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A Concentrationary Universe Full of Contradictions


Domenico Losurdo

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A Concentrationary Universe Full of Contradictions

With the terror, even the concentrationary universe produced by it doesn’t have a straightforward direction or an undifferentiated landscape: far from being a “static system”, it “continued to rotate like a spinning top”, and nevertheless “passed through relatively cruel and humane cycles."462 These are the opinions of an American historian who not only in the starkest terms describes the history that began in October 1917, but who also mocks the “Western statesmen” who let themselves be fooled by a “butcher”―albeit very shrewd as Stalin was, they felt a sense of respect for him.463 Another book by a Russian historian committed to proving the similarity between Stalin’s USSR and the Third Reich makes a similar argument. Nevertheless, the two studies, to which I will make reference to in analyzing the concentrationary universe of Soviet Russia, tell a story very different to that intended by their authors. Indeed, the painting drawn by the American historian could here and there be confused with a product of Soviet propaganda, if it had not come from a fiercely anti- communist author! Let’s begin to examine it. In 1921, while the civil war rages on, for some time the Butyrka prison of Moscow operates as follows:
The prisoners were allowed free run of the prison. They organized morning gymnastic sessions, founded an orchestra and a chorus, created a “club” supplied with foreign journals and a good library. According to tradition―dating back to pre-revolutionary days―every prisoner left behind his books after he was freed. A prisoners’ council assigned everyone cells, some of which were beautifully supplied with carpets on the floors and walls. Another prisoner remembered that “we strolled along the corridors as if they were boulevards.” To Babina, prison life seemed unreal: “Can’t they even lock us up seriously?”
Another socialist revolutionary, arrested in 1924 and sent to Savvatievo, is happily surprised to find herself in place that “didn’t resemble a prison at all." Not only can the political prisoners obtain abundant provisions of food and clothing thanks to their contacts, but they could turn their prison cell into the women’s branch of the socialist revolutionaries. Some years later, on the Solovetsky Islands, we see that the prisoners, many of them having been scientists in St. Petersburg, not only had access to a theater and a library with 30,000 volumes, but also had a botanical garden, including “a museum of flora, fauna, and of local art and history."464 It's true, the situation in the prison  system at that moment in time was not uniform. However, the ones just stated are not isolated cases. However, even if they should be treated as isolated and happy islands, their existence in itself would be significant.

Of course, there was no absence of protests, but it’s interesting to read the demands (partially accepted) made during a hunger strike by political prisoners (in large part Trotskyists):
“Expand the library, include newspapers published in the USSR, at least with editions of the KI [Communist International], completely update the economics, politics and literature sections, and the sections with the works of minority languages. Allow the subscription to at least one foreign newspaper. Allow the enrollment in courses by correspondence. Organize for such purposes a special cultural fund, as happens even in criminal penitentiaries [...]. Allow the introduction into prison of all foreign publications permitted in the USSR, in particular the permitted foreign newspapers, including the bourgeois ones [...]. Allow the exchange of books between prisoners and guards [...]. Acquire paper in quantities of no less than ten notebooks per person each month.”465
This is in June of 1931, and the date is significant. While it brings with it a massive expansion of the concentrationary universe, Stalin’s rise to power and the campaign launched by him for the “liquidation of the Kulaks as a class” didn’t dramatically alter the situation existing within that universe. This is not just true for the political prisoners: “the beginning of the thirties [...] were almost ‘prosperous’ and even ‘liberal’ for prisoners." The management of the Gulag showed “a certain level of religious tolerance” and accepted the petition for a vegetarian diet put forward by the members of certain “religious sects."466 What follows is an excerpt on the penal colonies in the far north at the start of the 1930s:
Needing hospitals, camp administrators built them, and introduced systems for training prisoner pharmacists and prisoner nurses. Needing food, they constructed their own collective farms, their own warehouses, and their own distribution systems. Needing electricity, they built power plants. Needing building materials, they built brick factories.

Needing educated workers, they trained the ones that they had. Much of the ex-kulak workforce turned out to be illiterate or semi-literate, which caused enormous problems when dealing with projects of  relative technical sophistication. The camp’s administration therefore set up technical training schools, which required, in turn, more new buildings and new cadres: math and physics teachers, as well as “political instructors” to oversee their work. By the 1940s, Vorkuta―a city built in the permafrost, where roads had to be  resurfaced and pipes had to be repaired every year―had acquired a geological institute and a university, theaters, puppet theaters, swimming pools, and nurseries.467
As strange as it may be, “the Gulag little by little brought ‘civilization’, if it can be called that, to remote uninhabited areas."468 Among the leaders and administrators, there were those that demonstrated humanity and intelligence:
Berzin seems to have very much approved of (or, at least, enthusiastically paid lip service to) Gorky’s ideas about prisoner reform. Glowing with paternalistic goodwill, Berzin provided his inmates with film theaters and discussion clubs, libraries and “restaurant-style” dining halls. He planted gardens, complete with fountains and a small zoological park. He also paid prisoners regular salaries, and operated the same policy of “early release for good work” as did the commanders of the White Sea Canal.469
On the other hand, because of the famine, the need to increase the prisoners’ productivity, the lack of organization and often incompetence, and the rapacity of the local leaders, “tragedies abound."470 Particularly atrocious is the tragedy that in 1933 hits the exiles who were supposed to cultivate the island of Nazino (Western Siberia). It’s a task that quickly proves desperate: lacking equipment, with medicine and food in large part used up during the journey, on a “completely virgin” island, “without any structures” or “homes”, the deportees sought to survive by eating the dead bodies or carrying out genuine acts of cannibalism. They are details taken from a letter sent by a local communist leader to Stalin and later passed on to all politburo members, who were noticeably upset by it: “the Nazino tragedy had a notable impact and was subject to investigation by a number of commissions."471 It’s evident that it wasn’t homicidal intention that caused the horror: we are dealing with “a significant example of how things could go badly due to a lack of planning." At least until 1937, in the Gulag “people would die by misfortune”, as a consequence of poor organization.472 What characterizes the Soviet concentrationary universe is, firstly, the fixation on development, and that fixation, if on the one hand provokes the infamy of Nazino, on the other hand has very different consequences. As in the society as a whole, they hope to encourage “socialist emulation” among the prisoners: those who stand out can enjoy “additional food” and “other privileges." And that’s not all:
Eventually, top performers were also released early: for every three days of work at 100 percent norm-fulfillment, each prisoner received a day off his sentence. When the [White Sea] canal was finally completed, on time, in August 1933, 12,484 prisoners were freed.

