Stalinism: The Inner Truth of Bolshevism 1924-91

[This essay on Stalinism in the Soviet Union follows on from the previous one on the Bolshevik Russian Revolution of 1917. The image shows the process of photoshopping undergone by a photo of Stalin with comrades after they fell out of favour of the great dictator or were successively eliminated.]

The Inner Truth of Bolshevism: Stalinism 1924-1991

A defining part of the Old Left from 1917 onwards was its Manichean attitude ‘for or against’ Bolshevism and the Soviet Union, and, later during the Cold War, Maoist China. Against all self-serving Lenin-hagiography, Stalinism and its developed Gulag system, in both the Soviet Union and Maoist China, are simply the revealed truth of Lenin (and über-Bolshevik Trotsky) under later and differing historical conditions. (1)

Lenin’s testament may have belatedly warned against electing Stalin to party leadership, but Bolshevik policies of brutal counter-revolution and Red Terror from the ‘great’ October coup onwards were already nothing but the so-called ‘heroic’ phase of what would later become known as ‘Stalinism’. Industrializing by force and terror between 1929 and his death in 1953, Stalin simply extended and bureaucratically perfected the initial Bolshevik system of terror and repression at a ‘higher’, i.e. more organized, paranoid and explicitly totalitarian, level.

Stalin greatly expanded Lenin and Trotsky’s original kontslager (concentration camps) and penal colonies under his first industrialization and ‘collectivisation’ campaign during the first five-year plan of 1929-34. From a sociological and Marxist viewpoint, this campaign mainly intended to crush the last peasant resistance to the regime by violently proletarianizing (‘collectivizing’) them. Within a very short period of time, state commissars forced millions of peasants off lands they had worked for centuries and into state collective farms. This was simply the Soviet state-capitalist version of the usual enclosures and other forms of violence which nascent industrial capitalism has used and continues to use in most countries to deprive peasants of their land and force them into factories and wage labour.

This policy of state terror in fact permanently weakened Soviet agriculture and created the conditions for devastating famines in the Ukraine and southern Russia in 1932 and 1934 that killed, in Anne Applebaum’s estimation, between six and seven million people. (2) 100,000 of those in any way resisting and those, often arbitrarily, designated kulaks (wealthy peasants) were arrested and sent to the forced labour camps; reviving the old Tsarist tradition of the ‘administrative deportation order’, over 2 million were deported to permanent ‘special exile’ in Siberia, Kazakhstan and other underpopulated, barren regions of the Soviet Union.(3) In many ways mirroring the early (state terror) phases of British industrialization and its distant penal settlements like Botany Bay and van Diemen’s Land, peasant women gleaners were incarcerated who had picked up leftover grain to survive or hungry people received ten year sentences for stealing a pound of potatoes or a handful of apples. (4)

As the camps expanded from 1929 onwards, the kontslager, now cosmetically renamed ‘corrective labour camps’ under the Main Camp Administration (Russian acronym: Gulag), were placed under the complete management of the secret police (now re-named OGPU) and explicitly harnessed to the Stalinist industrialization and economic development effort.

By the middle of 1930, the Gulag system had become a huge ‘camp-industrial complex’ with 300,000 inmates working at its disposal in many industries and infrastructure projects. By 1934 OGPU had become one of the most important economic actors in the Soviet Union, and, under its new name of NKVD, now controlled the fate of more than one million prisoners working under slave labour conditions.

