Monday, April 18, 2011

Michael Parenti and Stalin’s Fingers*
Moral Cretinism Part VI

Stalin aka "Koba the Dread"

The writer and “progressive” thinker Michael Parenti is one of the few remaining thinkers who can be described as an apologist for the, now defunct, Soviet Union. In many respects Michael Parenti is like the old style “Fellow Travellers”,1 who were endlessly suspicious of the evil Capitalists of the “West”, but very forgiving of the well meaning(?) rulers of the “East”.

Michael Parenti is one of these people who has a hermetic permanent suspicion of those in power in the “West” but when comes to the non-“West”, his hermetic of suspicion lessens massively and he is willing to entertain the publicly expressed motives as real. Yep out there are idealistic leaders, in the non - “West” that are really acting for the best interests for their people and we know this because they say so. Such startling naivety. Chomsky for example was never so, well thoughtless.2

Michael Parenti is also afflicted with the usual boring conspiracy mongering for J.F.K.; and it bothers him to no end that certain people like Noam Chomsky consider this stuff for the birds. So Michael Parenti goes into lather about it. Like so many of these people he doesn’t let such little things as lack of evidence prevent him from presenting the conspiracy as a fact.3

Michael has since written a book that is apologia for Slobodan Milošević the former ruler of Yugoslavia and then ruler of Serbia. Prof. Parenti engages in tendentious argumentation selective facts and deliberate omissions to present Milosevic as a victim of “Western Imperialism”. All in all a shoddy performance. In another case Prof. Parenti as written what amounts to an apologia for the Chinese occupation and Sinicfication of Tibet using colonialist arguments; i.e., the natives were primitive and barbaric and the Chinese are civilizing and uplifting them bringing enlightenment and progress. Of course the systematic attempt to make the Tibetans a minority in their own homeland along with the brutalities of such events as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution are downplayed / ignored.4

The shock of the collapse of Communism was a little to much for him so he wrote a book to explain why the collapse happened.5

There is much in this book to criticise. Including its cavalier omissions, its distortions and out and out falsehoods. The author for example carefully avoids discussing the fact that Communism was imposed on Eastern Europe by armed force and that it did not have majority support or legitimacy. In fact the Eastern European regimes, with the exception of Yugoslavia and Albania, lacked popular support and rested on as the saying goes ‘foreign bayonets”. Instead I will concentrate on one brief chapter of the book called Stalin’s Fingers,6

Mr. Parenti starts his exercise in obfuscation by remarking how Communism fell in Eastern Europe with remarkably few casualties. Parenti whines about how this proves that the regimes were not the “totalitarian” dictatorships portrayed in the west. I will leave aside the fact that Prof. Parenti doesn’t seem to understand what “totalitarian” means. That “totalitarian” describes a state that endeavours to swallow up society and reduce / eliminate institutions and structures independent of it and further seeks to guide / control individual expression through state sanctioned / controlled means including ubiquitous surveillance. Prof. Parenti “forgets” that the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were imposed by the Red Army during and shortly after World War II, (with the exception of Yugoslavia and Albania), that in Eastern Europe this was accompanied by mass terror, deportation, forced labour, fraudulent elections etc. Prof. Parenti seems for example to forget that the Communists for example reused Sachsenhausen concentration camp north of Berlin and between 1945-1949 more than 12,000 people died there. There were abundant atrocities in Romania, etc. What one could also discuss is the imposition of Communism on the Baltic States, with its deportations or the hundreds of thousands of deportations from eastern Poland in 1939-1940. Or the crushing of the Polish home Army during 1945-1947. One could go on and on. Suffice to say Communism had little legitimacy or popular support in Eastern Europe. It depended on Soviet support in effect the threat of military action. Once that was withdrawn the regimes which if anything had lost what little legitimacy they had due to severe economic problems collapsed like the hollowed out shells they were.7

Then Prof. Parenti discuses Stalin’s victims he quotes a study giving the number of victims as 799,455. (Period 1921-1953)8 Then in an amazing paragraph Parenti says:

No breakdown of this figure was provided by the researchers. It includes those who were guilty of non-political capital crimes, as well as those who collaborated in the Western capitalist invasion and subsequent White Guard Army atrocities. It also includes some of the considerable numbers who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II and probably German SS prisoners. In any case, the killing of political opponents were not in the millions or tens of millions – which is not to say that the actual number was either inconsequential or justifiable.9
Prof Parenti’s last comment is risible because that is exactly what he does do. If Prof. Parenti had bothered to do any research he would have found out the following. But before I go into that some general comments. First Prof. Parenti here is only including death sentences not the over all number of deaths, secondly he avoids talking about the number or arrests. Finally he avoids talking about mass torture of detainees.

