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Controlling History to control the Future

Controlling the past

In this, our age of infamy,
Man's choice is but to be
A tyrant, traitor, prisoner.
No other choice has he.

(Pushkin)

It was Orwell who wrote in his 1949 novel "1984" 'Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past'. The Party understands that by rewriting the events of the past and controlling the narrative of history, they can maintain their position of authority.

All governments want to control history. For years the Tories have been fighting the history establishment to re-impose a teaching of kings and queens, great statesman and the exceptionalism of the United Kingdom onto the school history curriculum. They have partially succeeded. A national history is now imposed on school children.

History that does not support the Governments view of the world is ignored or suppressed. Slavery and use of child labour in mills and factories underpinning the establishment of capitalism, for example, is played down or ignored by the capitalist media. So too is the brutality and genocide of the British Empire.

And the Chinese government play the same cynical game by pretending the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989 never took place. Recently they have removed memorials to the massacre. The Chinese state believes by removing the memorials they will remove history and historical events.

However, historical truth is recorded. And the world's working class still remain historical agents of revolutionary change. The capitalist state cannot obliterate this potential political power. The working class still has its history. It can still make history.

Gulags and Concentration Camps.

The Expression "concentration camp" originated during the Cuban revolution against Spain in the 1890s. The United States followed Spain when it introduced concentration camps during the Philippine rebellions. Britain had its concentration camps during the Boar War, so did Hitler's Germany as soon as he assumed power in 1933. The US still has its detention camp for 39 political prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. China has its Uighur forced labour internment camps with their torture and sexual abuse. And Russia had its Gulag system (see 'Lenin's Gulags', Richard pipes, International Journal of Political Science and Development, Vol. 2(6), pp, 140-146, June 2014). Russia, under Putin, still has its political prisoners, 308 at the last count (Statista Research Department, Aug 19, 2021).

However, Putin, like his hero, Stalin, uses political assassination against his opponents and critics. According to the WASHINGTON POST (March 23 2017), ten critics of Putin, mostly journalists and lawyers, met untimely and violent deaths. More recently, the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny escaped death by poisoning only to be incarcerated and forced to watch eight hours of Russian State TV each day praising Putin to the hilt (NEW YORK TIMES 15 August 2021).

The Gulag system was established by Trotsky something you will not find being admitted by his followers today and conveniently missed from Isaac Deutscher's biography of the anti-Marxist dictator. Gulags were a system of forced labour. Many prisoners - particularly those imprisoned during the great Purge - died of starvation, disease, exhaustion or execution. The Gulag system was begun by the Bolsheviks in 1919 and by 1921 there were 84 camps holding political prisoners. It is estimated that around 50 million perished in Soviet gulags between 1930 and 1950.

In 1956, after Stalin's death and following Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech to the 20th Party Congress, thousands of prisoners were freed from Stalin's labour camps.

Erasing History

As Russia's politics, under Putin, grows more Orwellian, the struggle over its past is taking centre stage. The Kremlin's latest target is Pamyat (Memorial), the country's human-rights group, set up in the 1980s to commemorate victims of Stalin's terror.

Around 1980, or soon after, a voluntary group was set up to research and make publicly available the hidden history of the horrors of the Gulag system.

In 1990, a Memorial team travelled to the Solovky camp in the north of Russia - formerly one of the most notorious in the Gulag system. They brought back a memorial stone to be placed in central Moscow.

The work of Memorial never sat comfortably with the authorities. It was initially cautioned in 2006, and in 2014 it was added to the list of "foreign agents" - a roster of organisations and individuals the government claims receive funding from abroad (BBC NEWS January 3 2022). Putin’s erasure of the gulag’s history and Stalin’s role in the extermination of millions of opponents history is similar to Stalin’s own removal of images of the old Bolsheviks from photographs and publications.

Before Putin showed this was not his idea of a good cause, Pamyat used to run annual festivals with young people encouraged to hear the memories of the old and to view the old prison camps. They also ran meetings in Moscow opposite the old KGB building where the names of those whom Stalin had executed were read out.

Memorial also used to search the areas of old WW2 battles for the bones of dead soldiers - Russian and German - which were then buried decently. Something neither Stalin nor Putin cared about.

Memorial worked to recover the memory of the millions of innocent people executed, imprisoned or persecuted in the Soviet era.

Stalinism Lives

Formally Memorial has been "liquidated" for failing to mark a number of social media posts with its official status as a "foreign agent". That designation was given in 2016 for receiving funding from abroad.

In court, the prosecutor labelled Memorial a "public threat", accusing the group of being in the pay of the West to focus attention on Soviet crimes instead of highlighting a "glorious past" (BBC NEWS 30 December 2021).

