Barnett Vincent, “Understanding Stalinism-The ‘Orwellian Discrepancy’ and the ‘Rational Choice Dictator’, Europe -Asia Studies, vol. 54, No 3. May 2006, pp 457-466.
It is often argued by some that Stalinism was not as ‘morally reprehensible’ as Nazism, as the stated goals of the Stalinist variant of Marxism were in the long run admirable, whereas the stated aims of Nazism were indefensible. This type of argument relies upon a notion that can be called the ‘Orwellian discrepancy’: that the stated aims of Marxism were not those realised in the Gulag, but the very opposite. Supporters of this position are giving some credit to Stalin for the apparently laudable declared aims of Marxism, even if these aims were totally distorted in practice (Wedgwood Benn, 1999, p. 156). Is this a reasonable position to take? If it is, then the same reasoning should apply to the Nazis, as a level playing field must apply to the analysis of both systems. That is, if instead of preaching racial hatred, Hitler had instead preached racial harmony, but then still attempted to eliminate all Jews in the manner recorded byhistory only as an ‘aberration’, this hypothetical Nazi regime should be regarded as less‘morally reprehensible’ than the actual Nazi regime. Does this comparison make any sense? By framing the argument in this way it is clear that this position does not make any sense whatsoever. If I kill someone in cold blood, but then claim that I was acting with some sort of long-run moral concern, is this any better than if I had killed someone simply for the fun of it? The law makes no such distinction in principle.There is another argument against the moral non-equivalence position. Let us accept, for the sake of argument, Wheatcroft’s case (which is heavily disputed by both Rosefielde and Conquest) that the Stalin regime was responsible for only one million deaths which can be directly compared with the five million that the Nazis were responsible for in terms of Wheatcroft’s category of ‘mass purposive killings’ (Wheatcroft, 1996, p. 1348). The implication might be that killing one million in this way is ‘less morally reprehensible’ than killing five million. On the face of it this comparison appears rational. However, this type of judgement is neglecting to explore the question of whether Stalin would have been willing to accept the killing of morethan one million, if he had to do so. Consider the counter-factual possibility that theStalin regime needed to order many more executions than it did, in order to achieve its aims. Is it reasonable to maintain that Stalin would have responded: ‘killing one million is morally acceptable, but killing more than one million is not, therefore I shall halt the executions at the one million level’?
This is obviously absurd, as Stalin would have been very unlikely to respond in thisway. The Stalin regime killed the one million either because this was (in Stalin’s particular mental state) the amount thought necessary to eliminate at the time, or because this was the level that circumstances at the time allowed or generated, not because there was a numerical level of mass slaughter beyond which Stalin would not go for ethical reasons. The same reasoning applies to Hitler. Assume that there were only one million Jews in existence in Nazi-occupied Europe in 1940, and that a hypothetical Hitler regime then killed all of them. Would that make him ‘less morally reprehensible’ than the actual Hitler who was responsible for killing five million?
Framing the question in this manner reveals that playing the comparative numbers game with ‘mass purposive killings’ is not something that can be done with precise moral accuracy. Wheatcroft also attempted to make a distinction in descriptive labelling between the ‘mass purposive killings’ caused by Hitler and those caused by Stalin. The following passage appeared in the conclusion to Wheatcroft’s 1996 article: «Τhe purposive deaths caused by Hitler fit more closely into the category of ‘murder’, while those caused by Stalin fit more closely the category of ‘execution’. Stalin undoubtedly caused many innocent people to be executed, but it seems likely that he thought many of them guilty of crimes against the state . . .Hitler, by contrast, wanted to be rid of the Jews and communists simply because they were Jews and communists» (Wheatcroft, 1996, p. 1348).
