The Hammer and Sickle 100 years on… A legacy with larger atrocities than achievements (and lessons for SA)

A starving Ukrainian boy 1933

The focus in South Africa is so much on the State Capture saga and the ANC’s forthcoming elective conference that few realise we commemorate over the next three weeks two of the most significant events that have shaped our world: the Reformation triggered by Luther’s stance against Rome 500 years ago (30 October 1517) and the Bolshevik Revolution of 7 November 1917 (known as the Great October Socialist Revolution). Both had far-reaching implications for society as a whole, also for the world of enterprise. (Luther’s legacy will be assessed in a subsequent contribution.)

The Marxist-Leninist ideology that promises freedom and equality through state action produced in the 20th Century atrocities and genocidal actions against people of both the USSR and China on par with Hitler’s atrocities against Jews and German dissidents, but with a substantially higher death toll. It is evident from events in the USSR and China that economic growth and the well-being of citizens were of less concern for the power elites intoxicated by Marxist ideology than exerting their power. It also gives insight in the current malaise in South Africa.

Stalin could not tolerate the commercial agricultural production of the Ukrainian kulaks and their resistance to instructions for land reform: collectivist agricultural production units with the state controlling inputs and yields. Ukrainians were accustomed to buying their food from the local farmers: now the state would provide food rations for them and for the farmers turned into farm-labourers. The market was considered ideologically evil. In 1930 Stalin seized the land of the “kulaks” and almost 500 000 of them (men, women and children) were packed into freight trains and dumped in uninhabited areas of Siberia. They died by tens of thousands during the trips and by hundreds of thousands in the Siberian camps by starvation, freezing temperatures and being laboured to death.

Agricultural production on the collectivist farms plunged: there was simply insufficient skills to ensure yields for rations as well as for export (earning necessary money to prop up the USSR), feed the party loyalists, and lastly distribute as food rations in the Ukraine. Smuggling to stave off starvation became common, but Stalin moved in with the might of the state. In 1932 a decree was issued to execute workers that would take any food from the fields they were cultivating and the Red Army blockaded Ukrainian towns, ensuring that no food reached them and that no inhabitants could leave them in search of food. During the crunch year of 1933, the Soviet Union still exported grain…

Cannibalism became a widespread means of survival in the Ukraine. Timothy Snyder of Yale University in his Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin quotes a female doctor who wrote in June 1933 that she was not as yet a cannibal but not certain that she would be able to remain so:

The good people die first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. Parents who resisted cannibalism died before their children did.” 

More than 2 500 people were convicted on charges of cannibalism.

The death toll of the Holodomor (to kill by starvation) is disputed with varying estimates of the death toll. On 10 November 2003 at the United Nations, 25 countries, including Russia, Ukraine and United States signed a joint statement on the seventieth anniversary of the Holodomor stating “the Great Famine of 1932–1933 in Ukraine (Holodomor), took from 7 million to 10 million innocent lives and became a national tragedy for the Ukrainian people…”  The General Assembly of the UN, the European Parliament and Unesco all consider the Holodomor as a crime against humanity and at least 19 countries consider it as genocide. (This legacy is playing out in the recent war of games about the Crimea and the Ukrainian-Russian tensions.)

This deliberate man-made disaster was aimed at rooting out individual property rights and the right to produce for own benefit in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan: the “capitalist evil” had to be crushed regardless the cost. Stalin remarked after this abomination: “Life has improved, comrades. Life has become more joyous.”

Communist China learnt from Stalin: ensure unquestioned leadership by a reign of terror. In 1946 Mao commenced with (you guessed right) land reform, mobilising the peasants against the landlords. Mao encouraged the peasants to kill the landlords and their families with their own hands since that would bind the peasants more intimately to the party whilst simultaneously cultivate obedience by terror. An estimated 4.5 million were killed from 1947 – 1950: landlords were buried alive, chopped up, strangled and shot. Land was equitably distributed, but production tumbled.