The "glorious past" reminds us of a speaker for the Socialist Party of Great Britain being asked by a heckler in Hyde Park which business was to be found in Russia. The SPGB's speaker quickly replied: "The undertaker".

Memorial's closure is a clear symbol of how the country has turned back in on itself under President Vladimir Putin, rejecting criticism - even of history - as a hostile act. As a consequence, Russian historians are forced to tow the line. A Kremlin history is taught in schools. It would be a brave academic who tried to tell the truth about Stalin if is went against the Kremlin's nationalist narrative.

History and nostalgia play a key part in Vladimir Putin's presidency. In December he lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of what he described as "historical Russia".

"What had been built up over 1,000 years was largely lost," he said (BBC NEWS Jan 3 2022).

Stalinism lives on. There is even a Stalin Society in the UK who wants to praise his "achievements". There are there political apologists in the US and Europe known as "Tankies" (named after the use of tanks in the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968) who support the actions of the Soviet Union and Stalin's genocidal actions. And the "cult of personality" lives on in Russia.

Consider the main opposition party to Putin. The Russian Communist Party is led by Gennady Zyuganov, a supporter of Stalin who pretends the millions of deaths in the gulags during the 1930s did not occur. The Stalin memorial in Moscow's Red Square is a shrine visited by many Russians. There he is revered like a latter-day Russian Saint. You can buy Stalin wall calendars, fridge magnets and other memorabilia (BBC NEWS 18 April 2019). Uncritical museums are opened up in his name and he is placed favourably in Russian state history as a "war hero".

Stalin was no "war hero". Stalin was a political monster, a mass murderer who ultimately failed. And as the Socialist Party of Great Britain pointed at the time of his death, Stalin was no solo genocidal maniac; he had his accomplices - those who took power after his death in 1953 - all of them were to be found perched on a mountain of corpses.

As we noted some 50 years ago:

"Stalin alone was not the cause of the terror, anymore than he was the ultimate cause of the leadership cult. The cult and the terror were both resultant from the "social and political system" - the state capitalism used to industrialise backward Russia. So that the Russian State of the twentieth century continues to repress the intelligentsia who have continued their traditional role - one of lament and protest, the mouthpiece of political and social debate under the new despotism just as they were under the old" (SOCIALIST STANDARD November 1972 'Stalin's Successors & Censorship' Charmian Skelton).

Contemporary Political Monsters: Lukashenko and Putin

There are also one or two Stalinist government leaders left in the world. Step forward, the Belarus president and practicing Stalinist Alexander Lukashenko. He is using immigrants as pawns to force the EU to lift sanctions against him following the rigged presidential election, attack on dissidents and subsequent arrest, imprisonment and beating of protesters. And in this use of immigrants to further his political end he is supported by President Putin, another fan of "Uncle Joe".

Belarus's jails and detention centres are holding hundreds of people described as political prisoners, whether they are political opponents, independent journalists or protesters.

Some 7,000 Belarusians were rounded up and thrown into crowded prisons in a matter of days, when they took to the streets in August 2020 to denounce the presidential election as rigged. Reports suggested beatings and torture were common (BBC NEWS 27 May 2021).

A state-sanctioned human trafficking programme brings desperate refugees from war zones or areas of grinding poverty to the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Then state functionaries bus them out to the border of "Fortress Europe". In this case the borders of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. "Apply sanctions to my regime", Lukashenko tells the EU "and I will puncture the walls of 'fortress Europe'".

Political monsters like Stalin, Lukashenko and Putin come and go. They are not all powerful. Stalin was unable to establish the conditions for the Soviet Union to go on forever. The Soviet Union survived a mere 36 years after his death. War with the West over Ukraine could well spell the end of the political careers of both Lukashenko and Putin. Even if war does not take place with Ukraine, the reality of capitalism's economic laws acting on the workings of the economy has a tendency to destroy politicians and governments.

So why do Gulags matter to socialists? The answer is that they are misleadingly associated with socialism/communism. Gulags are a repressive state apparatus within Russian capitalism and they have nothing to do with a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. They have been conveniently seized upon by our enemies to erroneously portray socialism as a bleak system of violence imprisonment and murder. This will not be the case. Socialism will not have a coercive state of political leaders and the led. Instead socialism will be a democratic administration of things not people.

Although Memorial has been suppressed the historical reality of the gulags survives. History is not static. History is still remembered and transmitted to future generations. And history is made by men and women.

And this applies to the world's working class. The working class can and must make history in its own interest using democratic and political means. This requires replacing the profit system with socialism: replacing world capitalism and its competing nation states, leaders and political prison camps with the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

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