To talk about death sentences first. In 1937 according to the data we have now 353,074 were executed in 1938, 328,618 for a total of 681,692. Those years represent the height of the Great Terror. Further official executions went down significantly after, (For example in 1939 there was 2,552 executions, 1940 1,649 and 1941 8,001.) Of course these figures indicate that including just those killed on 1937 / 38, more than 80% of the 799,455 were not Nazi collaborators, Nazis, or White guards and Capitalist lackeys, as a Stalinist might say. If we include executions for the period 1930-1936 which are 40,127 and 1939-1941 are 12,202 we get a total of 52,329 victims. Added together we get 734,021.10 Which pushing the total of non-collaborators etc., victims to more than 90%. If we add the inevitable postwar numbers of non-collaborators etc., victims the actual percentage of them is probably more than 95% of the total. And of course this does not take into account special actions like the Katyn forest massacre of Polish officer's, (More than 20,000) the executions by military tribunals during the war, (More than 150,000, see below). and so on and so forth. So the number and percent of victims that Prof. Parenti, oh so unsubtly insinuates deserved it, is actually only a small minority in percentage terms of the victims. In comparison the USA treated its dissidents very leniently indeed.

If the number of executions went down the number of people flooding into the system was massive! Prof. Parenti down plays the number of victims in the system by recording that the entire Gulag had only 2,022,976 inmates on January 1, 1939. Well Prof. Parenti ignores the large exile communities or the spectacular increase since 1935 in the numbers in the system. Also this figure ignores that the system was being continually filled with new victims. The result was that tens of millions of people went into the system. Certainly above 20 million for the period 1928-1953, (This figure includes Gulag proper victims and exiles), went into the camps and if we expand our criteria to include all those subject to repression it will soar above 30 million.11

Prof. Parenti prattles about gulag inmates surviving and returning to society, neglecting the systematic discrimination against them and their families or the scaring effects of their terrible ordeal.12

Further silliness comes out of Prof. Parenti:

Should all gulag inmates be considered innocent victims of Red repression? Contrary to what we have been lead to believe, those arrested for political crimes (counterrevolutionary offences”) numbered from 12 to 33 percent of the prison population, varying from year to year. The vast majority of inmates were charged with non-political offences: murder, assault, theft, banditry, smuggling, swindling, and other violations punishable in any society.13
Thus does Prof. Parenti say, more or less that most gulag inmates deserved to be in the gulag. Aside from ignoring the vast number of people exiled for being of the wrong class or nationality. (Prof. Parenti mentions in an aside the Soviet deportation of nationalities, without mentioning its genocidal consequences, i.e. death total or what it says about the regime.) Parenti seems to forget that given that the Soviet regime “repressed” millions this would still but the number of “political” victims in the millions! Given Prof. Parenti’s opinion regarding the USA I have little doubt that a few thousand political prisoners in the USA would ignite fierce indignation in him. Here it doesn’t seem to call forth much anger in him or tell him much about the nature of the regime.

Finally his attempt to say most of the gulag victims were guilty is an interesting little bit of skulduggery. To quote:

Traditionally, historians have divided prisoners into political and criminal categories, but this division is difficult to apply to Stalinist Soviet Union. Experienced scholars of the Soviet State and judicial system include those convicted under the 7 August 1932 law on the theft of public property in the category of political prisoners. The Stalinist state, created – a huger sector of convicts who are difficult to classify. They were victims of the regime’s brutality and its terrorist nature rather than ordinary criminals.14
Thus Prof. Parenti “forgets” about that among those convicted of “theft” are starving peasants who stole grain to eat, and so forth, that swindling included those convicted of being absent from work, which was classified as state sabotage, officials convicted of the crime of not fulfilling their plans. Those convicted in “cleaning the cities” campaigns of being paupers. These victims numbered in the millions upon millions.15 Nope Prof. Parenti simply implies that they were guilty and deserved it.

Parenti further “forgets” about the large number of children sent to the camps.16

In a footnote Parenti mentions the following concerning the Soviet famines:

No doubt, the famines that occurred during the years of Western invasion, counterrevolutionary intervention, White Guard civil war, and landowner resistance to collectivization took many victims.17
This fluffs over so much and is on verge of being historically moronic. Doesn’t Prof. Parenti know about War Communism, i.e. the practice in the first few years after the Bolshevik revolution of “Revolutionary” units seizing grain from the peasants by force that sparked massive peasant resistance. Or that this practice mightily contributed to the terrible famine of 1921-1922? Or that the new Bolshevik government deliberately tried to reduce famine relief to “disloyal” areas. Of course Prof. Parenti forgets to mention that during the first famine an international organization with massive funding from “Capitalist” countries provided massive famine relief or that many of the Russians who participated in the campaign and in its committees were expelled by the government once the crisis was over. Implacable “Capitalist” hostility wasn’t quite so implacable. Further Prof. Parenti seems to accept the Stalinist piece of nonsense that only “Kulaks” (So-called “rich” peasants) opposed collectivization. Nope the great bulk of the peasantry opposed it. The peasants resisted the attempt to impose state control over them and end their autonomy. This of course contributed to the disaster. However the fact that the state seized massive amounts of grain from the peasants with far too high quotas and used force to seize the grain resulted in millions of famine deaths. In other words this famine was at a minimum in part man made! And at the same time millions of people were deported into exile or the main gulag camps. It has been described as a “War against the Nation”. Prof. Parenti’s spouting of, by implication, Stalinist propaganda is outrageous.18

