On 6th November 2019, Boris Johnson accused the Labour Party of despising “the profit motive” so much that they would “point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks”. Now, I love a good history analogy as much as the next person. This one, however, is not only way off the mark on every level but also relativizes Stalinist policies that cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives.
Johnson alleges that Corbyn leads a similar hate campaign against wealthy people and has a similar socialist conviction to Stalin, referring to Corbyn’s support for raising the income tax for the wealthiest in society. However, in drawing the connection from Corbyn to Stalin, Johnson’s invocation of Stalinist persecution could imply that while Corbyn might be talking about raising taxes for wealthy people, he is really planning something along the line of taking their land, grain, cows, and chickens, putting them on a train and dropping them in the middle of snowy Siberia without food, warm clothes, or tools – forcing them to build their own forced labour camp or die trying. Does that sound like a bit of a stretch? Let’s look more closely at the Stalinist campaign against the kulaks to explore the historical implications of Johnson’s analogy.
The violent phase of Stalin’s aforementioned “persecution of the kulaks” began in December 1929, when he announced the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class”. He started this campaign in the context of the collectivization of agriculture, i.e. the nationalization of land and cattle as well as the reorganizing of agriculture into collective and state farms. Due to the manner in which the Bolsheviks orchestrated it, this collectivization was not only part of creating a socialist economy, it was first and foremost an attempt to establish their rule in the vast Soviet countryside.
The collectivization campaign has been described as a clash of cultures between the Soviet leadership and the peasantry, bordering on civil war. In official statements, the collectivization campaign was framed as “class struggle in the countryside”. Roughly, these “classes” consisted of poor peasants, middle peasants, and kulaks. Kulaks were supposedly “rich” peasants whom the Bolsheviks stigmatized as “capitalist elements”, the “bourgeoisie of the countryside”, enemies to the socialist vision, and exploiters of the poor.
Initially, the plan had been to agitate rural communities into class struggle, so that the poorer peasants would rebel against the “kulak oppressor”. However, there were two problems: many peasants did not want collectivization (or to be ruled by the Bolsheviks), and there weren’t really any distinct “classes” in the 1930s Soviet countryside, which rendered class struggle significantly more difficult. Most of the land had already been redistributed during the Russian Revolution and Civil War around ten years earlier, so that the wealth differences in the countryside were relatively minor: a peasant could drop from “rich” to poor if their cow died.
Stalin started the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class” around the time it became clear that peasants would not go into collective farms voluntarily. This campaign allowed the authorities to break peasant resistance against the Bolshevik regime. This so-called “dekulakization” led to denunciation, violence, and chaos all over the Union. “Liquidation” meant violent expropriation, and in many cases, deportation: in total, around 2 million people (men, women, and children) were “re-settled” in their own county, and around 2-2.5 million were deported to distant regions. Most of the latter were brought to so-called special settlements, labour camp-like structures in remote and often inhospitable areas. Estimates consider that until Stalin’s death, over 500,000 “kulaks” died during deportation or banishment from cold, hunger, diseases, and hard labour.
Historians refer to the campaign against the kulaks as the beginning of Stalinist mass terror. Even beyond such terror campaigns, however, the collectivization of agriculture caused disaster: reinforced by a series of poor harvests and grain requisition campaigns to feed the cities, the chaos caused by collectivization and “dekulakization” brought Soviet agriculture to its knees in the early 1930s. The ensuing famines caused 5-8 million deaths, especially in Ukraine, Kazakhstan (which lost a fourth to a third of its population), and the North Caucasus.
Of course, when Boris Johnson inferred there are continuities from Stalin to Corbyn and from the Bolsheviks to the Labour Party, his aim wasn’t to give us a history lesson – or else he would not have chosen an analogy between a campaign to tax wealthy people and a campaign consisting in not taxing (but expropriating and deporting) mostly not wealthy people (and causing millions of deaths). Thus, it is important to analyse such discourses to reveal the cynicism that permeates political campaigning. This analogy does not say much about Labour politics: the 2019 Labour Party has close to nothing in common with the 1930s Soviet communist leadership. However, it shows that Johnson does not really work with facts and policies in his campaign rather than with cheap shots to defame his opponent and to scare voters into thinking that Corbyn is really a secret Stalinist.
Mirjam Galley recently completed her PhD thesis ‘Builders of Communism, ‘Defective’ Children and Social Orphans: Soviet Children in Care after 1953’ at the University of Sheffield. She is currently a trainee editor for history at the academic publisher transcript Verlag. You can find Mirjam on Twitter @M_E_Galley.
Cover image: Soviet propaganda poster ‘We will keep out Kulaks from the collectives’, 1930.
Sheila Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization (Oxford University Press, 1994).
Andrea Graziosi, The Great Soviet Peasant War: Bolsheviks and Peasants, 1918-1934 (Harvard University Press, 1996).
James Hughes, Stalinism in a Russian Province: a study of collectivization and dekulakization in Siberia (Macmillan, 1996).
Robert Kindler, Stalin’s Nomads: Soviet Power and Famine in Kazakhstan (Pittsburgh University Press, 2018).
Lynne Viola, The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements (Oxford University Press, 2007).
Lynne Viola, V. P. Danilov, N. A. Ivnitskii, and Denis Kozlov (eds), The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside, Volume one: The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930 (Yale University Press, 2005).
 A “kulak“, literally meaning “fist“, was a term denoting rather wealthy or powerful members of rural communities in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union.