Wednesday, March 4, 2009

History 112: Putting in a Good Word for Comrade Stalin

As readers of this blog and those who know me in person are aware, I am politically fairly conservative, at least by college campus standards. I view Communism, at least the variety that believes in the use of force to achieve its aims, in only slightly more favorable terms than Nazism. Even that is largely due to the fact that, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, Nazism is something personal. In truth, expropriating the wealth of all those with something worthwhile to steal before sending them off to their deaths is hardly an improvement over expropriating the wealth of your least favorite racial group before shipping them off to their deaths. The later makes you a mass murdering racist. The former makes you a mass murdering hostis humani generis (enemy of the human race).

With this in mind, I found myself bending over backwards, in class, to defend Joseph Stalin’s five year program to industrialize the Soviet Union during the 1930s. To be clear, this move by Stalin was a humanitarian catastrophe to rival anything down by Nazi Germany. While there was a full scale famine engulfing the Soviet Union, caused by lousy economic theory and even worse science, the Soviet Union was shipping wheat to the West. In essence the Soviet government allowed upwards of seven million people to starve to death in the Ukraine in order to buy machinery. In addition to this tens of millions of people were shipped off to Siberian gulags as class enemies. As a historian, though, it is my job to get past the polemics and even, in some sense, to redeem those being studied. I want my students to learn something more from me than just “Stalin and Communism were evil and that western intellectuals such as George Bernard Shaw, who traveled to the Soviet Union during the 1930s, were dupes for praising it.” To say that Stalin and Communism were evil, while true, is of little interest. The historical method, though, forces us to make things interesting by asking questions such as why, if Stalinist Russia was as bad as it was, did people support it. Why would a sane rational person support Stalin?

During a period in which the entire western world was gripped by the Great Depression, the Soviet Union was experiencing a rise in production. While mass unemployment was the norm across the western world, the Soviet Union had full employment. The Soviet government was bringing roads, machines and electricity to people who never had them. Thanks to Communism, millions of people who never had the opportunity to learn to read or get an education were now being given the chance to go to school. This is not to deny the very real dark side to Stalinist Russia, but this side is also real.

The assigned reading for this class, selections from John Scott’s Behind the Urals, proved to be remarkably useful for this person. Scott was an American steel worker who traveled to the Soviet Union in 1931 and worked at Magnitogorsk, one of the major Soviet industrial centers built during this period. While Scott came to the Soviet Union as an idealistic believer, his first hand experience soon soured him. As such Scott is perfectly willing to criticize the Soviet government and is quite frank about the human cost of Stalin’s actions. That being said Scott’s main purpose is not to attack Stalin or the Soviet Union, but to recount his experience and to give a sense of the people he worked with, most of whom he treats quite positively.

I will take it as a mark of honor if one of my students were to complain that I am a Communist, using my position to ensnare innocent young minds into my political ideology.


Chari said...

Happy belated birthday! This is an interesting post. My young son has a fascination with the Revolutionary War and recently has been devouring anything to do with George Washington. Last night we had a long discussion about how many of the 'future Americans' were against the war with the British and fought against General Washington. He has an understanding of 'good' and 'bad'. We worked through that these people were not 'bad' because they did not support the seperation from Britain. They still were allowed to become Americans. A heavy, confusing subject for a 6 year old. This post speaks to me because of that discussion. So often we generalize and label based on the 'whole' while we can often look at the specifics and gain a different understanding. Thanks for the post!

Chari said...

and as a follow up, I just addressed you as Izgad because I'm always referring to your address to friends. What I meant was:
Benzion, Happy Belated Birthday! I'm so sorry for the name mess up! (my face is red)

Izgad said...

I see Izgad as a “superhero” identity that I take on for the internet. I have no more objection to being called Izgad then Bruce Wayne would have to being called Batman. :P I once, upon meeting someone whom I had come to know through my blog, went over to the person and introduced myself as Izgad.
That is very cool that your son is already getting into history. Your son may still be a little young for this but one of the things that I read to death when I was eight were the books by Ronald Syme. He wrote numerous biographies of Spanish Explorers and Indian leaders for kids. These books are about 100 pages each with pictures. I only found out as an adult that Ronald Syme was a leading classical scholar.
This would not be for your son, but on the topic of the American Revolution I would recommend to you David McCullough’s 1776. He is remarkably sympathetic to the British. I came away from this book convinced that if I had been living in the Colonies back then I would have supported the British.