On August 26th, an article titled “The Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 23, 1939: Myth and Reality” appeared on CounterPunch. It made many useful points about the right of the USSR to conclude a non-aggression pact with any capitalist nation in light of the invasion that nearly destroyed it in the early 1920s. While Cold War scholarship, including its most recent incarnation in a book like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, tries to draw parallels between Stalin and Hitler as totalitarian monsters, it was in the interest of humanity to preserve what was progressive about Soviet society despite the clique that ruled from the top.
In an article titled “The USSR in War”, written just after the Hitler-Stalin pact was concluded, Leon Trotsky laid out the differences between the two rulers succinctly: “Right now Hitler is the ally and friend of Stalin; but should Hitler, with the aid of Stalin, come out victorious on the Western Front, he would on the morrow turn his guns against the USSR. Finally Chamberlain, too, in similar circumstances would act no differently from Hitler.”
Unfortunately, Pauwels’s article is an expression of the neo-Stalinist apology for the Soviet Union’s external policy and does not take into account the negative aspects of Stalin’s policy in Europe that helped Hitler and ruined the Communist movement. Also, it shows all the shortcomings of a purely geopolitical analysis of the contradictions of the international policy of capitalist-imperialist and Stalinist countries.
Roots of Poland’s attitude towards the Soviet Union
The text presents Poland only as hostile towards the Soviet Union. It is true, but the historical explanation is more nuanced than Pauwels suggests.
Poland did not agree to the entry of the Soviet army in case of war with Hitler, however, this was based on its negative experiences with Russia, both under tsarist and Soviet rule. The 123 years of Polish annexation by the Russian tsarist imperial state ended on September 29, 1918, as the revolutionary government of Russia, the Soviet of Peoples’ Commissars, canceled the Russian-Austrian-Prussian agreements against Poland (1772-1795).
Pauwels writes about the “gentlemen in power in London and Paris” who wanted “anti-Soviet and anti-Russian states” like Poland, to create a “cordon sanitaire” against the revolution. This is not true. Poland’s first government (November 1918), composed by the right-wing Social Democracy, was recognized by Lenin. This government capitulated politically after Piłsudski’s comeback and his becoming de facto the chief of the state.. But the “gentlemen from London and Paris” were not especially favorable to Polish independence.
Keep in mind that the main aim of the allied intervention of Britain, France, Japan, and the USA into the Russian civil war was to re-establish the tsarist empire of the pre-1914 borders. That explains Western support for the monarchist counter-revolution. The “cordon sanitaire” was not an idea of London and Paris but of Piłsudski who wanted to create a dependent Ukrainian state between Poland and Soviet Russia. The Western military support to Poland in 1920 war wasn’t substantial and even today Polish right-wing nationalists see it as an example of the “first betrayal of Poland by the West” (the “second” is…World War II).
The mutual problems of Poland and the Soviet revolutionary states, that is, the contradictions between the Polish national question and the “All-Russian” socialist revolution, resulted in the armed conflict in 1919-1920. The Red Army General Tukhachevky’s offensive toward Warsaw was seen in Poland, like Trotsky and Polish Communist Julian Marchlewski predicted, not as an act of social liberation but a new imperial incursion. Whatever the motives of the Soviet authorities in continuing the war on Polish ethnic territories, it was devastating to the Polish revolutionary movement in general and the Communist Workers Party of Poland, the Comintern’s Polish section, in particular.
As Thomas Fiddick shows in his study of this war, it was mainly the initiative of Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a young ex-Czarist officer in the Red Army without any serious Marxist political background, who saw the revolution in Europe in a Napoleonic way: the Red Army, or the “Army of the Comintern,” had to be main force spreading the socialist revolution, not working-class uprisings. Later Trotsky would characterize this conception as a political “nonsense.” Lenin’s unrealistic idea of Polish workers rising up with the assistance of the Red Army or Trotsky’s efforts to conclude a full-scale peace, against Poland’s proposal for a temporary armistice, did not change Polish views. They felt victimized by the Soviet state that had so little regard for its territorial integrity. Future Nazi-Stalinist aggression only strengthened this view.
Pauwels has so little regard for Polish self-determination that he even goes so far as to justify Soviet intervention based on the Monroe doctrine:
The fact that the Soviet Union laid claim to a sphere of influence beyond its borders is sometimes described as evidence of sinister expansionist intentions; however, establishing spheres of influence, either unilaterally, bilaterally, or multilaterally, had long been a widely accepted practice among powers big and not so big, and was often intended to avoid conflict. The Monroe Doctrine, for example, which “asserted that the New World and the Old World were to remain distinctly separate spheres of influence” (Wikipedia), purported to forestall transatlantic new colonial ventures by European powers that might have brought them into conflict with the United States.
What’s missing from this analysis is any consideration of the rights of Latin Americans whose rights were trampled upon by President McKinley and his top commander Theodore Roosevelt who defended their seizure of Cuba as a fulfillment of the Monroe Doctrine. In 1917, the Bolsheviks inspired men and women everywhere in the colonial world for their defense of the right to self-determination. In his defense of Monroe Doctrine realpolitik, Pauwels demonstrates either an unfamiliarity with the core beliefs of the leaders of the Russian Revolution or, being familiar with them, chooses to torpedo them in a regrettable effort to defend what was indefensible: Stalin’s arrogant disregard of Polish sovereignty.