Wheatcroft appeared not to realise that Nazi ideology provided reasons for the elimination of Jews and communists—totally erroneous and mistaken reasons, and producing an utterly horrific and completely unjustified outcome—but reasons nonetheless. Wheatcroft’s underlying assumption was perhaps that we should allow Stalin some license for his erroneous reasons for ordering mass executions in the USSR, but not acknowledge at all that Hitler believed in his own (totally unwarranted) reasons for racial genocide. In truth, both the Nazi reasoning regarding the need to eliminate Jews and Stalin’s reasons for ordering mass executions were similarly erroneous. Unless, of course, Wheatcroft wants to argue that there was indeed a sympathetic case for Stalin’s ‘mass purposive killings’? Put still another way, does it make sense to consider a victim of Stalin’s purges thinking to themselves in the afterlife: thank goodness I was only hounded, interrogated, tortured and then executed; those poor Jews who were murdered in Germany! As correctly characterised by Michael Ellman, the mass repressions in the USSR in the 1930s were actually a ‘series of crimes against humanity’ (Ellman, 2002, p.1164).
Wheatcroft’s previously quoted attempt in his 2002 book chapter to distinguish between the Soviet and Nazi mass killings by stating that the former held to some type of legal process again holds little significance. Would anyone seriously alter their evaluation of the Nazi genocide if Hitler had ordered a more fully encompassing sham legal process that actually formally convicted Jews of conforming to the racist stereotypes that the Nazis promoted, before sending them to the concentration camps? There is still another argument against the moral non-equivalence position. Consider which enemy you would prefer to face: one that explains his or her ideology ‘honestly’ in its own terms, or one who consistently lays down a fog of moral-sounding rhetoric in order to cover up their actual base actions. It could be argued that Stalin was worse than Hitler because Stalin implemented atrocities and then justified them by reference to socialist ideals. Hitler’s justification was racist ideology. It is true that the full extent of the Nazi genocide against the Jews was a shock to some observers after 1945, but it cannot be said to be against the spirit of Fascist propaganda. And while many lies were certainly told to Jews themselves about their eventual fate during WWII, these lies were a purely practical inversion in order to ease their passage to destruction. Stalin’s use of Marxian utopianism to throw a smoke screen around an entire system of slave labour and mass murder has to be one of the most, if not the most, incongruous perversions of an initially declared egalitarian intention ever accomplished in the entire history of humanity. This is especially significant when the effect of Stalinism is considered internationally after 1945. Nazi aims died with Hitler, but Stalin was held up as a hero for socialists to follow for many years after 1945.
Consequently people who tried to campaign for socialism were frequently tarred with the brush of the Gulag, and hence opponents of socialism used the Orwellian discrepancy against progressive aims. This connects to another argument often put forward to suggest that Stalin was preferable to Hitler: Stalin sided with the Allies during WWII, and hence we should praise Stalin for his judgement in this respect. In truth Stalin did not eventually side with the Allies for moral or ideological reasons, but for purely practical and survival reasons—the USSR was invaded by Germany. We should not forget that the Nazi – Soviet pact was negotiated by V.M. Molotov and Stalin was clearly willing in principle to form an alliance with Hitler, although Stalin’s motives for this are contested. Remember also that the Stalinist variant of Marxism condemned Nazism and ‘bourgeois democracy’ to the dustbin of history, and analysed both of them as variant expressions of the same underlying forces prevalent within capitalist production.
Within this framework Nazism was (after 1941) accepted as the more immediate threat to Soviet survival, but this was a purely contingent judgement; the USSR would still have to defeat the UK and the USA in the medium term. Consequently, by trying to differentiate between the moral significance of Nazism and Stalinism, some scholars are pushed into adopting arguments that rely on paperthin distinctions that collapse on more detailed philosophical examination. In truth it is senseless to try to compare the moral depravity of Hitler and Stalin with arguments of the type ‘dictator X killed less people than dictator Y’. Of course, if Stalin had accidentally killed only 100 people, and Hitler deliberately killed five million, then there would be a clear moral distinction, but once you get into the ballpark level of millions of planned deaths on both sides, precise numerical comparison loses any underlying ethical rationale. This does not mean that historical investigation into the exact number of people killed is not a worthwhile pursuit in itself, only that such investigations cannot be used to suggest that one dictator was ‘less morally reprehensible’ than another, or to validate illegitimate distinctions between ‘murder’ and ‘execution’ in a tyrannical context.