Rick Salutin goes off the rails


In 1990, following the opening of Soviet archives, the Oxford-educated historian Robert Conquest was asked by his publisher to suggest a new title for a revised version of his 1968 book The Great Terror. The book chronicles the oppression, internment, and murder of millions in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, and was denounced by scores of Western intellectuals as fascist propaganda.

“How about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?” Conquest suggested. Because by 1990 even fools could not deny the truth of what Conquest had written.

What then to make of Rick Salutin’s deeply creepy column in today’s Globe and Mail? Salutin pines for the 1930s, when the “Soviet Union was socialist and the bloom wasn’t yet off that rose. Visitors from the West often returned with accounts of how well it worked.”

It is true that the Soviet Union was not a closed or secret society during the 1930s. Salutin at least denies himself the familiar plaintive refrain: “We didn’t know.” We did know, even in the 1930s, about the forced labour camps, collectivization, and the famines that starved millions to madness, cannibalism, and death. The ludicrous Moscow Show Trails of 1936 to 1938 welcomed foreign journalists and observers. And in 1935 Pravda, the ironically-named mouthpiece of the Soviet state, published on its front page a decree that children over 12 would henceforth be subject to “all measures of criminal punishment,” including death. As Martin Amis notes in his book Koba the Dread, this prompted the French Communist Party to explain that children under socialism become grownups very quickly.

So, yes, there were ample opportunities for visitors to the West to document how everything worked in Soviet Union. But perhaps it isn’t the slave labour, the starvation, and the murder that Salutin refers to? Actually, it is – at least murder in the context of a purge.

Salutin laments that today bankers in their office towers are not held accountable for the current financial mess. “No matter how often the economy crashers and shatters,” he writes, “they have no fear of being tried and executed for ‘economic crimes’ – a rare feature of Soviet communism that one can actually feel nostalgic for.”

I’m not sure how rare were state-sanctioned murders for so-called economic crimes during the Soviet era. Perhaps the number of people purged for economic crimes indeed paled next to those purged because they were “anti-Soviet elements,” or land-owning peasant “kulaks,” or “Trotskyists,” or “spies,” or “wreckers,” or “saboteurs,” or Poles, or Ukrainians, or any one of the many ethnic minorities who fell under suspicion, or simply because they had been denounced by colleagues, friends and family who feared they themselves would be purged if they were not sufficiently energetic in their denunciations.

That’s the thing about the murder of millions. The murder of a few hundred, or thousand, or tens of thousands, within those millions can indeed be counted as rare – if they count at all. Stalin once quipped that the death of one person is a tragedy, while the death of a million is a statistic.

But, says Salutin, the Soviet Union offered a different model. Surely this must also count for something. It doesn’t. I’m reminded of a conversation Amis recalls between his father, Kingsley, and the British philosopher Alfred Jules Ayer during the mid-1960s: 

“In the USSR, at least they are trying to forge something positive.”

“But it doesn’t matter what they’re trying to forge, because they’ve already killed five million people.”

“You keep going back to the five million.”

“If you’re tired of that five million, then I’m sure I can find you another five million.”

I never knew any of the five million, or the millions more. But I regret their deaths. I sure as hell don’t miss the system that killed them.  


Rick Salutin goes off the rails

  1. “During later crises, when the Soviet system had ossified and its stench was unavoidable, there were other models: huge China, little Cuba, all the ex-colonies in Africa and Asia with versions of socialism.”

    WTF? Hey, if you didn’t think Stalin was such a great ruler, why you could pattern yourself after Mao or Castro! Sure, they were mass murderers who brought widespread misery to their countries but who cares about that when there is ‘greed’ to be fought against.

    What I also found odd about Saultin’s column was that he doesn’t present the standard communist meme – yes, USSR was not a pleasant place but that wasn’t ‘real’ communism. It is just an ode to socio/psycho paths because he has problems with a human emotion that is in every one of us.

    • jwl, today is a great day because you and I agree completely. It happens once every blue moon but when it does it is certainly noteworthy.

  2. Good ol’ Rick. Even when he’s wrong he irritates all the right people.

  3. Trying to be generous here, but I think Salutin’s point is that it’s easy to point at communism and celebrate its failures, but no one really applies the same standard to “free-market” economics and societies, which could be argued to have created as many failures (and deaths) as communism…just not as equal opportunity….

    • I dispute both the idea that the free market has caused just as many failures, and I’ll also dispute that it caused just as many deaths.

