Students at Goldsmiths’ LGBTQ society should be encouraged to read the actual history on soviet gulags and see them for what they really were–slavery.
In the autumn of 1989, with the fall of the Berlin wall and the great democratic revolutions that swept Eastern Europe, Stalinism may have officially died as an ideology. Even so, in the so called ‘End of History’, the ghost of Stalinism lives on. It manifests itself in insidious ways and its logic, thought processes and machinations aren’t just practised by the pathetic rump that remains of the old Communist parties. It has even infected those who would think of themselves as formally anti-Stalinist.
It seems like the LGBTQ society of Goldsmiths University, a formerly prestigious institution in Britain, has fallen prey to this virus. The origins of this Twitter controversy may be a little obscure to those unfamiliar with the debate around trans rights, women’s rights and the Gender Recognition Act. It began with them posting a list of users they alleged to be ‘TERFs’ – Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, a term that is considered derogatory by those it is applied to, in order for their followers to block them.
Intersex advocate and special education needs teacher Claire Graham responded by suggesting that making a list of people to be ‘purged’ sounds ‘a bit fascist’. The Goldsmiths account initially responded with some attempted humour not atypical for sections of the far-left internet sphere: ‘Nah, we’ll just arrange to send you to the gulag.’
After facing some criticism for this comment, they then proceeded to write an entire thread on the topic of ‘Were the gulags really that bad?’ Many users initially believed this was the work of a parody account or an attempt at satire. Instead, it is a grotesque piece of historical revisionism that whitewashes the horrors of Stalinism, as well as one of the worst crimes of the 20th century: the gulag slave system.
The choice to put “gulag” in scare quotes is an immediate giveaway for the direction this thread will go. They claim that “gulags” (always remember the scare quotes), the vast networks of slave labour camps that were scattered across the breadth of the Soviet Union, weren’t as bad as Western bourgeois capitalist propaganda — who supposedly use it as a ‘buzzword’ — make them out to be. In fact, they were actually a ‘compassionate’ and ‘non-violent’ way of dealing with bigots and other undesirables that was based on ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘reforming’ their ways. They further suggest that the claim that people worked until death in gulags is a ‘myth’. I can only recommend these people read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s harrowing oral history of the gulag, or Anne Applebaum’s more recent study of the gulag system, a history that the Soviet state had long did their best to suppress and prevent from being exposed.
How someone who is meant to be university educated can post such historical illiteracy is beyond me. However, reading the thread made me glad that I had no illusions to lose over Stalinism and the Soviet Union. My entrance into left wing and radical politics was informed by anti-totalitarian critiques from within the left, from people like Victor Serge, CLR James, Max Shahctman, Raya Dunayevskaya, Hal Draper and Julius Jacobson. I had read George Orwell, Arthur Koestler and the infamous anti-Communist anthology The God that Failed before I had considered becoming a leftist. This did me a world of good because it meant that I could stay well away from the Stalinists, neo-Stalinists and orthodox Trotskyists that held the ‘degenerated worker’s state’ view of the Soviet Union, and other conformist and authoritarian forms of Marxism.
What this also reveals is still the lack of any serious reckoning and understanding with the crimes of Stalinism, particularly in some sections of the Western left who are still prone to the useful idiot and ‘fellow traveller’ mentality in other contexts. As Anne Applebaum once observed when reminiscing about seeing Western tourists happily buying Soviet iconography in Prague in a way they wouldn’t if it had been fascist iconography, ‘while the symbol of one mass murder fills us with horror, the symbol of another mass murder makes us laugh.’
Leaving aside sterile debates about whether fascism and soviet communism are ‘the same’ or ‘equivalent’, I think there is something to her remark. There is a tendency, partially out of ignorance, to treat the horrors of Stalinism without the full understanding and sensitivity it deserves. At times Stalinism is even treated as a little bit of a joke, when for its victims, who were treated like the property of the state, it was anything but a joke.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn wanted Western leftist intellectuals who were ‘fellow travellers’ for the Soviet Union to experience, if only briefly, life in the Gulag: to hear the guards bark at them, as they marched meekly off to their slave work in the dawn twilight, the words ‘Ruki Nazad!’ (Hands behind your backs!), and to realise that they would actually have to adopt this humiliating, defenceless posture or be beaten until they did. He reckoned it might cure them of their sympathies for Stalinism. Now, I have a little more mercy for these ‘woke’ Stalinists than Solzhenitsyn probably would have if he was alive today. I don’t think anyone, not even my worst enemy, should experience the slavery of the gulag. It’s too cruel a punishment for any human being.
Stalinism in the 20th century was a genuine tragedy in Russia and elsewhere. In the 21st century, however, contemporary neo-Stalinism with its ‘woke’ aesthetics is a farce. One should not fall into crude ‘Stalinophobia’ and exaggerate the threat of these clowns. There too is a deep tradition of supposed anti-Communism that was itself very vindictive and authoritarian, fellow travelling with dictators and complicit in a multitude of atrocities. The Italian Marxist Amadeo Bordiga once said the worst product of fascism was, politically speaking, anti-fascism. In the same vein I say the worst product of communism was anti-communism. These ‘woke’ Stalinists are not going to establish any gulag to ‘rehabilitate’ those they allege to be bigots anytime soon. But they should be encouraged to read an actual history book on the gulag and see in detail the slavery and extreme exploitation that it really was.