Among other things Prof. Parenti ignores is how during the Second World War The Soviet Union labelled those captured by the enemy has traitors. And deported hundreds of thouysands surviving Soviet POWs into the gulag, for the crime of being captured by the enemy. And during the war c. 157,000 Soviet soldiers were executed by military tribunals many for the crime of being captured and then escaping.19 Once again a little series of facts that tells us about the nature of the regime.

At the end of the chapter Prof. Parenti waxes lyrical over the boundless improvements in, job security, medical well being, and social services etc., all those people experienced under state socialism. Prof. breathlessly talks about how “State Socialism” made them modern states. Prof. Parenti is unaware of the irony that this is also how many justify “Capitalist” development and the atrocities that often accompany same. To get back to “social services” etc. Aside from ignoring the fact that in most of those areas Western Europe was better in terms of social services etc, and that conditions began to deteriorate in the Soviet Union and its vassal states by the early 1970’s. (Many Soviet Satellites were dependent of Capitalist financial markets to boost their population’s standard of living.) Prof. Parenti “forgets”, like he often does, that many of these services were not available or only at a cost to “class enemies”, (So sorry Prof. Parenti people were denied medical services.), further he keeps ignoring / down playing that many of these services etc., were quite inferior to those in “Capitalist” states. For example Romanian medical services in the period 1980-1989 were pretty bad and horrendous by Western European standards. He waxes lyrical over the “dramatic” improvements in peoples lives “forgetting” of course that this same argument can be used to justify “Capitalism” after all many “Capitalist” nations have experienced “dramatic” improvements in peoples standard of living in the last century. Prof. Parenti simply ignores that beginning in the early 1970’s Eastern European trends were a deterioration of their standard of living and this played a role in the collapse of Communism.20

Also neglected by Prof. Parenti is the conceptually and in real terms actually empty realities of Communist political involvement. Despite mass enforced political involvement the cup of politics was empty of meaning.

It is also fascinating to note how Prof. Parenti gets all hot and bothered by “Capitalist” and the post-Communist suppression of free speech, dissent etc., but the vastly more through and effective Communist suppression of dissent elicits from Prof. Parenti very little negative response.21

But in the end Prof. Parenti seems to have been a fellow traveller who simply cannot get over the fact that in competition between the system of “Capitalism” and “Communism”, “Communism” lost. Since in Marxian terms the opposition of “Capitalism” was inevitable blaming “Capitalist” opposition for the failure of “Communism” is like complaining why it rains in a rain forest. Further whether Prof. Parenti likes it or not “State Socialism” proved utterly unable to maintain modernization and in many respects could only maintain itself by living off “Capitalism”. In the end even that didn’t work for long. Prof. Parenti further forgets that “Capitalist” opposition proved very useful in helping to maintain the rule of the Bureaucratic party elite and when the system proved to be no longer maintainable because of massive internal opposition and economic malaise many dropped the whole thing and became “Capitalists”. During its life time the system was however massively successful, not just in Eastern Europe, but in China, Ethiopia, Cambodia and many other areas of the world in producing bloody reigns of terror that killed tens of millions and produced economic systems that were parasitic on the world economy and unviable. The idea that this is morally superior to “Capitalism” is simple moral cretinism.22

At a future time I may examine other parts of Prof. Parenti's book.

1. See Caute, David, The Fellow Travellers, Second Edition, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1988.

2. See for example Chomsky, Noam, Understanding Power, The New Press, New York, 2002.

3. See for example Parenti, Michael, Morte D'Arthur, Letters, Nation, March 9, 1992, pp. 290, 317-318. Michael Parenti’s reaction to the idea that there was no conspiracy to kill JFK is anger because to him the idea is unquestionable.

4. See Parenti, Michael, To Kill a Nation, Verso, London, 2001 and Friendly Fascism: The Shangri-la Myth Here. For a critical review of Parenti’s opinions on Yugoslavia see Americans for Bosnia Here

5. Parenti, Michael, Blackshirts & Reds, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1997.

6. Ibid, pp. 76-86.

7. See Saxonberg, Steven, The Fall, harwood academic publishers, Canada, 2001, Gross, Jan T., Revolution From Abroad, Second Edition, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2002, Wikipedia, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Here.