Numerous others received medals and awards. One prisoner celebrated his early release at a ceremony complete with the traditional Russian presentation of bread and salt, as onlookers shouted, “Hooray for the Builders of the Canal!” In the heat of the moment, he began kissing an unknown woman. Together, they wound up spending the night on the banks of the canal.473
The pedagogical obsession is interlinked with a productive obsession, as shown by the presence in the camps of an “Educational-Cultural Department” (KVC), an institution in which “Moscovite leaders of the Gulag [...] truly believed in." Precisely for that reason they took “wall-newspapers very seriously." Indeed, if we read them, we see that the biographies of the rehabilitated prisoners are written in “a language extraordinarily similar to those of good workers outside the colony”: they worked, studied, made “sacrifices and tried to improve."474 The aim was to “reeducate” the prisoners, transforming them into “Stakhanovites”, among the first in line prepared to participate with patriotic enthusiasm in the development of the country. Let’s turn, then, to the American historian on the Gulag: “In the camps, as in the world outside, ‘socialist competitions continued to take place’, work competitions in which the detainees competed to see who could produce more. Moreover, they celebrated the Stakhanovite workers for their alleged capacity to triple or quadruple their quotas."475 It’s no coincidence that until 1937, the guard addressed the prisoner as “comrade."476 Being confined to the concentration camp didn’t exclude the possibility of social promotion: “many prisoners ended up working as guards or camp administrators”:477 overall, as we’ve seen, no small number of them learned a profession to exercise following the moment of  their release.

It’s true that 1937 witnesses a brutal turn. While the third civil war rages and increasingly ominous clouds gather on the international horizon, the fifth column, real or assumed, becomes the objective of an increasingly obsessive hunt. In such circumstances the detainee is no longer a potential “comrade”, it’s then prohibited to refer to them as such; they are now called “citizen”, but it’s a citizen that is potentially an enemy of the people. Is it from this moment on that the Soviet concentration camp is driven by homicidal intent?478 That is how the American researcher repeatedly cited here thinks, but yet again her research refutes her: “In the 1940s, in theory the KVC of each camp had an instructor, a small library, and a ‘circular’ where theatrical performances and concerts were organized, as well as political conferences and debates."479 There’s more. While Hitler’s war of annihilation rages on and the country finds itself in an absolutely desperate situation, “time and money” are generously invested to strengthen and improve “the propaganda, manifestos, and the political indoctrination meetings” for the prisoners:
Within the records of the Gulag administration alone, there are hundreds and hundreds of documents testifying to the intensive work of the Cultural-Educational Department. In the first quarter of 1943, for example, at the height of the war, frantic telegrams were sent back and forth from the camps to Moscow, as camp commanders desperately tried to procure musical instruments for their prisoners. Meanwhile, the camps held a contest on the theme “The Great Motherland War of the Soviet People Against the German Fascist Occupiers”: fifty camp painters and eight sculptors participated.480
In the very same year, the head of a camp with 13,000 detainees offered an important summary of their activity:
He notes grandly that in the second half of that year, 762 political speeches were given, attended by 70,000 prisoners (presumably, many attended more than once). At the same time, the KVC held 444 political information sessions, attended by 82,400 prisoners; it printed 5,046 “wall newspapers”, read by 350,000 people; it put on 232 concerts and plays, showed 69 films, and organized 38 theatrical groups481
Certainly, with the start of Hitler’s invasion, the detainees experience the dramatic consequences of the shortages, but that has nothing to do with the emergence of homicidal intention:

The high mortality rates in the concentration camps in certain years partly reflect the events taking place on the outside [...]. In the winter of 1941-1942, when a quarter of the Gulag population dies of hunger, maybe a million residents die of hunger in Leningrad, surrounded by the German blockade.

And the shortages and malnutrition were widely felt across the Soviet Union.482 Yet even in such a desperate situation, in January of 1943, “the Soviet government created a ‘food fund’ specifically for the Gulag” and, at any rate, “the supply situation improved when the tide of the war turned in favor of the Soviet Union."483

We are so far from the emergence of homicidal intention that the atmosphere of national unity brought out by the Great Patriotic War is felt even within the Gulag. In the meantime, it experiences a massive reduction in population as a result of a series of amnesties; we especially see ex-prisoners heroically take part in combat; they express their satisfaction and pride in the fact that they have access to technologically advanced weapons produced “thanks to the industrialization of the country” (which was marked by the first consistent expansion of the concentrationary universe), they have careers in the Red Army, are accepted into the communist party, and win honors and medals for their military courage.484
With the alternation between relatively “prosperous” and “liberal” phases and clearly economically and juridically worse phases for the prisoners, the history of the Gulag reflects the history of Soviet society. The efforts to achieve “Soviet democracy” in the society as a whole, the “democratic socialism” and even a “socialism without the dictatorship of the proletariat” correspond with the efforts to reestablish “socialist legality” or “revolutionary legality” in the Gulag. It’s for that reason that harsh denunciations of the Soviet concentrationary universe come from inside and from its top leadership. In 1930, it’s Yagoda who seeks to intervene in “the entire prison system, which is rotten to the core." In February of 1938, it’s Vinchinski himself, general prosecutor of the USSR, who denounces the “prison conditions [...] insufficient and, in some particular cases, almost completely intolerable”, that reduce men to “savage animals." Some months later it’s Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the secret police under Stalin, who supports a policy that encourages “severe punishment to the interrogators who consider beatings to be the principal method of investigation, and who cripple prisoners when they don’t have sufficient proof of their anti-Soviet activity."485 It’s not a question of ritual denunciations; when exposed, those guilty of “abuses” are severely punished, punishment that even includes death sentences; many are fired; there’s even conflict between magistrates and the repressive apparatus, which opposes the introduction of “rules” that seem to be “an extremely undesirable intrusion."486 With the aim of strengthening oversight, the submission of complaints  and petitions by detainees is encouraged. Other times they seek to improve the situation by using amnesty and reducing overcrowding in the camps.487 In the period between one denunciation and another, a real improvement is noticed―these are the “liberal” phases―hastened at times by the outbreak of new crises. But in the combination of objective circumstances and subjective responsibility, the Gulag, as well as society as a whole, is unable to overcome the state of emergency.