      I feel sorry for the left sometimes. Globalization improved the standard of living across the world not because corporations are caring stewards of humanity and the environment, but because centralized, planned economies were such horrible and utter failures that almost anything else was better.

      • Terry – capitalistic democracies fights proxy wars, just like any other form of government. Examples; Chile, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran…

        Capitalism brought colonialism, the largest occurrence of the destruction of civilizations our world has ever seen. Spanish in South America, the British almost everywhere, settling of America… millions and millions died. We will never know the final number.

        Pakistan is a failing state that is a direct result of colonization. As is Iraq. Afghanistan. Kashmir.

        The capitalist victors also created Israel, which has caused a little bit of strife over the years.

        Capitalist democracies are also the worlds largest exporters of arms to the third world. I believe the top exporters are US, Russia, UK, France, Israel, Canada, India…

        All forms of government are sick because they all end up in the same place. Concentrated power with elites whose interests do not coincide with the people they rule over. All capitalism has done is paid us to look the other way while people are oppressed and killed for our way of life and ‘national interest’.

        All forms of government are to blame.

        • Oh I don’t doubt that interests within capitalism has caused a lot of death, I just dispute that it caused as much death as Communism.

          Also, I wouldn’t conflate colonialism with capitalism. Colonialism is colonialism, which is why communists had colonial and client states as well. Nor would I call the imposition of Israel capitalism or many of your other examples capitalism because they weren’t done to further the free market, whereas all the purges and starvation were done in the name of the communist revolution.

          Now I’ll back installing puppet governments to keep the price of fruit low and other such evils as ones that can be laid at the foot of capitalism.

          • It’s a depressing world to ponder on a rainy (at least here) Friday afternoon.

          • Why the distinction in one case and not the other?

          • Communism was a totalitarian ideology, so they starved and purged people in pursuit of that ideology. The closest analog Capitalism has for that is deliberately interfering with other governments and installing people who were friendly to the ideology of Capitalism and its interests. That’s why I make the distinction.

            In all cases where the promotion of the ideology was the main interest, the enemies of that ideology (whether Capitalism or Communism) fared far better under capitalism. Unless of course I’m just missing the mass graves for people that didn’t vote Republican, who joined a Co-op, or didn’t go to Church.

          • What about Pinochet’s Chile?

          • So, capitalism venturing into foreign policy (supporting dictatorships, ruling families, etc.) is not an ideologically driven pursuit…?

            I must say that it seems that you are making a distinction between people who suffered under these regimes as a result of this foreign policy, from nationals who suffered under communist regimes….did I get that right?

          • *Ahem* John K, and Austin So, I specifically wrote:

            “Now I’ll back installing puppet governments to keep the price of fruit low and other such evils as ones that can be laid at the foot of capitalism.”

            I will dispute however that for all of America’s interference in the 3rd world, the Communists did so just as much, and capitalists didn’t purge the 5 million people mentioned in the article, never mind some estimates which place the loss of people directly to the forced conversion of countries and economies to communism at nearly 100 million people.

        • “Terry – capitalistic democracies fights proxy wars, just like any other form of government. Examples; Chile, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran…”

          You are mistaking atrocities committed by governments in the name of protecting and enhancing their cronies’ business interests with capitalism.

          Capitalism means free markets. Bribing someone in the government to kill your competitors and steal what you would otherwise have to pay for is not a free market activity. What happened in those countries you named was mercantilsm and imperialism, not capitalism.

          Democracies are not “capitalistic” when they commit atrocities against other countries or against their own people.

          What you refer to as capitalistic countries are actually a mix of capitalism and socialism. The political class allows certain free market activities to exist, but they steal up to half or more of the profits and salaries. They pocket some of the money, use some of it bribe their supporters, and use some of it to commit crimes against other countries. And they give a tiny fraction of the money back to the people from whom it was taken, in the form of crappy, rationed government services, and call it “universal benefits”.

  4. I’ll take two disputes and raise you one “don’t disagree”…

    But I don’t believe that one should view success and failure in such black and white terms (whatever convention you choose to utilize), and try to associate them with economic ideologies which are grey at best.

    Circumstances (demographics, current standard of living, ethics, etc.) dictate what is an appropriate economic policy (left or right) to pursue, IMHO, and it is facile to believe otherwise.

    • You live in the same dreamworld as Salutin. So I guess you are saying 5 millions deaths is a failure, 0 is a success, and 2 million is closer to success than failure? Good job.

      It’s pretty hard to envision something more catastrophic than the Soviet Union, although Zimbabwe might qualify, or Rwanda.