8. Parenti, 1997, p. 80

9. IBID.

10. Khlevniuk, Oleg V., The History of the Gulag, Yale University Press, London, 2004, pp. 290-291.

11. Khlevniuk, pp. 302-309, Applebaum, Anne, Gulag, Anchor Books, New York, 2003, pp. 578-586, Litvin, Alter, & Keep, John, Stalinism, Routledge, London, 2005, pp. 58-73.

12. Parenti, 1997, p. 79. Just how scarifying this ordeal was for millions is evident in the three volumes produced by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn The Gulag Archipelago, Harper and Row, New York, 1974, 1975, 1978. The book is not referred to or even alluded to by Prof Parenti. Prof. Parenti belittles the intense suffering of millions with this brainless comment.

13. Parenti, 1997, p. 80.

15. Khleevnik, pp. 304-307, Applebaum, pp. 291-306.

16. Applebaum, pp. 307-333.

17. Parenti, 1997, Footnote 2, p. 78.

18. The best book in English about the Collectivization disaster is Lewin, M., Russian Peasants and Soviet Power, W. W. Norton & Co., New York,1968. The number of victims of the collectivization Famine is estimated at 4-5 million although the actual number could be higher. See Litvin, pp. 54, 121-127. For the earlier famine see Figes, Orlando, A People’s Tragedy, Penguin Books, London, 1996, pp. 775-785. For the effects of War Communism see above and Farber, Samuel, Before Stalinism, Verso, London, 1990, pp. 43-55, Heller, Mikhail, & Kekrich, Aleksandr M., Utopia in Power, Summit Books, New York, 1986, pp. 117-123. The term “War Against the Nation”, comes from a chapter title of Adam B. Ulam’s biography of Stalin, Stalin: The Man and His Era, The Viking Press, New York, 1973.

19. Litvin, p. 64, Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, v. 1, pp. 81-82, 237-251.

20. See Saxonberg, Rowen, Henry S., & Wolf Charles, The Impoverished Superpower, ICS Press, San Francisco, 1990, See also Kerbley, Basile, Modern Soviet Society, Pantheon Books, New York, 1983. Soviet life expectancy for men fell from 66.1 years in 1964 / 65, to 62.3 years in 1980 / 81. See Feshbach, Murray, & Friendly, Alfred, Ecocide in the USSR, Basic Books, New York, 1991, pp. 4-8.

21. Parenti, 1997, pp. 87-93.

22. See Kramer, Mark et al, The Black Book of Communism, Harvard University Press, New York, 1999, and Priestland, David, The Red Flag, Grove Press, New York, 2009. For an analysis of the economic problems of Communist regimes that in the end proved intractable see Korani, Janos, The Socialist System, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992. It is infinitely superior to Prof. Parenti’s simple minded, superficial analysis of the problems with the economy of Communist states.


Another annoying feature of Prof. Parenti’s views is his nonsensical view that the economy of so called “Socialist States” was publicly owned and therefore run for public benefit. This at once betrays a Stalinist mindset. I.e., if the state owns it, the public owns it!? The economy was state owned not publicly owned. There is a difference. In a publicly owned enterprise the public, one would think, would have some input into how it was run at a minimum. Well in the state run and owned enterprises in Eastern Europe the state owned them and it was the Bureaucratic Party elite who decided what to do with them. And since this elite controlled the state guess who actually, in real terms, “owned” the “state enterprises”. Prof. Parenti doesn’t seem to understand for a moment how the Bureaucratic Party elite screwed the workers through its control of the economy. The ruthless expropriation of “surplus value” under Stalin from the workers in order to increase the wealth of the state economy controlled by the Bureaucratic Party elite is apparently a complete mystery to him. An example of just how much not in the public interest the Bureaucratic Party elite ran the economy and how they subordinated public welfare to increasing state wealth was the growing ecological disaster in Eastern Europe prior to the collapse. The ability of the Bureaucratic Party elite to crush opposition made it vastly easier for them to screw workers and the public than a similar “Capitalist” businessman can in a Western “Capitalist” democracy. It is a lot harder to simply crush opposition. See Litvin, pp. 121-137, Blackburn, Robin, Fin de Siecle: Socialism after the Crash, in Blackburn, Robin, After the Crash, Verso, London, 1991, pp. 173-249. For the ecological disaster in the Soviet Union see Feshbach et al above.

* This refers to Prof. Parenti’s rejection of Winston Churchill’s story that Stalin told him that during the period 1928-1940 there were about ten million victims. Stalin extended his fingers in response to Churchill’s question about the number of victims. Despite Prof. Parenti’s ridicule of the story it is entirely plausible.

Pierre Cloutier

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