Turning from the circus in Washington to history: who was worse—Stalin, Hitler, the Brits?

My writing mind wants to escape for a little bit from the farcical circus in Washington, as our elected officials play chicken with our debt-fueled economy.  So come with me to the more refined world of historical assessment.

I read a lot of history, and one trend I have noticed since the turn of the century is the move towards considering Stalin to have been as bad as Hitler.  Writers of history as varied as Lubomyr Luciuk, Timothy Snyder, Adam Hochschild, Anne Applebaum and Miron Dolot all build the case against Stalin by illuminating the vast numbers that he had killed, executed by starvation, worked to death, tortured and imprisoned over 30 years.  Robert Conquest, a British academic historian, puts the estimate of total Stalin victims at 20 million; Timothy Snyder says Hitler killed 12 million, tops, but says that’s more than Stalin killed.  On the anecdotal side, I had a brief conversation on the subject with two of my many well-read friends recently, and both thought Stalin was at least as bad as Hitler.

This post is definitely not about rehabilitating Stalin’s reputation.  An attempt to decide whether Stalin or Hitler was a criminal of a higher, more horrific magnitude is the ghoulish equivalent of arguing about whether Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays was a better baseball player.

What I want to do is make another comparison that may put a different light on the bloody history of the past century: I want to compare Stalin to the British Empire.  I’m going to steal the argument from Chris Harman, specifically pages 477-478 of his A People’s History of the World, which Howard Zinn said does for world history what Zinn himself did for U.S. history in A People’s History of the United States: give the story of the people, not of the ruling elite.

Here are the similarities that Harman finds between how Stalin used murder and terror to advance the Soviet economy in imitation of what the British did over a timeframe lasting some 250 years; some of the examples are mine:

  • The British industrial system drove peasants from the land through enclosing it and clearing them off, thus freeing large landowners to collect more property; Stalin smashed peasant control of the land through “collectivization.”
  • British capitalism accumulated wealth through slavery; Stalin herded millions of people into slave camps.
  • Britain pillaged Ireland, India and Africa; Stalin deported entire peoples thousands of miles and committed genocide against the Ukrainians.
  • The British industrial revolution denied workers the most elementary rights and made people work 14-16 hours a day; Stalin abolished independent unions and shot down strikers.

In theory, then, the only difference between Stalin and the Brits is that it took Britain 250 or more years to become a fully industrialized nation (or as Harman states, “complete its primitive accumulation”), whereas Stalin did it in two decades.  The “brutality and barbarity was more concentrated,” as Harman puts it.

But what about the body count? How could the land of celebrity princesses and the Beatles have killed as many people as that butcher Stalin?  We start our British body count with the 3 million who died in the Bengal famine of 1943, caused by British war-time policies and the 10 million Africans that the British enslaved and brought to the new world before 1820.  We haven’t even mentioned oppression of its own peasants and striking workers, the little nastiness in Ireland, its 19th century version of the Afghanistan War, the opium wars and trade in China, and the 150-year Raj regime in the Indian subcontinent.

We could be so bold as to ask: what reflects more poorly on mankind—a nation succumbing to a totalitarian nutcase for 30 years or generations of a ruling elite committing and condoning atrocities for more than two and a half centuries?  This British ruling elite was predisposed to these atrocities by its belief that the victims were inferior, an easy supposition after a millennium of believing that certain people, i.e., the royalty and nobility, were inherently better than others.  Of course, we in the anti-royalist United States also built our capitalist empire on the blood and backs of people we thought were inferior to us.

Comparing Stalin to Hitler fits cozily into the unfettered free market, capitalist ideology of the current age.  We can point to Stalin and conclude that communism, and by implication, socialism, do not work and lead to violence against masses of people.

But when you compare the Soviets to the British, you should quickly recognize that what Stalin implemented was a state-directed totalitarian capitalism.  Our current capitalist ideology demands that we call what Stalin did socialism, but that’s just name-calling. 

The big take-way from our reading of history should be that any economic or political system can be used to oppress one group of people for the benefit of a lucky few, and that that oppression often involves mass murder, torture and slavery. That fact doesn’t in and of itself make for a wholesale indictment of either representative capitalism or democratic socialism.

Those who claim that every social welfare program is a move towards socialism hope to instill the fear of Stalin into us with every medical program for children or extension of unemployment benefits.  These free market purists forget (or are too ignorant to know) that capitalist systems have matched Soviet atrocities. 

They also don’t realize that they are proposing to follow the same pattern as the British and Stalin did, which, to review, is to accumulate capital by taking it away from a lot of little people and giving it to a few people to use, control or to pocket, as is the case of the current U.S. regime of historically low taxes for the wealthy while government benefits to the poor, aged, disabled and needy are cut to shreds.

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