Review of Igal Halfin. (2009). Stalinist Confessions. University of Pittsburg Press. Reviewer: Mr. Jan Peczkis
The Relatively Indiscriminate Nature of the Great Purge (1934-1939)
This work details how the Soviet totalitarian state labeled people “enemies” and dealt with them. One characteristic feature of this book is the reprinting of many relevant Soviet-era political cartoons, complete with translations of the Russian.
This work also emphasizes biographical details. For instance, Genrikh Iagoda (Yagoda) was head of the NKVD. In the late 1930’s, Yagoda was successively succeeded by Nikolai Ezhov (Yezhov) and then by Lavrentii Beriia (Lavrenti Beria) as head of the NKVD. (e. g., p. 224).
Year-by-year statistics are provided for the indictments and executions during the Great Purge. (p. 399). According to the figures cited by Halfin, a total of 2,029,557 Soviet citizens were indicted and 688,647 executed.
It is possible that the NKVD, like the Nazis, included the use of poison gas in mass executions. On one hand, no Soviet document mentions use of poison gas. On the other hand, a number of NKVD officials testified of the use of trucks converted into mobile gas chambers, with the truck exhaust being routed into the compartment which held the prisoners. (p. 463).
Let us now consider some of the internal contradictions in Communist ideology which are alluded-to by Halfin:
The different manifestations of Soviet leftist radicalism were, in essence, not very different from each other. Halfin writes: “It was sometimes difficult to distinguish between a populist and a Social Democrat, a Bolshevik and a Menshevik, a Stalinist and a Trotskyist–after all, they professed the same revolutionary values, spoke the same Marxian language, adhered to the same emancipatory project.” (p. 3). [These facts contradict modern leftists who try to dichotomize “Trotskyites” and “Stalinists”, etc.].
Now who was the “revolutionary” and who was the “counterrevolutionary?” Halfin comments: “The carnivalesque logic of the Great Purge is evident in every field…As the purges progressed, the NKVD’s snares captured huge numbers of its own investigators…20,000 NKVD employees were shot in 1936-1938…The higher one was in the Party hierarchy, the better were one’s changes of being arrested.” (p. 425).
Since time immemorial, Communists have labeled those who disagreed with them as fascists and Nazis. Interestingly, Soviet cartoons went as far as calling Trotsky a fascist and Nazi supporter. (p. 347).
It is also interesting to note that, for all the Communist rhetoric about the “working class”, this was in actuality an ideological/propaganda construct. Halfin comments: “The Communist party was the party of the proletariat, but proletarian was a way of thinking, not a station in life to which one was born. Every individual who assumed the proletarian perspective could become a member of the Party (and, inversely, workers with bruises on their hands were barred entrance if their consciousness was not ripe).” (p. 372).
Review of Intimate Enemies: Demonizing the Bolshevik Opposition, 1918-1928, by Igal Halfin (2007). University of Pittsburg Press. Reviewer: Mr. Jan Peczkis
Communism as a Rigid, Doctrinaire Ideology
This work emphasizes how Communists sought to define their ideology after the Russian Revolution. Emphasis is placed upon the Lenin-Trotsky split.
In many ways, post-revolutionary Soviet Communism resembled an intellectual straightjacket, as described by Halfin: “Bolsheviks understood opposition to be not so much a political platform as a spiritual predicament—a dangerous infirmity of consciousness. Because emancipatory truth was supposed to speak in a single voice, to be in opposition to the Central Committee meant to challenge proletarian truth, to become a source of discord in the brotherhood of the elect.” (p. 22). Also: “Everybody knew what deviants were deviating from: the straight line the working class traveled to salvation. The Bolsheviks maintained that only one line connected the here and now with the classless society to come, that the Party had been charged with finding this line, and that the writings of Marx and Engels offered the Party invaluable help with that endeavor.” (p. 55).
The following description of the rhetorical excesses of Soviet Communism is very much applicable to present-day left-wing movements: “‘Infatuated with talking’, the Bolsheviks developed a whole revolutionary lexicon, with its special similes and double meanings, its own comic tradition. They were masters of invective, diatribe, peroration, and an extravagant verbal vendetta. Indeed, their enjoyment of their own invective jumps out at the reader from the page.” (p. 77).
As for the Communist war on religion, it is interesting to note that the Soviet Communists felt more threatened by the Baptists (considered sects) than by the Russian Orthodox Church. Halfin comments: “Baptists were generally seen as a more serious challenge to Communism than Orthodox Christians. Traditional faith was mechanical, and once enlightened an Orthodox Christian lost his superstitions. Sectarians, by contrast, possessed a fully developed worldview of their own…Christians who recognized the justice of Communism in the domain of social life were considered more harmful and dangerous than Christians who openly approved a restoration of the tsarist regime because they were likely to advance a well-thought-out alternative to the Communist method of attaining equality.” (p. 313).