Tsarist Siberia, Liberal Britain’s “Siberia”, and the Soviet Gulag

Should we compare, or directly associate, the Soviet Gulag with the Nazi Konzentrationslager? It’s a question that could be answered with another: why limit the comparison between just these two realities? In Tsarist Russia―Conquest declares (following Solzhenitsyn’s example)―the concentrationary universe was less crowded and less cruel than during Lenin’s time, and especially under Stalin.488 It’s worthwhile to recall what Anton Chekhov had written in 1890:

We have allowed millions of people to rot in prisons, to rot for no purpose, without any consideration, and in a barbarous manner; we have driven people tens of thousands of versts through the cold in shackles, infected them with syphilis, perverted them, multiplied the number of criminals...but none of this has anything to do with us, it’s just not interesting.489

During its centuries long duration, the Tsarist concentrationary universe (that at least starting with Peter the Great, in a way similar to the Gulag, seeks to acquire the labor force necessary to development the most desolate and least developed regions) has often shown signs of extreme cruelty. A painful trail led the condemned to exile or forced labor in Siberia: “aside from being beaten with batons, many suffered mutilations of hands, feet, ears, as well as the humiliation of being branded with fire." Yes, in the nineteenth century they sought to end “the most extreme and cruel practices”, but it’s a question of half-measures that in the majority of cases weren’t successful.490

From all this emerges how fragile the effort is to diminish the importance of Tsarist Siberia, with the aim of isolating the Soviet Gulag and associating it to the Nazi konzentrationslager. Yet there's another consideration of greater importance: it’s methodologically incorrect to compare a situation of normality to a situation of acute emergency! Read with greater scrutiny, the comparison made by Conquest can lead to a result different from that proclaimed by him: It’s only in pre-revolutionary Russia that detention and deportation by administrative means are considered a normal practice, even in the absence of conflicts and specific dangers. In Soviet Russia, however, the state of emergency has a powerful effect on the genesis and configuration of the concentrationary universe, which becomes yet more brutal as it gets further away from conditions of normality.

Now it’s necessary to take one step further. Aside from (Tsarist and Soviet) Russia and Germany, it’s necessary to bring other countries into the comparison. A two part function is also inherent to liberal Britain’s concentrationary universe. With respect to the “Irish dissidents”, it was observed that “between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they had their official Siberia in Australia”, which at least up until 1868 consumed “representatives of nearly all the existing radical movements in Great-Britain."491 That’s in relation to repression. But it’s necessary not to lose sight  of  the economic function of liberal Britain’s “Siberia." Soon after the Glorious Revolution, there’s a massive increase in the number of criminal acts subject to the death penalty. This even comes down upon those guilty of the theft of a shilling or a handkerchief, or on those responsible for cutting down a decorative plant; not even eleven year old boys are spared. This terrorist legislation, that with some attenuation lasts until the nineteenth century, offers an alternative: the ‘lucky ones’ will be placed in penal servitude, which forces them to work for a certain number of years in the underutilized and unexplored colonies, first in North America, and later in Australia. In other words, even in the economic sphere Australia became a “Siberia” for liberal Britain; its purpose diminished to the degree that labor came in, first with black slaves, and later with the Chinese and Indian coolies, as well as other colonial peoples.492
The British “Siberia” is no less cruel than the Tsarist one. On this “totalitarian society”, which is built in Australia while at the same time an extermination of the Aborigines is carried out, a summary is sketched out based on the available autobiographical literature and that proves to be especially frightening:
At unpredictable intervals, the detainees were gathered, counted, and subjected to a complete examination, with the inspection of the mouth and anus [...]. “The food was brought to the various crews on wooden plates or on tin trays and placed before them as if they were dogs or pigs, and like dogs and pigs they had to eat it” [...]. Discipline depended on the informant [...]. To not become a spy became, therefore, behavior that in itself was suspicious. A week wouldn’t pass without complex conspiracies being revealed, with lists of names, in a competition of accusations [...]. “That trafficking in human blood [...] was the only way to obtain absolution." The volume of information counted more than the content itself. The informants had their quotas of accusations to make and were “capable of any act of treachery or blood, it didn’t matter how vile or horrible” [...]. The normal relations between guilt and punishment became an uninterrupted story of sadism, whose only point was to continue the terror [...]. Authority was exercised in an absolute and capricious way [...]. [a punishment] of 200 lashes were divided up [over several days…]. Those doing the whipping were covered in blood just like us [...]. Suicide was the only way to make the suffering end for good.
In fact, suicide was not only common, but was a practice that often implicated the whole community of prisoners: “Within a group of prisoners two men drew lots: it was up to the first to die, and the second the task of killing the first; for the rest, the roles of witnesses." In this way, during the few days of traveling and during the trial (which occurred in Sydney, some distances from “Siberia” itself), before being hanged, the murderer could enjoy the status of a normal prisoner (in truth, it was an indirect and delayed suicide). And this pause allowed the witnesses to catch their breath, before returning to hell and eventually attempting another lottery.493

The Concentrationary Universe in Soviet Russia and in the Third Reich

Moreover, the concentration camp explicitly emerges in the liberal West during the Second World War as well. On the other side of the Atlantic, Franklin D. Roosevelt orders citizens of Japanese origin, including women and children, to be interned in concentration camps. However, the United States is clearly in a more favorable geopolitical situation than the Soviet Union. In any case, after the battle of Midway, no longer could one speak of military and security concerns. Yet the Americans of Japanese origin continued to be confined to the concentration camps. Beginning gradually, their freedom is only completely obtained in the middle of 1946, nearly a year after the end of the war. Even slower is the return home of Latin American citizens of Japanese origin deported to the United States from thirteen Latin American countries. Only in 1948 were the last ones freed from the “internment camp”―or concentration camp―in Crystal City, Texas.494 Certainly it would be rash, at the very least, to explain this event not from the war and the state of emergency, but with the ideology of a president accused of “totalitarianism” by his adversaries due to his economic interventionism during the Great Depression and also the loose interpretation of the constitution used to drag a very reluctant country into war (supra, ch. 1, § 6).

Here we encounter another aspect that the usual historical comparison hides: the concentrationary universe that’s also developed in the liberal West during the twentieth century, taking on horrible forms at times. At the outbreak of the war, the German exiles who are confined to French concentration camps have the impression that they are destined to “burn."495 Surely outrageous is the mistreatment, when the war had already ended, inflicted on German prisoners by the United States, as documented at the time by the Canadian historian James Bacque, and would be acknowledged by the official lawyers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, even if it was done against his will and with some hesitation. More recent research has brought other details to light. I will limit myself to citing just one of them. An American commission found that, at that time, of the 139 detainees examined, 137 had “their testicles permanently destroyed from the beatings they endured."496 We’ll also see the horror of the concentration camps in which, at the start of the Cold War, the British confined communist suspects (infra, ch. 6, § 4). To conclude, it’s necessary to recall the Gulag in Yugoslavia in which, starting in 1948 and after the split with the USSR, communists loyal to Stalin are imprisoned.497 At least in this case, the “Stalinists” are no longer the authors, but the victims of the concentrationary universe, established by a communist country, yes, but at that time allied to the West.

