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Beatrice Webb Returns From Dead; Assumes Name "Milne"

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Oxford University Professor Robert Service's brilliant new history of world communism didn't impress Guardian reviewer Seamus Milne. This morning, Nick linked Service's recent piece in the lefty New Statesman—essentially a response to the Guardian—but Milne's original review is so bizarre, so frozen in the 1930s, it's worthy of its own post. Milne's nut graph(s):

Communism, which came to control a third of the planet in a generation, was the most important political movement of the past century. It carried out what other socialists had only talked about, abolishing capitalism and creating publicly owned, planned economies. Its crimes and failures are now so well rehearsed that they are in danger of obliterating any understanding of its achievements—both of which have lessons for the future of progressive politics and the search for a social alternative to globalised capitalism.

[A]long with its brutalities and authoritarianism, communism delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, full employment and unprecedented advances in social and gender equality. Its collapse, by contrast, has brought an explosion of poverty and inequality and, in Russia, a retreat from the democratisation of the last years of the communist regime.

Milne also wants Service to admit that it was "a communist state, after all, that played the decisive role in the defeat of Nazi Germany." Well, sort of. But he seems to forget that the same "communist state" had, just a few years previous, allied with Nazi Germany, gobbled up half of Poland and invaded Finland. And without American Lend-Lease aid—which provided Stalin with trucks, jeeps, raw materials and machine tools—the Soviet victory would hardly have been possible. To quote Kissinger on the Iran-Iraq War, "It's a pity they couldn't both loose."

Final note: One of the more absurd sentences in Milne's review is the suggestion that "the Soviet archives have tended to dampen down some of the wilder claims made, for example, about Stalin's terror." This is patently false, as anyone who has browsed Yale University's indispensible Annals of Communism series can confirm. This reminds me of a story related in Martin Amis's Koba the Dread: When the Soviet archives confirmed Robert Conquest's account of the Ukrainian famine in his classic book Harvest of Sorrow, he was asked by his publisher to suggest a subtitle for a new edition. He replied, "How about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?"

NEXT: Chuck Hagel Delenda Est!

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  1. [A]long with its brutalities and authoritarianism, communism delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, full employment and unprecedented advances in social and gender equality. Its collapse, by contrast, has brought an explosion of poverty and inequality and, in Russia, a retreat from the democratisation of the last years of the communist regime.

    This reminds me of a joke I heard once. I can’t remember the whole thing, and I’m bad at telling jokes, but the crux of the thing is that two old Russian ladies are standing in a bread line in Soviet Russia during a shortage. One lady turns to the other and remarks about how bad it is to have to stand in line so long in the cold to get food. After this, old lady #2 says “just be glad we’re not in one of the capitalist countries: there, they don’t even hand out the bread!”

  2. [A]long with its brutalities and authoritarianism, communism delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, full employment and unprecedented advances in social and gender equality.

    The first question would be at what cost were these delivered?

    The second question would be to ask what did Soviet industrialization, etc. look like on the ground? A perfect example of this industrialization is the plant in Magnitogorsk (the world’s largest steel plant at one time – it literally “ate” a mount of iron by the time of its closure). When it was created (in the 1930s as I recall) it was a previously thinly populated area in the Urals. As such living conditions were primitive at first. But one would expect them to improve, right? Wrong. The living conditions there remained “third world” in nature right up to the plant’s demise.

    As for “gender equality,” I’ll repeat a story told to me once by someone who was in the USSR in the 1980s. It was “Woman’s Day” – the national holiday to celebrate women (that may not be its exact name, but you get my point). Well, the women this individual interacted with on that day got all dolled up to celebrate the event. Then they went into the kitchen to cook for their men.

    Its collapse, by contrast, has brought an explosion of poverty…

    There was widespread poverty and crime in the USSR prior to its collapse. This was something that the regime tried to hide from outside eyes.

  3. “He replied, “How about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?”

    Can the subject of a thread also win the thread? I vote yes.

  4. There are all sorts of people who would have you believe, while secretly hoping that nobody actually, you know, examines the historical record, that they were vigorous anti-communists. Hell, after Stalin was given the soft-sell treatment by the New York Times, before WWII, there were people describing Mao as an “agrarian reformer” as he stacked the corpses as far as the eye could see. In 1975, the 1972 Democratic Party presidential candidate was descrbing the Khmer Rouge as a positive force for Cambodian society. There are prominent morons today who portray Castro in a positive light. The strong statists in our political cultute are absolutely immune to information which contradicts their Faith.