Stalin’s so-called ‘socialist’ industrialization was thus based on state terror and convict slave labour. In Stalin’s ‘Great Terror’ of 1937-38 the terror was simply internally extended to the purging of the Bolshevik Party itself. Stalin eliminated his party opponents and sent unmotivated regional arrest quotas to local NKVD bosses, the camps for a time even changing

from indifferently run prisons in which people died by accident, into genuinely deadly camps where prisoners were deliberately worked to death, or actually murdered, in far larger numbers than they had been in the past. (5)

Reviving a bourgeois Jacobin term first tellingly used by Lenin in 1917, all political prisoners were now officially labelled ‘enemies of the people’ (vragi naroda) and, completing the de-humanizing process begun in the concentration camps themselves, Stalin began publicly referring to them in the revealing disease metaphors also favoured by brown fascists like Hitler: namely as ‘vermin’, ‘pollution’, ‘filth’ and ‘weeds’ which needed to be ‘uprooted’. (6) Conditions in the camps were improved again in 1939 for economic rather than humanitarian reasons: the new Gulag boss Beria realized that the higher death rates and levels of sickness among the ‘production units’ (prisoners) were actually preventing the NKVD from fulfilling its production plans. (7)

Poles and Balts incarcerated after the Soviet occupations of their countries in 1939 courtesy of the infamous Hitler-Stalin Pact, substantial ethnic minorities, German POWs and even, unbelievably, perhaps 1.8 million returning Russian POWs after the war ‒ all further added to the Gulag population.

The total number incarcerated has never been officially disclosed but, in Bullock’ and Labedz’ view, may have peaked in 1950 at 12-15 million in 200 forced labour camps scattered around the endless freezing wastes of Siberia, the Arctic and Far East. (8) Anne Applebaum estimates that a total of some 28.7 million people suffered under forced labour in the Soviet Union: of those some 18-22 million people passed through the Gulag system of concentration camps between 1929 and 1953 and another six million were sent into the permanent exile of a forced labour without barbed wire in Kazakh deserts or Siberian forests. (9)

As for total death estimates with regard to Soviet Stalinism, Bullock and Labedz estimate the total of those arrested between 1930-37 who died in forced labour camps at 3.5 million; in addition they estimate that 11 million peasants died in the countryside of politically occasioned famine. (10) Stressing the still very imprecise nature of the estimates, Applebaum quotes a figure of 786,098 official victims of Stalin’s political executions between 1934 to 1953, ‘reluctantly cites’ 2.7 million as the number of prisoners who may have died in the Gulag camps and exile villages between 1929 and 1953, and 10-20 million as the total number of victims of the Civil War, the Bolshevik Red Terror, the collectivization famines, mass deportations, mass executions and the Gulag concentration camps themselves between 1918 and 1987, the year President Gorbachev finally dismantled the remaining camps. (11)

For Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, ‘socialism’ was simply, sometimes even officially, state capitalism, i.e. the dictatorship of party commissars and bureaucrats (‘apparatchiki’) over nationalised production and distribution which left all capitalist oppression and exploitation intact. Such an erroneous identification had been already prepared, albeit in more traditionally bourgeois democratic forms, within the official Marxist (Kautskyean) ideology of the European Social Democratic parties of the Second International.

This ‘socialist/communist’ ideology of a new, nascent ruling class (nomenklatura) in an industrialising country was, despite all the evidence to the contrary, fervently believed by millions of communists, authoritarian socialists and liberal-progressive ‘fellow travellers’ throughout the world for decades and considerably facilitated the final demise of the original emancipatory socialist ideal of worker self-management. Both militant communists and reformist socialists – interpreting Marx, in part no doubt correctly, in the very same materialistic and economistic categories that define capitalism ‒ thus in fact conceived of ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ in the very spirit of capitalism itself.