Even if one sought to start from the basis of the exceptional scale and severity of the Soviet Gulag, the principal problem still remains unresolved: It’s always necessary to distinguish the role of ideology from the role of the objective conditions (the exceptional gravity of the threat and the general hardship that characterized the USSR). Compared to such complex analysis, far easier is the deductivism that traces everything back to ideology and the similarity of the concentrationary universes produced by the two “totalitarian” ideologies.

Yet in any case, let’s focus on Soviet Russia and the Third Reich. With regard to the first, the concentrationary universe arises while the Second Time of Troubles continued to rage. In the 1930s, political power didn’t exercise full control over its territory: “common criminality―itself caused by the serious fractures that occurred in the country, that had destroyed the traditional structures of social organization―had reached truly worrying levels."498 Much more serious is the situation in the Far East regions, that are described as follows:

Insecure locations, poorly controlled by the authorities, where marginalized and lawless people are concentrated, where armed gangs attack the isolated kolkhozes and kill the few “representatives of Soviet power." Locations of  arbitrary force and violence, where everyone is armed, human life has no value and the hunt of man, when it happens, substitutes the hunt of animals [...]. Locations in which the state, at least that defined by Max Weber as the “system that successfully exercises the right to legislate over a territory, while retaining a monopoly on the use of legitimate force”, is almost absent.499

From the attack on the German ambassador in Moscow, carried out in July of 1918 “during the the session of the Fifth Pan-Russian Congress of Soviets” by a member of a party (Socialist Revolutionaries) that was part of the government, at least up until the assassination of Kirov by a young communist at his office’s front door, Soviet power is confronted by terrorism (a phenomenon with a long history in Russia) and it fears the infiltration of the state apparatus at all levels by an opposition determined to topple from power the “usurpers” and “traitors." In other words, only with the arrival of autocracy does Soviet power achieve full control over its territory and the state apparatus; and the terror is, firstly, a response to an unprecedented, acute and long lasting crisis.

Subsequently, the situation continues to be characterized by the interplay between contradictions (the worsening military threat at the international level, the latent internal civil war, industrialization in forced stages that is considered necessary for the country’s salvation, but provokes at the same time new conflicts and new tensions) that once again prolong the state of emergency. It’s precisely for that reason, as a recent study highlights, “the terror cannot be exclusively interpreted as a series of orders coming down from Stalin” and his collaborators. In fact, in it “popular elements” also operate, and there’s no lack of initiative “from below”; often it is the workers, driven by that “zealous faith” we’ve already encountered, who demand that “traitors” be sentenced to death and even denounce the “juridical rigor” of long and costly criminal trials.500 And all of this takes place during a process of a limited democratization, yet nonetheless real, with the enhancement  of popular participation in the management of power in workplaces, with the replacement of the secret ballot by the public vote, and the possibility of selecting from among a greater number of  candidates in elections for labor union and factory leaders. And those newly elected often meaningfully commit to the improvement of working conditions and the reduction of workplace accidents.501 Yes, “in the political psychology of Stalin and his followers, there’s no contradiction between repression and democracy”, and in that sense one can even speak of the “democratization of repression."502

But it’s precisely that democratization that encourages an expansion of repression. Taking advantage of new opportunities in the factory, and in letters to the press that challenge corrupt and inefficient officials, this movement erupting from below tends to depict them as enemies of the people and identify the constant workplace accidents as a form of sabotage against this new society that they’re committed to building.503 The awareness of the growing threat of the war,  and the obsessive hunt  of a fifth column that’s broadly spread out and well hidden, this generalized fear and hysteria transform the assemblies in the factories, labor unions and party into a “war of all against all." Sometimes, it’s Stalin and his closest collaborators who see themselves forced to intervene to contain and concentrate this rage, warning against the tendency to find traitors and saboteurs everywhere, and thus destroying party and labor union organizations.504 The Great Terror that ravages France in 1789 comes to mind, of the weeks and months immediately following the storming of the Bastille, with the excessive exaggeration of a threat that’s by no means imagined, and when “the peasant imagination sees mercenaries of the aristocratic conspiracy and foreign invasion everywhere."505 In the USSR in the second half of the 1930s, the danger is real and of  extreme gravity, but no less real is the hysteria.

In conclusion, in Soviet Russia the terror emerges in the period of time that stretches from the First World War, which initiates the Second Time of Troubles, to the Second World War, which threatens to inflict on the country and nation as a whole an even more gigantic catastrophe: the annihilation and enslavement clearly described in Mein Kampf. And the terror arises during an industrialization in forced stages that aims to save the country and the nation, during which the large scale and ferocious repression combines with real processes of emancipation (the massive expansion of education and culture, the remarkable upward social mobility, the emergence of the welfare state, the tumultuous and contradictory protagonism of social classes until that time condemned to a completely subaltern status).
There are sharp differences, then, in comparison to the Third Reich, that since its rise to power can count on the complete control of its territory and state apparatus, and with the longstanding efficiency of an extensive bureaucratic network. While in Russia ideology plays a secondary role in the state of emergency (having pre-dated the October Revolution of 1917, and eventually prolonged by revolutionary millenarianism, that received partial opposition from Stalin), in Germany, the state of emergency―and the concentrationary universe linked to it―is from the start the consequence of  a very determined political project and a very determined ideological vision. Hitler comes to power with an explicit program of war and territorial expansion: with the aim of avoiding the collapse of the home front that took place during the First World War, he’s determined to make use of a more ruthless terror. Nazi Germany’s expansionism also aims at reasserting across the globe the supremacy of the white and Aryan race, and to take up and radicalize the colonial tradition, applying it to Eastern Europe itself; from the beginning, the Konzentrationslager has in mind the likely opponents to the war and to the colonial and racial empire that Hitler intends to conquer and build. Required for the success of that program is the neutralization of the Judeo-Bolshevik virus, that sows subversion and erodes the foundations of civilization, putting into question the natural hierarchy of peoples and races. Therefore, it’s necessary to liquidate the Jews, the communist “commissars” and cadre both in the territories to be conquered as well as in Germany itself. This is how the path is laid to treat the inferior races of Eastern Europe following the example of what happened to the Native Americans, that they must be exterminated to make room for the German settlers, and also to be slaves in the service of the white and Aryan master race.

