Without overlooking the fact that there were without a doubt some very severe errors (which I believe have been learned from), I nonetheless think that the great majority of what are called the “crimes” or “disasters” usually blamed on the governments of the socialist countries of the 20th century are:
– misunderstandings of the natural context (e.g., famines caused by droughts that would have occurred no matter which government was in power),
– misunderstandings of the economic context (e.g., the fact that these countries began extremely poor and had long been the sites of a deep and broad deprivation that it is unrealistic to expect to end suddenly),
– misunderstandings of the historical context (wars were fought for the working class to take control of these countries, which destroyed much of the infrastructure and killed a huge proportion of the country’s working people),
– misunderstandings of the political context (every revolution, including, for example, the French Revolution, invariably requires repression of a large section of society that is suddenly dispossessed of its privilege and angry about it; expecting unending repression from socialism based on what we see in the first few years after each successful socialist revolution would be like seeing the repression of the old classes during the French Revolution and concluding that all of capitalism would include such heavy and overt repression forever) (also see the post “Understanding ‘refugees from socialism’ in the context of disgruntled Confederates in the u.s. civil war”), and/or
– straight-up misrepresentations or even fabrications offered to us by a public school system, a mainstream media, an academia, and a government that are all in the final instance controlled by a group of people—the capitalist class—who have every incentive to tell any lies they can get away with about the movement to achieve communism, because that movement is 100% antithetical to their interests. What’s more, these ruling institutions have been the dominant factor influencing Western culture and historical understanding for so long that the people themselves have become a re-transmitter of these ideas.
On top of that, we must reject the entire philosophy that is standard in capitalist countries for talking about the socialist countries. That philosophy for viewing historical periods says that our main mission is to tell a story to sum up the virtue and vice, pain vs. pleasure, in these times and places as self-contained periods of moral history.
This misses the whole point of why these revolutions occurred in the first place: they were the first steps on the path toward an entirely new epoch in human society–the epoch of communism. Our primary motivation for evaluating those periods is to learn what they can teach us about pushing forward the communist struggle.
We are scientists. The Wright brothers had two failures before they achieved sustained flight.
When we study these revolutions, we study them not to give them a score on the morality scale, 1 to 100, but instead to learn from them in order to try to achieve flight and then achieve sustained flight–successfully taking off from a country that is still divided by class and national oppression and flying steadily in the direction of an entirely communist planet.
A great quote from Lenin in 1918 on that final point:
“All that we knew, all that the best experts on capitalist society, the greatest minds who foresaw its development, exactly indicated to us was that transformation was historically inevitable and must proceed along a certain main line, that private ownership of the means of production was doomed by history, that it would burst, that the exploiters would inevitably be expropriated. This was established with scientific precision, and we knew this when we grasped the banner of socialism, when we declared ourselves socialists, when we founded socialist parties, when we transformed society. We knew this when we took power for the purpose of proceeding with socialist reorganisation; but we could not know the forms of transformation, or the rate of development of the concrete reorganisation. Collective experience, the experience of millions can alone give us decisive guidance in this respect, precisely because, for our task, for the task of building socialism, the experience of the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of those upper sections which have made history up to now in feudal society and in capitalist society is insufficient. We cannot proceed in this way precisely because we rely on joint experience, on the experience of millions of working people.”
Here also is something a comrade of mine wrote that is really excellent on contextualizing the fact that the more successful a revolution is, the more “horrors” we hear about it. They were specifically writing about the people’s war in Peru, waged by the Communist Party of Peru (the so-called “Shining Path”):
“The PCP [was one of the most powerful political parties] in Peru at the time. How do alleged ‘terrorist death cults’ go about doing that? How could the PCP lead major strikes in the industrial sector if they went around terrorizing workers? How could the PCP liberate around 40% of the Peruvian countryside if all they did was massacre peasants? This is a question which I rarely get an answer to from anti-Maoists — were those who sided with the PCP just too stupid and ‘brainwashed’ to make an educated decision?
Red terror is part of every revolution in history. Further terror (aimed at enemies and their supporters), in one form or another, is a feature of all warfare.