  5. And without American Lend-Lease aid-which provided Stalin with trucks, jeeps, raw materials and machine tools-the Soviet victory would hardly have been possible.

    Let’s not veer into hyperbole. It is quite possible the Soviet Union would have eventually beat Hitler even if the US had stayed out of the war entirely. The German Army was badly overextended, and Hitler did everything possible to turn his potential Ukrainian and Russian allies against him. Sure it would have taken the Russians 2 or 3 more years, and millions more lives – but they could afford it. Good doesn’t always triumph over evil, sometimes evil can triumph over evil. In reality the US victory in WWII in retrospect was more of a victory over Communism than Fascism – had we not entered the war the Russians probably would have made it to Paris and the history of Europe would be even more tragic than it is today.

    What really irks me is the claim that Communism delivered “mass industrialisation, mass education, etc. etc.” In almost every Communist country industrialisation was well underway before the Communists took power. Russia made huge economic advances before 1917, and it took arguably until 1950 until the country reached that standard of living again. China too was making a lot of economic progress before 1949 – can anyone seriously argue that China would be poorer if the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution hadn’t happened? Milne is truly an ignorant fool.

  6. He forgot that communism made trains run on time. . . when the trains had fuel. . . and the clocks were working.

  7. Will Allen,

    Well, there isn’t a prominent dictator in the last hundred years which hasn’t received some support from some aspect of American society. Be it Hitler or Stalin or Franco.

  8. “It’s a pity they couldn’t both loose.”

    Need to fix that one, champ.

  9. vanya,

    Well, I think most folks don’t understand the exact nature of the material provided. Most importantly the Lend-Lease material filled the gaps that allied militaries were having a hard filling.

  10. Will,

    The reason Mao was an “agrarian reformer” was because he was striving to fertilize the soil with the bodies of dead peasants and the bourgeois.

  11. [A]long with its brutalities and authoritarianism, communism delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, full employment and unprecedented advances in social and gender equality

    Of course, these tasks were made much easier by the fact that dead millions do not want for jobs or food or schooling. Social equality?? Well, I guess death is the great equalizer.

  12. “A]long with its brutalities and authoritarianism, communism delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, full employment and unprecedented advances in social and gender equality.”

    I had a post on the other thread about how stupid the claim that communists rapidly industrialized the countries they ruled. The mass education claim is equally laughable. How does the writer miss the irony of this statement in light of the communist penchent for “re-education” camps? It is like saying the Nazis delivered their citizens “lots of good clean air”. God, whereever there is a boot on a face, there is a western liberal there to tell us how the face has universal literacy and healthcare.

    The employment is equally laughable. Communist workers were not in any way employed in a meaningful sense since they worked in jobs that didn’t produce anything making government subsidized wages. They were just welfare recipients who had to show up and do something no matter how unproductive that something was.

  13. Rapid Industrialization, thy name is Trabant.

  14. communism delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, full employment and unprecedented advances in social and gender equality. Its collapse, by contrast, has brought an explosion of poverty and inequality and, in Russia, a retreat from the democratisation of the last years of the communist regime.

    Yeah, right.

    In 1974 I toured Romania when it was still behind the Iron Curtain. I was with the Texas A&M Singing Cadets. We flew over on Czechoslovakian Air Lines (not a friendly skies outfit) with two other groups from more liberal schools, who were just enchanted to tour the workers’ paradise.

    I never had a hotel room where the toilet, sink, and bathtub all worked, or with a complete set of working light bulbs. We stayed two nights with a “typical” local family living on the outskirts of a city, who still had an outhouse sans impossible-to-get toilet paper. Our accompanist used a keyboard for most of our concerts, as most pianos were hopelessly out of tune. Circle-camera-slash “no photos” signs were everywhere, including one we saw protecting an open field. “Why?” “Because the government says so.”

    At that time the USSR was a little over fifty years old. Their “rapid industrialization” had resulted in technology that was at least twenty years behind the U.S., even with our help, and production of consumer goods still hadn’t caught up to where we were in 1930, in the depths of the Depression.

    Gender equality? When the Berlin Wall/Iron Curtain fell women in the USSR were still making their own sanitary napkins.

    I could go on, but suffice it to say that on the flight back the other two musical groups had radically revised their opinions on communism v. capitalism.