Gulag, Konzentrationslager and the Absent Third

Starting with the invasion, first of Poland and later of the USSR, the Nazi concentrationary universe appears to carry on and further aggravate the most tragic episodes from the history of colonial slavery. When, thanks to the trafficking of African slaves, the availability of slaves was almost unlimited, the slave owners had no economic interest at all in sparing them; they could coldly condemn them to death from overwork and replace them with others and extract from each of  them the maximum profit possible. That was how―observes a nineteenth century economist cited by Marx―the flourishing agriculture of the West Indies “consumed millions of men of the African race”; indeed, “the lives of blacks are sacrificed without any scruples."506 The war unleashed by Hitler in Eastern Europe represents the new and even more brutal form of the slave trade. Captured and exploited in masse, the enslaved Untermenschen (those that survived the Germanization of the territory) are forced to die from overwork, with the aim of building the civilization of the white master race and feeding its war machine; they suffer through conditions similar to those of blacks  (in the Caribbean) to whom, moreover, the Führer explicitly compares them.

The prison system reproduces the relations of the society in which it is expressed. In the USSR, inside and outside the Gulag, we fundamentally see in action a developmentalist dictatorship that seeks to mobilize and “reeducate” all forces, with the purpose of overcoming secular backwardness, becoming yet more urgent due to the approaching war that, by the explicit declaration of Mein Kampf, is to be one of enslavement and annihilation. In this scenario, the terror in the USSR is combined with the emancipation of the oppressed nationalities, as well as a strong upward social mobility and with access to education, culture, and even to management and leadership positions by parts of the social strata that until that time had been totally marginalized. The pedagogical concern with production and the social mobility related to it is felt, for better or for worse, even inside the Gulag. The Nazi concentrationary universe reflects, on the contrary, a racial hierarchy that characterizes the racial State, by that time established, and the racial empire to be built. In this case, the concrete behavior of those imprisoned plays an irrelevant or largely marginal role. Therefore, pedagogical concerns would make no sense. To conclude, the prisoner in the Gulag is a potential “comrade” obligated to participate in particularly hard conditions in the strengthening of  production inside the country and, after 1937, they are potential citizens, though having become unclear is the line of separation from being an enemy of the people and a member of the fifth column, whose neutralization had been imposed with the approaching total war; the prisoner in the Nazi Lager is firstly an Untermensch, forever marked by their nationality or racial degeneration.

In seeking to find a precise analogy for the Konzentrationslager, it’s necessary to bring in the concentrationary universe that profoundly marked the colonial tradition (in whose wake Hitler explicitly intended to place himself) and which targets the colonial peoples or the people of colonial origin. It’s here we have the central omission of the comparison! In that sense, we can speak of the absent third in the comparison in vogue today. Two illustrious historians both defined as “extermination camps” the “militarized work camps” of colonial India of 1877, as well as the concentration camps in which the Libyans were locked up by liberal Italy.507  Even if one considers this classification exaggerated, the concentrationary universe of the Third Reich  nonetheless reminds us of the racial logic and hierarchy that dominates the colonial empires of Italy and the West, as well as the concentration camps built by them.

We are also forced to think of Nazism when we read the forms in which  the  “Canadian  Holocaust” (or the “final solution to our indigenous question”) was perpetrated. The “Commission for the Truth about the Canadian Genocide” speaks of “death camps”, of “men, women and children” who are “deliberately exterminated”, of a “system whose objective is to destroy the greatest part possible of the native people through sickness, deportation, and murder itself." To achieve this, the champions of white supremacy don’t hesitate in hurting “innocent children”, who die “from beatings and torture, or after having been deliberately exposed to tuberculosis and other illnesses”; others go on to suffer forced sterilization. A small “minority of collaborators” will manage to survive, but only after having renounced their own language and identity and after having been made to serve their tormentors.508 In this case as well, one may assume that righteous indignation may have overstated the case; yet it remains evident that we are faced with practices identical or similar to those in force in the Third Reich, and their application arises out of a similar ideology, and that’s again similar to that which presides over the construction of Hitler’s racial State.

Let’s move on now to the Southern United States. In the decades following the Civil War, black prisoners (the overwhelming majority of the prison population), often rented out to private companies, were crowded into “large wheeled cages that followed the encampments of construction and railroad tycoons." Even the official reports states:
[...] “that the prisoners were excessively and at times cruelly punished; that they were poorly clothed and fed, that the sick were not treated because no hospital had been provided and they were closed in together with healthy patients." An examination done by the grand jury at the penitentiary hospital in Mississippi reported that all the patients showed “signs on their bodies of the most inhumane and brutal treatment. A great many of them have broken shoulders, with sores, scars and blisters, some with their skin cruelly ravaged from lashings [...] they lie there dying, and some of them on top of simple tables, so weak and emaciated that their bones were nearly visible beneath their skin, and many complained about the lack of food [...]. Aside from this, we see living parasites crawling across their faces, and their clothes and the little they have to sleep on are ragged and often filthy." In the mining camps of Arkansas and Alabama, those sentenced to forced labor were made to work all winter without shoes, with their feet in the water for long hours. In these two states a work system was in force according to which a crew of three were obligated to extract a certain quantity of coal per day under penalty of flagellation for the entire crew. Those condemned to forced work in Florida’s terebirth forests, with “their feet bound’’ and carrying “chains around their waists”, were obligated to work at a brisk pace.509
We have before us a system that makes use of  “chains, dogs, whips, and firearms” and that “creates a living hell for the prisoners." The mortality rate is very significant. Between 1877 and 1880, during the construction of the railroads of Greenwood and Augusta, “nearly 45%” of the forced laborers die there, “and they were youths in the prime of their lives."510 Another statistic can be cited from the same time period: “In the first two years in which Alabama rented out its prisoners, nearly 20% died. In the following year the mortality rate jumped to 35%. In the fourth year nearly 45% died.511

 With regard to mortality rates, a systematic statistical comparison of the concentration camps in the USSR and Third Reich would be interesting. Regarding the Gulag, it has been calculated that at the start of the 1930s, before the clampdown provoked by the attack on Kirov and by the growing threat of war, the annual mortality rate “corresponded more or less to an average of 4.8% of the camp population." That being said, this statistical data doesn’t include the gold mining camps  around the Kolyma river. It’s also necessary to have in mind the “usual underestimations from the information by health departments”; however, even substantially inflating the official numbers, it seems difficult to approach the mortality rate we’ve just seen among African American inmates. Moreover, there’s significant reason to suspect “underestimations." There’s the fact that, in the USSR’s camps, “high mortality and escape rates could lead to severe punishment”; that “the health departments of the camps feared being accused of negligence and of being slow in achieving the patients’ recovery”; and that “the threat of inspections loomed constantly over camp leaders."512 

Judging by the mortality rate of the rented out semi-slaves, it does not appear that there was a  similar threat looming over the American businessmen who got rich with the construction of the Greenwood and Augusta railroad lines or with other ventures. At any rate, we should be clear about one essential point: in the Southern United States, black prisoners suffer horrible living and working conditions and die en masse during peacetime; the state of emergency doesn’t play any role, and concern with production is also either marginal or totally absent. The concentrationary universe of the Southern United States reproduces the racial hierarchy and the racial State that characterizes its society as a whole: the black prisoner is neither a potential “comrade” nor a potential “citizen”; he is an untermensch. The treatment inflicted on them by whites is the treatment that’s considered normal  in relation to races removed from true civilization. And again we come across the ideology of the Third Reich.