‘Marxism’, specifically in its emasculated positivist and Stalinist form of ‘Marxism-Leninism’, thus became the primitive legitimising ideology of a new and underdeveloped type of ruling class – often as upwardly mobile workers and petty-bourgeois ‒ within a totalitarian, state-terrorist system of state capitalism that itself reflected economic underdevelopment. ‘The hierarchical, statist framework of this cheap remake of the capitalist ruling class was supplied by the party of the workers organised on the bourgeois model of separation.’(Guy Debord) (12)

Even if the Soviet ruling elites were now made up of ordinary Russians, Bolshevik and Stalinist Russia was, in historian Orlando Figes’ words:

a mirror-image of the tsarist state. Lenin (later Stalin) occupied the place of the Tsar-God; his commissars and Cheka henchmen played the same roles as the provincial governors, the oprichniki, and the Tsar’s other plenipotentiaries; while his party’s comrades had the same power and privileged position as the aristocracy under the old regime. (13)

Given ‘brown’ fascism’s many original borrowings from Lenin’s authoritarian Bolshevism and Stalin’s totalitarian regime of secret police and forced labour camps, one could go one step further: libertarian socialist Otto Rühle’s early characterisation of ‘socialist’ state capitalism as ‘red fascism’ seems quite apposite. (14)

Thus, whatever their original theoretical contents, previously radical, emancipatory terms like ‘socialism’, ‘communism’ and ‘Marxism’ for increasing numbers of people in fact came to be identified with the ultra-oppressive, totalitarian, impoverished, drab and boring so-called ‘real existing socialism’ of the Soviet empire and, later, the equally, if not more, genocidal Maoist China. (15)

This was, of course, an erroneous identification of great ideological and stabilising benefit not only psychologically to communist true-believers but, more importantly, to the liberal capitalist system itself. Aided by many socialists’ own intellectual and ethical confusions, voluntary blindness and double standards about the real nature of the Soviet empire, so-called ‘real existing socialism’, any anti-capitalist or socialist dissent within capitalism could immediately be linked to the threat of ‘communist’ totalitarianism. Most workers also understood that such a so-called ‘workers’ state’ of terroristic state capitalism meant – despite some of its social welfare achievements ‒ not more, but considerably less liberty, no freedom of association, movement, unionization or speech, more workplace exploitation and infinitely lower living standards than they had gained through hard struggles under liberal capitalism.

Thus it could be argued that the victory of slave-labour Gulag ‘socialism’ in the Soviet Union and its satellites, and later in China, actually helped socialism lose. On the basis of her own disillusioning experiences in the Bolshevik Russia of 1919-21, anarchist Emma Goldman was already keenly, and prophetically, already aware of these ramifications in 1931:

‘the Bolsheviks’ experiment upon Russia must retard social changes abroad for a long period. What better excuse needs the European bourgeoisie for its reactionary methods than the ferocious dictatorship in Russia?’ (Living My Life, Vol 2, p. 822).

That ‘long period’ has continued to the present day, even after the final collapse of ‘Communism’ and the Soviet empire which had the people and anarchists, and should have had all freedom-loving socialists, dancing on the streets.

Coda on the Numbers

So who was the bloodiest tyrant of the 20th century in terms of death tolls: was it fascist Hitler, or communists Stalin and Mao? And where would Lenin lie on this scale? As Matthew White (Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century at, who has studied ALL available sources on the numbers, notes: the answer to that question depends on what victims you count, on your criteria. Here is White:

“There are so many candidates for the award of top monster that we can’t decide between them. Whether it’s Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong or Joseph Stalin is, quite frankly, anybody’s guess.

For now, let’s just skip over the whole margin of error thing — reasonable people have studied the evidence and come up with wildly differing numbers. You’re free to check my sources, but for now, trust me. I’ve studied the matter at great length and decided that the most likely death toll for these three are:

Mao 40Million
Hitler 34M
Stalin 20M

Well, that certainly looks like Mao is our man, but wait. Mao’s largest crime is the Great Leap Forward, a bungled attempt to restructure the economy of China which created a famine that killed some 30M. If we confine our indictment to deliberate killings, we get this:

Hitler 34M
Stalin 20M
Mao 10M

So it’s Hitler, right? Except that most of the deaths on his head were caused by the Second World War. Sure, he started it, but our society does not blanketly condemn the starting of wars (after all, we reserve the right to do it ourselves in a just cause), and we certainly don’t consider killing armed enemy soldiers in a fair fight to be a crime against humanity. If we therefore confine ourselves to the cold-blooded murder of unarmed non-combatants, our table rearranges itself again:

Stalin 20M
Hitler 15M
Mao 10M

This brings Stalin floating to the top. So it look like once you reduce their crimes to the unjustifiably lowest common denominator, then Stalin is worst; however, you might want to argue that dead is dead so it really doesn’t matter if you give your victims a chance to fight back. Fighting an unjust or reckless war is certainly a crime against humanity, so our numbers should go back to:

Hitler 34M
Stalin 20M
Mao 10M

… and these are just the problems we’ll encounter if we accept my numbers without debate. If we want to use the estimates of other scholars, we can pin up to 50 million murders on Stalin, enough to push him to the top of the list regardless of definition. Or we can whittle him down to 10 million murders if we use the low end of the margin of error, and scrounge several more tens of millions for Mao, or away from him.

So, the answer to the question of “Who is roasting on the hottest fires in Hell?” is “Well, that depends…”

As for Lenin, White’s list of next fourteen bloodiest tyrants of the 20th century after Hitler, Stalin and Mao includes him. Here is the list in chronological order:

Leopold II (Belgium: 1865-1909), Nicholas II (Russia: 1894-1917), Wilhelm II (Germany: 1888-1918), Enver Pasha (Turkey: 1913-18), Lenin (USSR: 1917-24), Chiang Kai-shek (China: 1928-49), Hirota Koki (Japan: 1936-37), Tojo Hideki (Japan: 1941-44), Hirohito (Japan: 1926-89), Ho Chi Minh (North Vietnam: 1945-69), Kim Il Sung (North Korea: 1948-94), Pol Pot (Cambodia: 1975-79), Saddam Hussein (Iraq: 1969-2003), Yahya Khan (Pakistan: 1969-71).


1.‘Stalinism is the name for mature Bolshevism. It was the means, under emergency conditions, of dispelling feudal property relations and establishing factory labour within a still-peasant-dominated society, specifically because this society had pioneered a workers’ revolution in its cities due to the existence of an external capitalist world from which factories had already been imported.’ (A. Peacock, Two Hundred Pharaohs Five Billion Slaves, p. 77).
2. A. Applebaum, Gulag, p. 64.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., p. 104.
6. Ibid., pp. 111-112.
7. Ibid., p. 119.
8. Ibid., p. 64.
9. Ibid., p. 518.
10. Taken from the ‘forced labour’ entry in A. Bullock & S. Trombley (eds.), The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, p. 329.
11. Ibid., pp. 520-521.
12. G. Debord, La Societé du Spectacle, 104 (own translation, P.L-N).
13. O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p. 813
14. O. Rühle, ‘Brauner und roter Faschismus’, in G. Mergner (ed.), Otto Rühle, Schriften.
15. At the extreme end of estimates, Jung Chang and John Holloway estimate Mao’s total victims to be around 70 million people (Mao. The Unknown Story).


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on November 17, 2017.

4 Responses to “Stalinism: The Inner Truth of Bolshevism 1924-91”

  1. As usual, the more i learn, the more i realize how little i know…
    I do seem to come back to a personal opinion/desire for small communities based on a parecon type of social organization…(or any type of equitable alternative the community wishes to create, for that matter)…that federate with one another…
    But given the brutal history of humans opportunistically dominating one another…what are the odds of that utopian dream occurring…?
    Meanwhile, there’s global warming to factor in…makes having an optimistic outlook seem kinda futile…

  2. I agree with Kristi; I see no way we -as individuals- can stand in the way of the massed forces for continued World Domination = the Oligarchic Corporations. Trump’s a sideshow distracting us; Brexit the same, distracting us masses while Big Business ties up more loose knots. Our powerlessness is continually reinforced, so we turn away and spend, spend, spend…

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