    Nothing like a little raw experience to counter philosophical prognostications.

  15. There is also Milne’s profoundly silly claim that it was “communists who led the resistance in occupied Europe”.

    Leaving aside the fact that the Comintern was batting for the other side until Barbarossa, this stands up to no kind of scrutiny. It waa the AK and Jewish groups that led in Poland, where resistance was at its most fierce. It was Gaullists of both the left and right who led in France.

    Many of the partisans in Ukraine were nationalist anti-communists.

    Milne is perhaps on firmer ground in the Balkans. But even in Yugoslavia – which uniquely self-liberated – there were other strong political currents.

    Milne – a patrician ultra-leftist – is on his way out soon as Comment Editor at the Guardian. Good, ‘cos he’s a tosser.

  16. The western communists and their fellow travellers could never seem to grasp that the farms and factories they toured were nothing more than Potemkin Villages. Even when they realized that they were being escorted through “showpiece” farms or factories, they could not grasp the vast gulf between what they were being shown and the reality.

    Those who escaped from the horrors of the Soviet Union and told their tales were invariably dismissed by the left as “CIA tools” or some similiar formula.

  17. Communism, which came to control a third of the planet in a generation, was the most important political movement of the past century.

    Except for, you know, liberal democracy. Which put communism in its grave, and has resumed its onward march (in its usual bumbling, fits-and-starts way).

  18. Is this person related to the “Winnie the Pooh” author?

  19. Isn’t that splendid Robert Conquest anecdote actually linked to his revised edition of The Great Terror? (which he modestly subtitled “A Reassessment”)

  20. Rapid Industrialization, thy name is Trabant.

    Ah, yes, the Trabant. Slap a couple of handles on it and you have a good wheelbarrow.

  21. What gets my goat the most is the nonsense about how the communist countries solved the problem of unemployment-as though production, rather than consumption, is the goal of economic activity. If that were the case, the world’s economic woes could be solved by paying people in third world countries to dig random holes in the ground and fill them in again, over and over and over. If everyone has to be employed somehow or be shot, there will be no unemployment, but when you need to shoot people to get them to work it means that their time is probably better spent not being employed.

  22. It’s funny to watch the movement of communist denial over the years. Back during the Cold War and shortly thereafter, you’d get the standard retort of “How can we know whether communism works, since it hasn’t been tried anywhere?” Now, this creepy nostalgia by pampered westerners for Stalin and Mao.

  23. …communists who led the resistance in occupied Europe…

    They were part of the resistance certainly, but so were lots of groups.

    I will note of course that the Soviets, when they barbarically invaded Poland in 1939 (after the Poles HAD KICKED THEIR ASSES in 1921) killed every native Polish Communist they could get their hands on. What Communist resistance there was in Poland existed because they were planted their by the Soviets.

    And I won’t even get started on how the Soviets stuck a knife in the back of independent Polish resistance by watching the Nazis crush the warsaw uprising.

  24. “Those who escaped from the horrors of the Soviet Union and told their tales were invariably dismissed by the left as “CIA tools” or some similiar formula.”

    Which is kind of ironic, given it was CIA “data” that made the USSR look so flaming impressive so long after most who were “in the know” had realized it was all smoke and mirrors. You know, those guys had to stay in business somehow…

  25. Which is kind of ironic, given it was CIA “data” that made the USSR look so flaming impressive so long after most who were “in the know” had realized it was all smoke and mirrors. You know, those guys had to stay in business somehow…

    Point taken. “Threat inflation”* was a vice of the right ALMOST as much as denying the horrors of Communism was a vice of the left. In defense of the right, however, the Soviet Union and its allies were trying to destroy the West, not coexist with it. It wasn’t until after the Cold War that we discovered that the Soviets had blatantly violated the Biological Weapons Treaty of ~1973 by continuing to weaponize smallpox and other diseases.

    *Andrew Cockburn’s The Threat, published ca.1983 was an excellent debunking of the ‘Soviet Menace.’

  26. …communists who led the resistance in occupied Europe…

    They were part of the resistance certainly, but so were lots of groups.

    And don’t forget that until the invasion of the Soviet Union, official Communist-led orgnizations in occupied countries discouraged resistance to, and sometimes even collaborated with, the Germans since Hitler and Uncle Joe were buddies at the time. Of course, there were independant-minded communists (perhaps Trotskyites?) who ignored these orders.

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