to grow food for you people in Chicago and other cities, I bet you’d be calling on the President to send in the army, too.
    The history of this and other incidents is not so clear-cut as Jamieson makes it seem. I’ve heard Lotta give this speech. He didn’t deny that there were famines, but he didn’t attribute them so simplistically to the default cause (i.e. the evil communist regimes).
    And if it’s preventable death that Jamieson abhors, I’ll join him in that, only if he joins me in condemning the world capitalist system and the states controlled by capitalist ruling classes, in which tens if not hundreds of millions of people have died through preventable diseases, reactionary wars (including WWI and most of WWII) and starvation.
    Remember Amartya Sen’s famous article that spoke of the 4 million people in India who have died EACH YEAR since India’s “independence” up to today for reasons of poverty? Add that up—that’s only one country. If the debate over Marxism vs. capitalism is reduced to which society has a higher death count (or imprisonment rate for that matter), it should be clear who comes in fir$t! But as Lotta said in his response to Jamieson, I don’t believe it’s that simple. Still, we don’t hear many anti-communists singling out India and other governments where state powered is concentrated in the hands of landholders, capitalists, etc for their “mass graves”—casualties of a system where production is carried out for profit, and where the STATE (repressive apparatus consisting of laws, army, police, jails…) enforces the daily domination of the ruling class (i.e. those who own and control means of production).
    In fact Maoist China doubled the life expectancy of the Chinese people from 1949-1976—no small accomplishment for a poor country emerging from feudalism. By 1972 it had effectively solved the widespread problem of hunger. Shit, the U.S. still hasn’t done that in its own damn borders, to say nothing of the countries that it effectively starves through imperialist economic policies. 1 in 8 children here will likely be food insecure at some point in their lives. The Soviet Union had a comparable rise in life expectancy, literacy, public health, etc under Lenin and Stalin.
    But nobody judges all capitalism by zeroing in on only the industrial revolution in Britain, and nobody judges the bourgeois revolution by its experience in only France, for example. The communist revolution is a historical process, just as capitalism is a historical system (a system we must MAKE history, in my view). What happened under Stalin 1) still needs deeper investigation 2) is misunderstood by most students including on elite campuses, though most of these people ofcourse have a very negative impression of it and 2) was an initital attempt, not without significant accomplishments, at building a world free of exploitation and class division. The Chinese revolution led by Mao did in fact do things differently than the Soviet one in important ways, and the revolutions to come will have to critically assimilate its lessons as well. This is the spirit and substance of Lotta’s presentation as I understand it.
    Whether you agree with that or not, if you hate enforced deaths, you should logically be a communist and yearn for more revolutions aimed at putting state power in the hands of the masses and working people, in order to build socialist societieties in transition to communism. It’s precisely the genuine communist revolutions of the 20th century that, to use Jamieson’s own measuring stick, addressed the problem of preventable death for the first time in history—if you don’t believe me just compare post-Independence India, with its tragic LACK of such a revolution, to Maoist China, or even the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin. It’s for quite legitimate reasons like this (and many others) that I’ll bet Mao and Stalin are way more popular today in China and Russia than Nehru in India.
    Socialist society gave people not only the right to eat, to be employed, to go from poor peasants to tri-lingual scientists, and to have affordable medical care, “rights” that could never exist or be enforced on a large scale under capitalism, rights that saved and changed lives—it gave people the “right” to transform society in the direction of a classless world, which is what socialism is all about. This needs to be done, and can be done, on a larger scale the next time around.
    Happy blogging.

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