Moreover, there are eminent American historians who compare the prison system we just saw with the “prison camps of Nazi Germany."513 And it’s no coincidence that the medical experiments―done to Untermenschen in Nazi Germany―in the United States have been carried out using blacks as guinea pigs.514 Moreover, before doing it in their own territory, in the years of Wilhelm II, imperialist and colonialist Germany conducted their medical experiments in Africa at  the expense of Africans; during this activity two doctors distinguish themselves and later become  the teachers of Joseph Mengele,515 who in Nazi Germany finishes the perversion of medicine and science that was already outlined in the (American and European) colonial tradition. Not only can one not separate the Third Reich from the history of the relations instituted by the West toward the colonial peoples and the people of colonial origin, but it must be added that that tradition continues to show signs of life well after the defeat of Hitler. In 1997 president Clinton felt obligated to ask forgiveness from the African American community: “In the 1960s more than 400 men of color  from Alabama were used as human guinea pigs by the government. Those sick of Syphilis were not cured because the authorities wanted to study the effects of the disease on a ‘sample population’."516

The National Awakening in Eastern Europe and in the Colonies: Two Opposing Responses

Here it becomes evident the absurdity of a comparison of concentration camps based on the omission of the treatment reserved by the liberal West for the “inferior races”, and also in the separation between internal policy and foreign policy, between repressive practices and the ideologies with which they are established. If we take into consideration these elements and these often ignored connections, the usual association of the two totalitarian dictatorships turns into an antithesis. It was observed that “Stalin was very impressed” by the awakening of oppressed or marginalized nationalities within the Habsburg Empire. In reference to that, we turn to his observations made in 1921, at the tenth congress of the Russian communist party:517 “fifty years ago all of Hungary’s cities had a German character, now they’ve been Magyarized”; the Czechs also experienced an “awakening." It’s a phenomenon that affects Europe as a whole: from the “German city” that it once was, Riga becomes a “Latvian city”; similarly, the cities of Ukraine are “inevitably Ukrainized”, the Russian element once predominant becoming secondary.518
As they become aware of that process, considering it progressive and irreversible, the Bolshevik party as a whole, and especially Stalin, commit themselves to a “new and fascinating experiment in governing a multiethnic State”, which can be described as follows:
The Soviet Union was the first global empire founded on affirmative action. The new revolutionary government of Russia was the first among the old multiethnic European states to face the growing wave of  nationalism and to respond to it by systematically promoting the national consciousness of its ethnic minorities and establishing for them many institutional forms typical for nation-states. The Bolshevik strategy was to assume leadership of that decolonization process that appeared inevitable, and they carry it out as a way to preserve the territorial integrity of the old Russian empire. To that end the Soviet state created not only a dozen republics of ample dimension, but also tens of thousands of national territories spread out over the length of the Soviet Union. New national elites were educated and promoted to leadership positions in the government, schools, and in the industrial companies of these recently created territories. In many cases this made necessary the creation of written languages where previously it hadn’t existed. The Soviet state financed the mass production of non-Russian language books, newspapers, magazines, movies, operas, museums, orchestras of popular music and other cultural products. Nothing similar had ever been attempted.519
The novelty that this policy represents stands out even more if we compare it with the obsession for uniformity that in the middle of the twentieth century dominates the United States and Canada: forced to break ties with their birth community and with their very own family, native children must also renounce their dances and their “strange” clothing, they are forced to have short hair and,  above all else, avoid the use of their tribal language as if it were the plague; breaking the rule that demands exclusive use of English carries severe punishment, and in Canada they are even subjected to electric shock.520

With regard to the USSR, there’s an essential point on which today there’s a type of consensus:

The republics received―some before others―a flag, an anthem, a language, a national academy, and in some cases even a commissar for foreign relations, and they retained the right, later utilized in 1991, to separate from the federation, although there hadn’t been a specified procedure.521

In Mein Kampf, Hitler is also fixated on the Slavicization and the “erasing of the German element” underway in Eastern Europe. In his eyes, however, it is neither a progressive nor irreversible process; but only the most radical measures can halt it and roll it back. It’s not a matter of pushing forth a policy of assimilation and promoting “a Germanization of the Slavic element in Austria”; no, “one can carry out the Germanization of the land, but never the men." It would be absurd to want to make “a black or a Chinese person into a German, just because he learned German, or is prepared to speak German in the future and vote for a German political party." “Such Germanization would, in truth, be a degermanization”, it would mean “the beginning of a bastardization” and, therefore,  of the “annihilation of the German element”, or the “annihilation of  the very characteristics, in  their time, that made it possible for the conquering people (Eroberervolk) to achieve their victory."522 to Germanize the soil without Germanizing the men is possible only following a very precise model: on the other side of the Atlantic, the white race expanded to the West, Americanizing the soil, certainly not the Native Americans: this approach allowed the United States to remain “a Nordo- Germanic state” without degenerating into a “international melting pot of peoples."523 That same model should be followed by Germany in Eastern Europe.

While the Bolsheviks are concerned with promoting in the Soviet republics the most diverse nationalities and local political classes possible, Hitler’s announced program for the conquest of the East is the exact opposite: “all representatives of the Polish intelligentsia must be annihilated”; all means need to be used “to prevent a new intellectual class from forming." Only in this way can the colonial objectives be completed: the peoples destined to work as slaves in service to the master race should not forget that “there can only be one master, the German."524

In his usual speech at the tenth congress of the Russian communist party in 1921, Stalin calls attention to another element of change that is being witnessed in world history: “During the imperialist war, the belligerent imperialist powers had been forced to turn to the colonies, from which they had extracted the manpower for their armies” and this “could only advance the cause of freedom and the struggle by these people and these populations." The national awakening in Eastern Europe is joined by the one taking place in the colonial world: “In general, the advance of the national question in the colonies is no coincidence, from the point of view of history."525 While in Europe the national awakening is called upon to put an end to the policies of discrimination, denationalization, and the oppression of national minorities, in the colonies it’s destined to radically put into question the concentrationary universe built by the conquerors for those races considered inferior.