So to simply start to use the familiar U.S. media/political language that loosely demonizes ‘terror’ is to obscure important distinctions (between just and unjust wars) precisely parallel to the ways these things are obscured in the mainstream media.
The ‘Shining Path’ is accused of ‘terror.’ But when the U.S. rattles nukes at North Korea (‘nothing is off the table’) that is portrayed as a justified and measured response (even if it literally involves terrorizing 25 million people by threatening their possible incineration).
Most of the loose talk demonizing the supposed ‘terror’ in great popular uprisings (including such diverse events as PCP’s guerrilla war, or the Russian revolution, or the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion, or the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution) boils down to this:
‘The emperor can burn down villages, but the people are forbidden to light a candle.’
War operates on laws of its own. And those laws apply with great force of necessity on any political force that shifts to a war footing (from a previous period of political base building and preparation).
Once an actual armed struggle for power erupts it is necessary to actually break (disrupt, disperse, isolate and decimate) the organized networks of the other side. Otherwise victory is impossible.
In rural guerrilla warfare, where the villages are often controlled by the armed forces by day and the guerrillas by night — there is an acute need to disrupt government networks of intelligence gathering (because the army can relatively easily round up those they identify for death squad torture and murder). It is common for guerrilla forces (throughout history) to execute informants and also (in some case) also those in the villages who agree to openly serve the government (as official village chiefs, or as counterinsurgency ‘village defense’ forces, or other forms of open collaboration).
This was the case during the Vietnamese liberation struggle, during the anti-Nazi resistance in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and in China’s protracted revolutionary war — and it was the case in Peru.
And terror has another function: the punishment of notorious oppressors of the people (for example landlords who raped women, or sold children into slavery) is a political sign that the world has changed. That power has shifted in historic ways. Unless there is visible, measured and focused punishment of notorious oppressors, the long brutalized people will not feel empowered to speak and act. And the arrogant forces of the old society will think they just need to wait things out. When a revolution sweeps through any feudal area in the world (think of a revolution sweeping through Klan-dominated Mississippi of 1930) there are brutal, well-known oppressors whose punishment any liberating force would put high on its agenda. In Nepal, the creation of ‘peoples courts’ was one of the first signs of embryonic new power. And such courts both carry out the focused punishment of notorious reactionaries (who generally flee to avoid that punishment) and carry out resolution of problems among the people on a radical new cultural and legal basis.
Reactionary observers call such things ‘terrorism’ — and they equate it with the anti-people actions of reactionaries like Daesh. (I.e. they equate revolutionary movements of the people with ugly reactionary movements seeking to reinforce old oppressions.)
And if there are errors made by the new revolutionary justice, the reactionary observers portray (and distort) those errors as typical and fundamental. Is any of this a surprise? it is very typical and well known. right?
And the need for revolutionary justice of these kinds has to do with the nature of revolutionary guerrilla war. If anyone wants to argue against such terror — at the village level — they are really arguing against the very notion of armed revolutionary warfare.
In Peru all this was complicated by the fact that significant sections of the ‘left’ (i.e. the reformist electoral left parties) supported the military in the war — and their networks were sometimes exploited by the government as informant networks.
Some of the first ronderos were organized by liberation theology priests (who also had a history of pro-military connections going back to the 1970s military dictatorship). Ronderos were armed pro-government ‘village defense forces’ assigned to kill PCP organizers and sympathizers — they were often gangs of village bullies armed and trained by the government who carried out their own reign of terror over the people (and were backed up when needed by regular army forces).
And so the identification and punishment of informants and ronderos got reported (internationally) as ‘Shining Path guerrillas execute indigenous villagers and rival leftists.’
That narrative was often just a crude lie, and almost always a crude distortion. In trade union and social democratic leftists circles, it was said ‘Shining Path simply kills trade unionists.’ In liberal catholic circles it was said ‘The Shining Path kills priests and nuns.’ (And little was said, interestingly enough, of the Catholic left forces who joined the PCP at key moments.) And in the organized left it was said ‘The Shining Path killed other leftist forces in a murderous sectarianism.’ And so on.”
Another good post from this blog on a similar subject is “Why I think the people were genuinely in power in the socialist countries of the twentieth century, and why these examples reveal the route forward for humanity”