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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Book recommendation: "Stalin's Legacy: The Soviet War on Nature" Struan Stevenson

In 2014  Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was reported as suggesting  that only Communism is capable of successfully fighting global warming and that communist China should be viewed as a role model in the fight against environmental damage:

“[China] actually wants to breathe air that they don’t have to look at,” she said. “They’re not doing this because they want to save the planet. They’re doing it because it’s in their national interest.”

Clearly Christiana Figueres is ignoring the fact that China continues to expand its number of coal-fired power stations at an alarming rate, however there is a more fundamental mistake being made here ie that Communism as an ideology is somehow green or that its concern for, 'the national interest' (odd considering that Communism is in theory if not practice internationalist) is more likely to favour green approaches to the economy. As an antidote to this kind of guff I'd recommend the grimly fascinating book, "Stalin's Legacy: The Soviet War on Nature", by Struan Stevenson.

Some people may be thinking that, given the massive human cost of Stalin's economic policies (estimated by most historians as around 20 million deaths), that therefore attacking his regime for its ecological impact is somehow missing the main point. However Stevenson's book does not try to ignore the horrific human consequences,  the gulag system, mass starvation and slave labour, but rather to show how a blind indifference to individual human life and a blind indifference to the environment went hand in hand together. Communism as an ideology is purely materialistic and it promised a better material standard of living than Capitalism. It was never mean't to be an alternative to massive growth and mass consumption, rather it was supposed to do it better than Capitalism and produce more and faster economic growth, admittedly with less inequality in the 'workers state' that it promised. Obviously it failed but the point is that Communism was never supposed to end up like North Korea with a dead-end economy but rather to produce mass industrialism on a huge scale.
Clearly what I am talking about here, and the theme of Stevenson's book, is not Socialism in its broader sense but Marxism-Leninism as practiced in the USSR and those countries which adopted the Soviet model. In Russia itself prior to the Civil War (1918-1921) there were many socialists who favoured an approach to economics based on the peasants (82% of the population in 1900 and therefore the majority of 'the people'). For example the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) the heirs of the Narodnik (Populist) movement in the 19th century. The SRs actually won the November 1917 Constituent Assembly election, however Lenin closed the Assembly down by force because he didn't like the result and went on to eradicate all opposition to his own group, the Bolsheviks, in a Civil War which cost 10 million lives. There then followed, under Stalin in the 1930s, an attempt to industrialise the USSR in 10 years based on the mass use of forced labour. In the name of 'the people' the peasants (who were the people, at least most of them) were condemned as petite-bourgeois and branded as 'Kulaks' (private farmers) if they opposed the creation of huge collective farms run as industries, the communist equivalent of massive agribusinesses. Most of course were not Kulaks but members of their local Mir or village commune ie localised, socialist inclined small scale production units. However as Lenin once said, "telling the truth is a bourgeois prejudice", and so the peasants were sent on mass to the gulag system.
As far as the ecological impact of Stalin in concerned, Stevenson's book is a catalogue of grimness. Much of the book is concerned with the plight of the victims of nuclear testing in East Kazakhstan. Also there is the destruction of the Aral Sea, the desiccation of which reduced what was the world's fourth largest inland body of water to half its size in just 50 years. It is a searing indictment of Stalin's environmental impact and the Marxist-Leninist worldview which spawned his regime.

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