The novelty of resorting to troops of color did not go unnoticed by Hitler, who doesn’t hesitate in denouncing this betrayal of the white race. France is especially guilty of this, where a process of “bastardization” and “negroization” is quickly and ruinously put into practice, and where one even witnesses the “rise of an African state on European soil."526 Before us here are not “prejudices”, before us is a precise political program, which look on in horror at the use of colored troops and also at racial intermixing in the sphere of sexual relations and marriage; because these practices―in degrading the barrier that separates the master race from the servant race―put into crisis the dominion and the concentrationary universe that the master race must impose on the servant race in the superior interest of Civilization. From the point of view of the Nazi leader, the national awakening in Eastern Europe and the use of troops of color in the West’s  internal conflicts (with  the subsequent growth in consciousness of the colonial peoples) constitute a terrible global threat to civilization and to the white race. The construction of a racial state and empire, and the unleashing of the war in the East, similarly represent a response to that threat; with the flow into the Nazi concentrationary universe of an immense mass of slaves drawn from the “inferior races” and destined to work and die of overwork in service to the master race.

The Nazi concentrationary universe is set up to devour millions upon millions of slaves or superfluous human beings that inevitably arise out of a program that aims for the constant Germanization of the soil, excluding a priori the natives who inhabit it from Germanization. And that project would have yet devoured an infinite number of more victims, if it had not been  defeated by an opposing project, based on the recognition not only of existential rights, but also the cultural and national rights of the natives. By a series of both objective circumstances and subjective responsibility, that in no way should be dismissed, that second project also produced a concentrationary universe. But, even with its horrors, it can’t in any way be associated with the first, that explicitly presupposed the continuation of the genocidal practices already underway in the colonial world itself, and its even more brutal extension to the new colonies to be built in Eastern Europe.

Totalitarianism or Developmentalist Dictatorship?

We are now able to understand the insufficient or deceptive character of the category of totalitarianism, widely invoked to establish the association between Stalin’s USSR to Hitler's Germany. A growing number of historians are questioning it or clearly rejecting it. To explain the history of the Soviet Union, some of them begin with Peter the Great and, going yet further back, with “Moscow under siege” and its extremely fragile geopolitical situation, as Genghis Khan’s invasion had demonstrated. Stalin, therefore, had felt himself called upon by history and geography to promote the most rapid economic development possible, with the aim of saving, at the same time, the nation and the new political and social order given to it.527 This is how a developmentalist dictatorship arises and imposes itself.

All of this in the context of a society that, on the one hand, presumably hasn’t completely forgotten the warning made by Lenin in 1905 (“Whoever wants to march toward socialism on a path that isn’t political democracy will inevitably arrive at absurd and reactionary conclusions, both from an economic and a political point of view”),528 and on the other hand, is dragged from one state of emergency to another, from one civil war to another, as a result of both objective circumstances as well as intrinsic ideological weaknesses. We are therefore faced with a society characterized not by totalitarian uniformity and alignment, but by the permanent duration and omnipresence of the civil war, that manifests itself even within families, divided as a consequence of the contrary attitudes taken by its members in relation, for example, to the process of collectivization in rural areas: “a peasant woman, who belonged to a religious sect, hacked her husband to death as he slept because he, it seemed, was an activist in favor of the kolkhoz." Similar bloody crimes even stain the relationship between parents and children.529 The conflict here takes on the ferocity of a religious war; and this is true not just for those who explicitly appeal to themes taken from Christianity, but also for the zealous followers of the new society, who themselves are driven by “zealous faith."

An analysis of the relations of production would be very much enlightening. Let’s mentally enter a Soviet factory, or one of the many construction sites that flourish in the gigantic modernization program promoted by Stalin. Yet far from being uniformly determined from above, its location is decided after a complex decision making process made up of passionate and frequently fiery discussions: “contrary to the strict centralization of the tsarist era, the anti-colonialist rhetoric of the Soviet Union gave the regional lobbies power unimaginable during the old regime." Particularly strong is the power of those regions that, precisely due to their underdevelopment, pressure the regime to maintain its promises to end the inequalities and the “injustices of tsarist imperialism”, with the aim of promoting industrialization and modernization at the national level.530

Upon entering the production site and workplace, we realize that there’s absolutely no rigid discipline and blind obedience enforced: on the contrary, there’s no lack of unrest or heated disputes. Meanwhile, the large fluctuations in the labor force won’t go unnoticed. Stalin is forced to tenaciously struggle against that phenomenon; moreover, by 1936 “more than 87% of industrial workers leave their job post." They’re encouraged by a policy of full employment and by the real possibility of upward social mobility, a counterweight to the power wielded by authorities in the factory or at the construction site. But that’s not all. Overall, we see a kind of tug of war with three participants: party and labor union leaders who are committed to increasing labor productivity; the workers, primarily concerned with an increase in their wage levels; the experts, who are often stuck in the middle and undecided about what to do. In most cases it’s the workers who win out, and quite often the experts disobey “the orders coming down from Moscow."531

Furthermore, the working class itself is divided. While it brings out enthusiasm in some, the appeal to increase productivity and to truly commit to socialist competition―with the aim of developing  the productive forces and catching or surpassing the most advanced countries of the West―provokes discontent, quiet resistance or open hostility from others. While the first are classified by the second as “the forces of the Antichrist”, the first have for the second “a sacred hatred for the enemies of the new socialist life”,532 with a language that brings us back once again to the “zealous faith” that inspires a whole generation.