Polish hostility towards the USSR was motivated by the anti-Communism and the general anti-revolutionary character of the state, but this also had limits based on international law. Poland did not agree to join the “Anti-Comintern Pact,” like other Central-Eastern European countries, that is, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Tiso’s Slovakia. This Pact was of great importance as the countries that signed it would not support the Soviet Union in case of the war between the Soviets and one of the Pact’s member. It was Stalin’s policy toward Poland that was more aggressive.
The USSR violated the non-aggression pact it co-signed with Poland in 1932 and modified in 1934 to include an “automatically prolonged” clause. The Polish-Soviet Pact declared that neither state would join an alliance against the other. There is no historical evidence to support Pauwels’s claim that the Poland military regime “flirted with the Nazi regime in the hope of a joint conquest of Soviet territories”.
Pauwels is on solid ground in denouncing Polish settler colonialism in Western Ukraine and the generally oppressive treatment of Belarussians and Ukrainians. However, his narrative is too Stalin-friendly and legitimizes the Soviet-Nazi oppression of the Polish nation. This could be compared to Trotsky’s statement when he wrote that “the Kremlin covers its intervention in Poland with a penitent concern for the ‘liberation’ and ‘unification’ of the Ukrainian and White Russian peoples. In reality, the Soviet Ukraine, more than any other part of the Soviet Union, is bound by the ferocious chains of the Moscow bureaucracy. The aspirations of various sections of the Ukrainian nation for their liberation and independence are completely legitimate and have a very intense character. […] If the invasion gains its end, the Ukrainian people will find itself ‘unified’, not in national liberty, but in bureaucratic enslavement.”
Whatever actions Stalinist rule took to redress Western Ukrainian and Belarusian grievances under Red Army occupation was more than outweighed by the bureaucratic regime’s police state methods. The structural reforms in the newly incorporated territories were conducted by the military-bureaucratic apparatus with fake democratic legitimacy in the name of the so-called Peoples’ Assemblies and “Plebiscites.” All those institutions were under total control of the Red Army and its Military Commander of the Ukrainian Front, the future leader Nikita Khrushchev. The new factory regime in the workplaces based on the bureaucratic Party control resulted in a typical atrophy of the labor ethics and “arhythmical” production process, and consequently in shortages and general mismanagement, typical of the state from whom its methods were borrowed.
Stalinist cooperation with Nazi imperialism against Poland (1939-1941)
While it is true that Stalin wanted to make some agreements with the European democratic imperialist powers against Hitler, his policy was always a game on the two fronts in favor of Soviet (bureaucratic) regime. This should not be negative per se, as all the worker’s states, truly revolutionary or bureaucratically degenerated, were entitled to make alliances with one imperialism against the other. However, this does not mean helping imperialism to conquer and enslaving other nations or crushing working-class revolution. Stalin’s policy towards imperialist capitalist powers was consistent. It bargained with either “democratic” imperialisms or Nazi imperialism based on narrow material interests. Soon after the war, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and the USA divided Europe like a pie. Greece, France, and Italy fell within the “democratic” in exchange for a buffer zone in the East. It was up to Stalin-controlled Communist political apparatuses to make sure that revolutions did not upset the apple-cart.
The Ribbentrop-Molotov Non-Aggression Pact could have functioned as a normal bilateral peace agreement. But it was also a pact that divided Eastern Europe between Nazi Germany and Stalinist USSR. The secret agreements not only decided how Poland had to be divided, but also Romania, in which the Bessarabia region was united with theSoviet state, and likewise the Baltic states. Concerning Poland, the secret Nazi-Soviet agreement defined the borders between the two states in a fashion similar to the “scramble for Africa” of the 19th and early 20th century left that continent divvied up. Trotsky was right when he commented that Stalin had acted here as “agent of Hitler,” the Stalinist invasion was a “symmetrical supplement of the Hitlerite operations” conquering “three million Poles.”
Also, Pauwels failed to mention the German-Soviet secret military cooperation that grew out of the Rapallo Treaty of 1922. If we accept the right of the two states, Weimar Germany and the USSR, to form a bloc against their enemies, French and British imperialism, we should remember that this cooperation did not end after 1933. When Pauwels writes that “London and Paris elites” wanted to “encourage Hitler to attack the Soviet Union,” he should also mention that without Soviet assistance there wouldn’t be, to use Pauwels term, the “Nazi German military Behemoth.”
This also led to a new Comintern line. From 1939 to 1941, the Hitler-Stalin pact influenced the day-to-day activities of the worldwide Communist parties over which the Kremlin had control. Starting in November 1939, after the Polish surrender, there were top-secret conferences of the Gestapo and NKVD to combat the Polish underground on both sides of the nation. The NKVD agreed to work against all anti-Nazi Polish propaganda on the Soviet-controlled areas of the former Polish Republic. Also, during these conferences, Stalin agreed to transfer 150 German Communists, who had escaped Hitler, back to the Third Reich. It was a clear demonstration of the counter-revolutionary nature of the Nazi-Soviet cooperation’s negative impact on the cause of national liberation and socialist revolution.
