Recently in our pre-convention discussion, the issue of communist history was raised in Ari Goldman’s "For Truth and Reconciliation". It is true that communist history is a vital area of discussion. However, the sentiments expressed in "Truth and Reconciliation" owe far too much to the bourgeois distortions that are passed off as the history of communism.
Goldman claims to be for restoring the "good name" of socialism by acknowledging socialism’s "criminal past" as well as its achievements. For acknowledging that actually existing socialism has any achievements at all, Goldman deserves much credit, as few are willing to make such an admission. Indeed, the idea of a Party-wide discussion of our history and what it means is a fine one. However, we must be cautious that we base our interpretations on historical evidence, rather than "common sense" understandings of history as Goldman appears to do. The danger of anti-communist distortions in this regard simply cannot be exaggerated.
For example, Goldman refers to "mass starvation," a common theme in anti-communist polemics. Since it isn’t clear which specific allegation Goldman is referring to, we will consider the commonly accepted narrative on the Ukrainian famine in the USSR under Stalin. Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow, one of the most widely accepted works on the Ukrainian "famine-genocide," asserts that ten million Ukrainians were deliberately starved to death during the collectivization movement between 1930 and 1934.
There are a number of problems with this view. First, the allegation of deliberate starvation has no archival support; as the Soviet archives are no longer closed, one would expect that some evidence of Stalin’s plan to starve thirty million Ukrainians would have surfaced by now. Indeed, if such a document existed, anti-communist scholars of Conquest’s ilk would never tire of citing it. Conquest’s allegation is not founded on archival research. Rather, it is based on a misinterpretation of calls to "liquidate" the kulaks (rich peasants) in Pravda. The kulaks were to be liquidated as a class."Liquidation" does not mean extermination; indeed, anyone who loses their home to foreclosure could be said to be "liquidated".
Second, the methodology that Conquest uses to determine the number of lives lost to the famine is seriously flawed. Conquest cites Soviet census figures from before the famine, applies an unspecified "natural growth rate," then compares his result to the actual census data from after the famine, arriving at a "population deficit" of thirty million people. Going further, Conquest alleges that post-famine census data were faked by Soviet authorities, again providing no evidence, and claims that the death toll was likely much higher. Further, if one applies Conquest’s methodology to U.S. census data, one can obtain a "population deficit" of ten to twenty million for the years 1933-34. In short, Conquest’s work on the Ukrainian famine is complete bunk. Nevertheless, Harvest of Sorrow continues to be regarded as worthy of serious scholarly consideration.
While there is not space here to specifically address all the alleged crimes that Goldman points to, there are more general considerations that communists should take into account when forming interpretations of our history.
First, the historical double standard which is routinely applied to socialist countries; as we saw above, applying Conquest’s "population deficit" method to Soviet census data is considered reputable, but applying it to U.S. census data produces results which are laughable. Likewise, members of the Democratic Party are never called to account for the bombing of Hiroshima, the Vietnam War, or any other crime against humanity committed by Democratic politicians. At worst, these Democratic atrocities are labeled "mistakes" or "Cold War excesses". Indeed, in an organizational sense, Democrats are much closer to these crimes than CPUSA members are to the actions of the CPSU or CPC. Why no "Truth and Reconciliation" for the Democratic Party? The difference is not in the nature of the events, but in the dominant historical narrative.
Second, as already stated, we must be vigilant against anti-communist distortions of actual events which can and do reach mythic proportions.
Third, it is imperative to consider not only the actions of leaders like Stalin, but also the reasons and historical context behind those actions. For example, it is not enough to note that the Gulag system housed two million prisoners at its peak (not the tens of millions of anti-communist legend); it is also important to understand that of these, not more than 33% were political prisoners, that most survived their terms, and that all this occurred at a time when sabotage and foreign infiltration truly was a threat to the Soviet Union.
In short, we must be aware of our tendency to cleave to dominant American attitudes, particularly American exceptionalism, and ways of thinking about history. As an aside, this tendency is clearly embedded in Goldman’s opening quote, "None of us, as Americans, would be content to live as citizens in any of the so-called socialist countries in the world today."
The greatest threat to a sane and evidence-based understanding of our history is not the "mealy-mouthed, unconvincing mumbling" of communist apologists, but the blatantly untrue, yet widely accepted, anti-communist myths that make up the dominant historical paradigm. It is true that, unless we confront our history, "we will be forever subject to capitalist finger-pointing," but it does not follow that the dominant capitalist view of our history is correct.
Instead, we should endeavor, while holding ourselves to the highest standard of intellectual honesty, to correct the myriad myths and outright lies about communist history. A professor of mine once said, "there is no Truth in history, only contending truths". It’s time we made our truth heard.
March 9, 2010