Review of Language and Revolution, edited by Igal Halfin (2002). Frank Cass, London, Portland, Oregon. Reviewer: Mr. Jan Peczkis
Insights into Communism and Nazism and Their Similarities
This anthology brings up many concepts and ideas, and I mention only a few of them. Nowadays, Nazism is commonly misrepresented as extreme conservatism (no doubt mainly by those who dislike modern conservatives), but Halfin rejects this: “There are additional affinities between Communism and Nazism. Thus it is not easy to uphold the dichotomy between the future-oriented Communists and the backward-oriented Nazis: Hitler’s regime was forward-looking in so far as it denounced the old Germany, despised Wilhelmine conservatives and constantly called for a transformative movement forward…Much to the consternation of many twentieth-century leftist radicals, Goebbels, too, prided himself on being a revolutionary.” (p. 6). Nazism was progressive in various other ways, as pointed out by Peter Fritzche (p. 163, 177): “Indeed, fascists explicitly characterized their project as one of creating new men and new women who would meet the exigencies and opportunities of the post-war period…The Nazi New Man put great value on mechanical ability; building instruments, repairing a motorcycle or car, or joining a glider team…” (p. 177).
Nor were fascism and Nazism manifestations of extreme nationalism. They instead constituted a radical, racialist form of identity: “This was anything but pre-war nationalism, hurrah patriotism, or imperial nostalgia. Rather, this rebirth depended on the perceived violence of the war’s break with the past, the scope of mobilization the war entailed, and the collective and national nature of the efforts the war demanded.” (Fritzche, p. 170).
Dan Diner has an interesting perspective on historical memories: “The Irish, the Poles, the Serbs and the Jews, for example, are generally reckoned to possess significantly long historical memory spans. The British, the French, and the Germans, on the other hand, are blessed with shorter memories.” (p. 383). He also criticizes Heller’s (anti-Polish) ON THE EDGE OF DESTRUCTION for reading the Holocaust backwards into time, in effect fusing pre-Holocaust events in prewar Poland with Holocaust ones under Nazi German rule—a phenomenon which he previously termed “compressed time”. (p. 385). Finally, he informs us that the Nazis did not require German Jews to wear the Star of David until 1941, long after the Nazi ascension to power in 1933. (p. 388). This reminds us that Nazi policies towards Jews were neither static nor unchangeable, and that Nazi exterminatory plans against Jews developed with time.
Review of: Halfin, Igal (2003) Terror in My Soul. Harvard University Press. Reviewer: Mr. Jan Peczkis
Working Communist Teachings into Soviet Society
After the Russian Revolution, Communists shifted their concern from that of acquiring power to that of stamping out all opposition or potential dissent. Nearly half of the Communists purged from Leningrad State University in 1924 were of noble or intelligentsia background. (p. 215). Communists also sought to uncover and to neutralize “passive” tendencies against the Revolutionary state, including “degeneracy”. Some of this makes for funny reading now, such as masturbation as a form of “degeneracy”.
Communists rewrote the Decalogue. (p. 129). Stealing became OK if one was “expropriating the expropriators”. Killing became OK if it was the killing of a class enemy. Honoring one’s father and mother were only recognized if they recognized and supported the Revolution. Adultery, and other sexual activity, was encouraged if they promoted the growth of collectivist feeling.
The Communists sought to make a “New Soviet Man.” Because they believed in the perfectibility of man, they rejected genetic determinism. (p. 234). A form of eugenics was also encouraged. (See also p. 323).
Halfin supports a figure of 5-6 million dead as the price of collectivization. (p. 285). Victims of the 1936-1938 purge are reckoned much lower.
Review of: Halfin, Igal (1999) From Darkness to Light. University of Pittsburg Press. Reviewer: Mr. Jan Peczkis
A Philosophical Analysis of Communism
Israeli scholar Igal Halfin has written several works on Communism, and, in this book, describes his motivation for doing so: “Raised as a Marxist, I have tried in writing this volume to come to terms my upbringing. Intellectually, I rebelled. Today I contend that Marxism, with its denial of the present and its dream of total transparency and equality, is a dangerous political doctrine directly responsible for many of the atrocities my parents witnessed.” (p. xi).
This work requires a fairly good background in general and political philosophy to appreciate fully. Much emphasis is given to the parallels between Communism and certain motifs found in Christianity and Gnosticism. These include messianism, the battle between good and evil and the apocalyptic final triumph of good, utopianism, the salvational quality of knowledge, etc.
Communism is anti-religious because it is, in a sense, a religion—albeit a secular religion. Halfin comments: “The metaphysical redeemer naturally became an object of veneration. Lunacharskii declared the proletariat to be God; Alexandra Kollontai, a leading Bolshevik feminist, wrote that ‘we overthrow the former gods in order to set up in their place our deity.’” (p. 97).
Halfin includes a table of prospective students rejected for admission to Tomsk University in 1926 and 1927. Most of them were rejected not owing to lack of qualification, but because of their background. These included children of clergy, of big landlords, etc. (p. 262).