The new political line was imposed on the Communist parties that forced to withdraw anti-Nazi propaganda in favor of “peaceful German Nation that is under the threat of Anglo-France imperialism.” On December 24, 1939, the NY Times reported on how Pravda took note of the amicable relations between the two allies:
Three days late, Chancellor Hitler’s birthday greetings to Joseph Stalin were made public in today’s Pravda, heading a column of congratulations from foreign statesmen. Herr Hitler’s telegram is followed by one from his Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, father of the anti-Comintern pact. Herr Hitler wishes Mr. Stalin “personally good health and a happy future for the peoples of the friendly Soviet Union.” Herr von Ribbentrop, “recalling historic hours in the Kremlin which made a beginning of the decisive turning point in the relations of two great peoples and thereby created a foundation for their prolonged friendship.” sends “warmest congratulations.”
To draw a contrast between how revolutionaries and Stalinists deal with what should be purely tactical alliances after Fidel Castro took power in 1959, he continued to have diplomatic and trade agreements with Franco’s Spain. Spain, under both his rule and that of the Popular Front, was always willing to maintain such ties under a former colony. Despite this, you can search far and wide in the Cuban press and Castro’s speeches for anything remotely resembling this unseemly reportage in Pravda. Nothing will turn up.
Stalin’s ties to Nazi Germany had a disastrous impact on the Communist Parties, especially in Poland. When the Communist Party of Poland was disgracefully dissolved in 1938 by Stalin, the post-KPP communities were in total confusion after the hearing the new Comintern line. And after the 1939 invasion, the Nazis started to purge the Communists through a dirty trick facilitated by the confusion sown by the pact. The rhetoric of an alliance “against Anglo-French imperialism” enticed Polish Communists to accept an invitation to meet and greet the Nazis. When some Communists, without a clear class understanding of the situation, agreed to come to such a meeting with the Nazi party activists, they were arrested and then shot dead.
After the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the German Communist, Willi Münzenberg, a former chief of the KPD propaganda, said to Stalin that “you are the traitor” (“Stalin, Verräter bist du!”). He was right, and had to be killed in 1940. Leon Trotsky was another bold voice speaking against the counter-revolutionary aspects of the pact. He wrote that it was an insult to democratic feelings of the world’s working masses.
General character of the Soviet Stalinist power
There is a need for a more general analysis of Soviet Stalinism based on the previously presented historical presentation.
Polish nationalists identified Stalinism with “communism” that was essentially “anti-Polish.” But this is too narrow a perspective. Soviet Stalinism wasn’t merely an “anti-Polish reaction,” as its aims were much wider. The repressions against the Communist Party of Poland in 1937 (the Great Purge) and 1938 were similar to those towards other Communist parties members, like the Korean Communists. In the Western Ukraine and Western Belarus, the Soviet authorities started to repress Polish sympathizers of Communism: the writer Aleksander Wat, writer Władysław Broniewski, or the future leader of the post-war Polish Socialist Party and ally of the (politically Stalinist) Polish Workers’ Party Bolesław Drobner – to mention the most well-known. The Polish rightwing historians couldn’t explain this fact within their own perspectives. But, from the Marxist perspective, this massive destruction of Communist cadres worldwide (politically Stalinist, but with backgrounds in the truly revolutionary movements) couldn’t be understood except as following a manifestly counter-revolutionary dynamic.
But not only political activists faced the repression. There was a very similar scale of repressions against both the Poles and Koreans in the Comintern and the Soviet Union. In 1936-37, widespread repression against all Polish citizens in the USSR, Communists and non-Communists, took place. There weren’t any political needs for such actions. In the former territory of “Eastern” Poland before 1941, the large-scale deportation of Polish men and women took place with between 800,000 to 1 million people being sent to Gulags in Siberia, or Kazakhstan.
If we add those things to the campaigns of starvation in Ukraine (whose existence Pauwels denies) and Kazakhstan after the forced collectivization and purge of the Party cadres and national intelligentsia in those republics, the anti-German campaign in the Volga region, this policy is fully clear: it was a general strategy of the restoration of the full-scale Great-Russian chauvinistic colonialism. Stalinism restored the colonial mode of exploitation but on the new social basis: a post-capitalist economic system. It was a combination of bureaucratic parasitism and “internal colonialism” (state-sponsored extraction of surplus labor by the means of super-exploitation within the one state organism). The Gulag labor system, one of the main roots of the Soviet “successful” industrialization, was based on the slave labor of the Soviet workers and peasants (in camps the vast majority of inmates came from those classes, not the former Russian ruling classes). The Gulag, controlled by military-bureaucratic personnel, was highly economically ineffective, something even Beria understood in 1953. It led to a gross waste of resources and labor power, and, moreover the collapse of the Soviet system itself.