      • Mao’s China, North Korea at any moment in the last several decades…

  5. I think you intentionally (?) mis-red Salutin. The image he describes is important and hard-hitting: G20 protestors filling the streets while above the bankers bet on how many will be arrested, how many hurt, how many killed. It’s chilling. They’re smug because there’s no alternative to them in our current crisis (that’s why they get the huge retention bonuses).

    I don’t know if it’s true, but he’s saying that during the Great Depression people saw Soviet socialism as an alternative and it inspired the New Deal.

    Anyway, thanks for linking to Salutin… I’d missed that column and it is very good.

    • The whole idea of capitalism is that there IS an alternative to these smug people, that is the whole point of capitalism. It’s the socialist Obama that is not allowing these failures to crash. The only alternative is competition, not socialism. If these guys don’t deserve their retention bonuses, then there’s no stopping their competitors.

      Let GM and AIG die. Stop calling for discredited ideas that have resulted in untold hardship everywhere they have been applied.

      • Now, now SF, if our entitled elites don’t get our tax dollars and borrow a huge debt for our children to pay off, how will they stay our elites? They are doing this so that we aren’t bereft of their leadership. They are only thinking about what’s best for us, the little guys with a kitchen table.

  6. It’s unfortunate that someone who writes the kind of garbage that Salutin does, it’s unfortunate that people actually read it.

    He is incapable of seeing reality, and it’s eerie how he can call for something that should have died a long time ago.

  7. Nice to see people dicussing an issue rationally without frothing at the mouth and name calling just because someone has an opposing view. Even with all the malfeasance, greed and shenanigans that went on, on Wall St. and by the Bernie Madoff types, I still have to give the nod to a capitalist model anywhere no matter what the circumstance. Trust me, I am steaming mad when I think about neocon greedheads who wanted to degerulate everything and now joe six pack is the one who is going to have to do the heavy lifting and clean up this mess. However, capitalism created the middle class, built more decent housing, provided an abundance of food and consumer goods, invented the internet and a host of other things, some wonderful, some not so much. Communism started as a wonderful idea but morphed into a monster and succeded in mass producing only misery and death. Maybe I’m nieve but I think we have the right guy in the White House to restore some balance to a system that Bush and others let get totally out of wack. Sure hope so anyway, for a lot of people’s sake.

    • There is nothing wonderful about the communist idea, IMHO.

    • Communism started as a wonderful idea but morphed into a monster…

      Was that typed with a straight face? My dear wayne, communism was a monster from its inception. That the beast still manages to cast its evil shadow over real people in 2009 is a blight on present day humanity.

  8. I think you misread the word “rare” here – I read it as a statement that the Soviet Union was one of the rare countries to execute people for economic crimes, not that such executions were themselves rare within the Soviet Union. Similarly, you might say, “this is the rare film that gets the balance between x and y right” or such.

  9. “Even with all the malfeasance, greed and shenanigans that went on, on Wall St. and by the Bernie Madoff types, I still have to give the nod to a capitalist model anywhere no matter what the circumstance.”

    Greed exists equally among those with capitalist and socialist leanings. It is a fundamental part of human nature to be constantly dissatisfied with one’s lot and to strive to get more of whatever makes one happy. That is what greed is.

    There are only two ways to satisfy one’s greed.

    The first way is to peacefully trade one’s own property and one’s own labor for the property and labor of other people. That is the definition of capitalism.

    The other way is to use violence or fraud in order to take property from other people or to enslave them and steal their labor from them. That is the definition of theft.

    All human interactions can be analyzed and placed into either column ‘A’ or column ‘B’ using these simple criteria.

    Warren Buffet is a capitalist because people voluntarily give him their money and he honestly and faithfully invests it and pays them back according to the terms of their contract.

    Bernie Madoff is a thief because he used deception to take people’s money with no intention of honoring the contracts he signed.

    (Probably the reason why he was given the chance to steal such spectacular amounts of money is that central banks’ policies of monetary inflation were wiping out people’s savings and making them more desperate to hit one out of the park with speculative investments. One crooked racket spawns another.)

    A person can be a capitalist when they’re young by delivering fliers or babysitting. But if they grow up and get a job where they can give themselves a large salary and gold plated benefits, appoint all their friends to similar jobs, and take enormous amounts of money from other people under threat of prison in return for absurd and fundamentally dishonest promises like “universal free health care” and “protecting culture” then they have switched sides.

    • My goodness, you live in a bleak and nasty world….

      • Why do you say that? I see no connection between oompus’ comments and your reaction.

    • I agree.

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