Remembering the Kulaks
For an American, first hand experience with communism is jarring. As I’ve studied in Prague, consequences of the ideology have been difficult to ignore. Outside the city center its scars are most evident. I ride down streets lined with gray, blockish buildings, filled with apartments of the same exact dimensions. Their concrete walls are painted pastel colors like rundown beachfront hotels. Grizzled old women, some survivors of both the Nazis and the Soviets, tote bags of groceries with scowls on their faces. I speak with professors who vividly describe conditions before the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Certain words are recurring in their lectures; violence, unrest, and above all, starvation. The Czech disposition has been irreparably changed by communist control.
One will understand my surprise then to read the Chicago Tribune this week, and find a columnist suggesting that the U.S. give socialism a try. The author laments growing nationalism in the American body politic, asserting that in the age of Trump, a radically different direction is necessary. But Marxist ideologies, such as communism or socialism, offer no such fix. The historically literate understand how unwise a shift to socialism would be.
Let us remember the Kulaks in post revolution Russia, and the decimation Marxist thought brought them. Under Marxist ideology, those who are well off are thought to have acquired their excesses through the exploitation of lower social strata. Therein lay the motivation for central authorities as the Soviet Union changed from private ownership to state control of resources, by collectivizing peasant farms. The Kulaks, the upper ten percent of peasants, owned a significant portion of farmland. They employed more workers than the lower class of peasants, and they owned much more livestock. Comparatively impoverished by western living standards of the time, the Kulaks were nonetheless a target for Marxists. Over the latter portion of the 1920s an entire class of Russian society was liquidated in a process known as “dekulakization”. Killed, forced out of their homes, or taxed into oblivion, the property of the Kulaks was swallowed by the collective.
Less than a decade later, Russia was in famine. Soviet authorities issued edicts requiring that all bread and sausage be soaked in water, so as to inflate official statistics on the weight of available food (1). Without the Kulaks, who had previously been responsible for roughly 40 percent of grain production, the collective farms lagged behind. The effect on all-important grain crops, following the accident of goodweather and a resultant high yield per acre in 1930, was a series of poor crops. From 1931 through 1936, only one crop was larger than those of the pre collectivization period, 1925-28 (2). Official meat weighing practices were also changed, so that weight was taken when the product was undressed instead of fully prepared. Rather than have their livestock confiscated by the collective, peasants prefered to kill and sell, at least then getting a portion of the animal’s value. Russia developed a massive meat shortage as a result. Peasants sold their agricultural implements, crippling the industrial ability of collective farms (3).
In Stalin’s Marxist vision, the rural areas served as support for a growing urban base, which would in turn fuel rapid industrialization. Peasants were forced onto new collectives created with Kulak land, and made to meet quotas of the city’s demand for food. Misunderstood by central authorities, was the fact that the Kulaks were the most wealthy peasants because they were the most productive peasants. Without them, agriculture lagged, livestock supply dropped, and quotas for food could not be met. Millions died of starvation.
In America, Marxist ideologies are often romanticized. Communal work is viewed as caring, corporations as evil, and stark individualism as brash. The plight of the Kulaks paints a different, grimmer picture of Marxist thought. All too often, wherever communism or socialism have been fully implemented, objective slavery, and abject poverty, have followed. A cursory glance at history provides thoughtful Americans with the conclusion that Socialism is not a worthwhile solution to the problem of Trumpist Nationalism.
(1) Bennett, M. K. "Food and Agriculture in the Soviet Union, 1917-48." Journal of Political Economy 57, no. 3 (1949): 185-98.
(2) Ibid., 185-98.
(3) Ladejinsky, W. "Collectivization of Agriculture in the Soviet Union I." Political Science Quarterly 49, no. 1 (1934): 1-43.