That which opposes supporters and adversaries of the new order is by no means the only conflict. We also see the confrontation between specialists, on one side, and the mass of workers on the other. The first often struggle against the Bolsheviks and on the side of the Whites: their qualifications are appealed to, but at the same time they seek to subject them to a form of oversight. But the newly trained experts and specialists, and even those trained under the old regime, also are motivated by patriotic sentiment to loyally collaborate with Soviet power; still, they must face the challenges arising from a new social stratum, the “vanguard workers." And this challenge is all the more frightening in a society where “the workers are called upon to judge their leaders”; thus, one can easily comprehend that frequently the “engineers strongly resisted workers control."533 But it’s a resistance that’s anything but easy: the workers can make themselves heard and make their voice count by displaying manifestos in their workplaces and writing to the newspapers and to their party leaders; most often, it’s the experts and factory management itself who generally feel intimidated.534

Stalin also refers to those conflicts when he addresses the Stakhanovite movement, that “began spontaneously, almost on its own, from below, without any kind of pressure from any part of the administration of our companies, and even doing so in opposition to them”; yes, at least at the start, the Stakhanovites are forced to do their experiments “hidden from company management, hidden away from oversight”; a worker dedicated to introducing “innovations” even runs the risk of being laid off, or stopped by the “intervention of a department chief."535 In competition, and often in conflict with one another, we see in action a number of “industrial authorities”: from experts, administrators, political figures, to labor union officials (there’s also a distinction between “party and labor union” officials).536
To conclude, in visiting a Soviet factory or construction site (including during the Stalin years), one doesn’t have the impression of entering in a “totalitarian” workplace. “Totalitarianism” was much more evident in the factory of Tsarist Russia, where an unmistakable rule was enforced: “the owner of the industrial establishment is sovereign and the absolute legislator who is bound by no legal limits”; in fact, he can even make use of the whip, in the case of more serious offenses.537 Or take a country like the United States. Let’s consider the treatment reserved for prisoners (almost always African Americans), rented out, as we are familiar with, to private companies. These companies can enjoy “absolute control” in exchange for payment:
The guards had the power to chain the prisoners, to shoot at those who try to escape, to torture those who refused to submit and lash the disobedient, whether nude or dressed; an almost limitless power. For eight decades [from the seventies of the nineteenth century until the Second World War] there were almost no sentences against the buyers of these slaves for their mistreatment or their deaths.538
Certainly this related to prisoners, but remember that for African Americans of the south the charge of “vagrancy” was enough for them to be arrested, condemned, and to be rented out to businessmen who were determined to get rich. Other times, blacks were simply captured by landowners and made to provide forced labor. It’s no coincidence that in the title and subtitle of the book cited here, the author speaks of “slavery with another name”, and of “the reintroduction of slavery for African Americans from the Civil War to the World War II."539 While the slaves or semi- slaves may constitute an evidently limited percentage of the total labor force, nevertheless the prolonged existence of slave or semi-slave labor relations in the workplace of American capitalist society demands reflection.

Aside from this, it’s worthwhile to make a much more general consideration: looking closely, in the Soviet factory we see dynamics and relations at work that would be considered an intolerable lack of discipline in the capitalist factory found in the democratic countries. One well known work by Marx (The Poverty of Philosophy) can help to clarify that point:
While inside the modern factory the division of labor is meticulously managed by the businessman’s authority, modern society has no other rule, no other authority, to distribute labor, if not by free competition [...]. It can even be established, as a general principle, that the less state authority presides over the division of labor, the more the division of labor develops within the factory, and there it is subjected to just one authority. Thus, authority in the factory and authority in society, in relation to the division of labor, are in inverse proportion to one another.540
It can be said that Soviet society produced, now and again, an inversion of the dialectic in capitalist society described by Marx: the absence of a rigid factory discipline (with the absence of the traditional boss’s more or less accentuated despotism) corresponded to the terror exercised by the State over civil society. But also in regard to this, it’s worthwhile to remain on guard against simplifications: we are dealing with a much more “chaotic and unorganized State” than one can imagine; “the center rarely spoke in one voice”; even the “ideological uniformity” was most often just a “facade."541

The typical analysis of totalitarianism makes complete abstraction of the workplace, and just for this reason become unilateral and superficial. If we do away with that total and improper abstraction,  totalitarianism as a category would be seen for all its inadequacy: it can’t in any way help us understand a society that in its final phase―with the disappearance of the “zealous faith”, unable to last forever as Kennan wisely predicted―is undermined by an authentic anarchy in the workplace, abandoned by its employees without impediment, who, even when present, appear to be carrying  out a kind of “work to rule” slowdown, furthermore it’s tolerated; that is the impression formed, a bit perplexed and somewhat impressed, by the workers and labor union delegations visiting the USSR in its final years. In China, when it is beginning to abandon Maoism, in the public sector there continued to be in force practices that were described as followed by a Western journalist: “even the lowest employee [...] if they so wish, can decide to do absolutely nothing; stay at home for one or two years and continue to get their salary at the end of the month." This “culture of idleness” continued to make itself felt even in the private sector economy that was then emerging: “former state employees [...] arrived late, then read the newspaper, went to lunch half an hour early, and left the office half an hour early” and frequently missed work for family reasons: “because his wife was sick”, as just one example. And the managers and specialists who sought to introduce discipline and efficiency in the workplace are forced to confront not only the resistance and indignation of the workers (it’s an outrage to penalize a worker who misses work to take care of his wife!), but are  often threatened and even face violence from below.542 It’s very difficult to describe these relations using the category of “totalitarianism”; we are better instructed by sticking to the previously cited excerpt from Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, which can help us understand a phenomenon that’s completely inexplicable by the theory of totalitarianism. In the USSR, in the countries of Eastern Europe and in China, the more or less radical dismantlement of the “totalitarian” system takes place alongside a drastic strengthening of discipline in the workplace; to give one example: only in 1993 does China approve a law that allows layoffs due to absenteeism.543

No doubt, especially in situations of acute crisis, workplaces are certainly not exempt from the  terror in the USSR or in Maoist China; however, what characterizes daily life is a regime that’s far from totalitarianism. In summary, one could say that the usual recourse to that term is only persuasive by working off a double and arbitrary abstraction. The omission of operating relations in the workplace and in the places of production makes it possible to draw the communist dictatorship and the Nazi dictatorship closer together; the silence on the terror and the concentrationary universe that took place at the expense of the colonies and semi-colonies, as well as within the metropole itself at the expense of the peoples of colonial origin (like the Native Americans and African Americans), makes it possible to create an abyss separating the liberal West from the “totalitarian” states.

In regard to the Soviet Union of Brezhnev and his successors, Stalin’s USSR presents different characteristics, but the central element that separates them is the exceptional ideological and political mobilization that, before deflating and losing all credibility, for a long period of time manages to offer an essential contribution to the functioning of the economic and productive apparatus. They are decades in which a developmentalist dictatorship is established: it has a pace that is both chaotic and ruthless, and is characterized by the “zealous faith” of which social and ethnic groups take advantage, seeing on opening toward substantial upward social mobility, and which brings the recognition that until that moment was stubbornly denied to them. It doesn’t make much sense to associate that tragic and contradictory experience to that of the Nazis, which is explicitly established for the purpose of war, colonial conquest and the reaffirmation of racial hierarchies, that from its beginning can make use of a state apparatus and a consolidated, efficient bureaucracy, and that can impose itself across all spheres of social life. Nevertheless, that association is now commonplace. It’s necessary to examine its genesis.

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