Frank Dikötter in his 2010 prize-winning book Mao’s Great Famine 1958 – 62 worked through newly released Chinese archival records and arrived at 45 million premature deaths due to the famine. The leadership knew what they were doing by increasing the food procurement quota on the countryside to pay for imports. The famine led to pilfering, illegal storage of grains, and approximately 2 million people were killed as counter-revolutionaries thus intimidating the rural population into submission.Mao's Great Famine

Dikötter quotes Mao: “When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” Within a communist mind-set the well-being of the people is not important: they can suffer and die, as long as they obey. Economic production levels are immaterial as long as the communist elite can maintain its privileges and ensure state control.

The Marxist-Leninist ideology remains part and parcel of the ANC’s DNA despite its current differences with the SACP over corruption. The National Democratic Revolution, Radical Transformation, the demonization of capital, the disrespect for property rights (the Constitution does not protect such rights when there is a two-thirds majority as all land-owners who lost mineral and water rights without compensation can testify), the in-grained resistance to privatisation, are all symptoms of this ideological commitment.

The ANC’s embeddedness to Marxism commenced during the presidency of Josiah Gumede who visited the USSR in 1927 for the 10th anniversary of the revolution. He spoke at an international conference and also met Stalin. On his return, he commented: “I have seen the new world to come, where it has already begun. I have been to the new Jerusalem. I have brought the key which would unlock the door to freedom.”

A long time ago and by now forgotten? Unfortunately, not.

In the years when Trevor Manuel struggled to balance government income and expenditure and grudgingly acknowledged the role of the private sector to ensure growth and job creation, comrades deployed at provincial and municipal level pursued “local economic development” by ignoring the existing business community (except when in need of donations and sponsorships) and launching community-based project after community-based project with meagre results. When engaging those officials on the rationale behind launching these non-starters, there were seldom reality arguments. However, Marxist phrases spewed from their mouths in an almost uncontrollable mode as when vomiting. Gumede’s ideological pilgrimage was even quoted by a Free State MEC for Economic Development and Tourism in the provincial legislature.

The question then arises whether one should equate socialism with the abominations described here? Were they aberrations or the Marxist norm?

Solzhenitsyn’s comment should be noted:


Socialism of any type leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death. (S)ocialism, which to many western thinkers is a sort of kingdom of justice, was in fact full of coercion, of bureaucratic greed and corruption and avarice… Socialism cannot be implemented without the aid of coercion…

Recall Friedrich von Hayek’s comment in the Road to Serfdom: “The principle that the end justifies the means (which in individualistic ethics is regarded as the denial of all morals) in collectivist ethics becomes the supreme rule. There is literally nothing which the consistent collectivist must not be prepared to do if it serves ‘the good of the whole’ because that becomes the only criterion of what ought to be done”.

It is clear that the Marxist ideology provides an ideological alibi for any abomination by arguing it happened for the greater good. Is this therefore the context in which one should view:

  • Land restitution and reform processes that change productive farms into communal wastelands undermining food security?
  • The eagerness to conclude unnecessary nuclear energy programmes since these will – just as in the case of Kusile and Medupi – act as separators to provide cream for the ANC’s Chancellor House (apart from rent-seeking) by ensuring cost overruns?
  • Delaying the increase of the Clanwilliam Dam storage capacity since the earmarked funding was siphoned off for other purposes; perhaps the 2016 municipal election campaign?
  • Mining Charters that act as barriers to further investment in mining productivity with Mosebenzi Zwane playing yo-yo with mining licences and stating that the Chamber should not advise him on policy: that is the domain for politicians?
  • Wilfully increasing the inefficiencies of State-owned Enterprises whilst knowing well these are a drag on economic growth and therefore job creation?
  • Shackling 17 million to obedience for fear of losing social grants with Bathabile Dlamini apparently willing to risk grant payments as long as her preferences in defiance of a court decision prevail?

The October Revolution is one to be remembered, not to be celebrated.

For those who want freedom to trade and pursue livelihoods, it is better to commemorate the Magna Carta that 800 years ago had asked for the removal of Crown monopolies on fish weirs in the rivers. It is time to strive for freedom from state monopolies, to resist paralysing central planning and to push back policies parading as transformational but that are in essence countering economic freedom, growth and therefore poverty alleviation.

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