Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - A Century of State Murder (2004)

Michael Haynes & Rumy Husan, A Century of State Murder (Pluto Press, 2003)
Written By: John Geoffrey Walker
Date: April 2004
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 21: Summer 2004 

More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the left is still divided over the class nature of Stalinist Russia. Was it, as its supporters (and Cold War opponents) claimed, an actually-existing socialist society? Or was it a degenerate workers’ state, or a bureaucratic collectivist society of a new type, or simply an alternative form of capitalism?

The authors of this book tackle the question from a new, and potentially extremely fruitful, perspective. They look at mortality statistics in Russia across the twentieth century, taking in tsarism, revolution, Stalinism and the return of the market. Rejecting Stalin’s assertion to Churchill that “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”, they attempt to extract the story of the Russian peoples from the statistics.

They argue that mortality reflects society. Death comes to us all, but it comes in different ways. More specifically, members of different classes die in different ways. The poor die younger: the worker dies before her employer, the peasant before his lord. The children of the poor are less likely to survive their first year than the children of the rich. And so, find systematically distinct patterns of mortality in the population and you have evidence of the division of society into classes. In a classless society the industrial worker and the financial expert will have the same life expectancy. In a capitalist society they do not.

The authors conclude that the Soviet Union under Stalin was not socialist. Their analysis, for example, of the industrialisation programme of the 1930s reveals that the “reality [of class] was etched in the gradients of death”, a reversal of the position in the 1920s, with its significant falls in the death rate and infant mortality rate, and an increase in life expectancy.

Industrialisation under the Five-Year Plans took place at the expense of the living standards of the workers and peasants. And to the “normal” deaths of industrialisation were added “abnormal” deaths due to repression and famine. Improvement in living standards, with its attendant fall in the death rate, occurred from the late 1940s onwards through to the mid-1960s, but without any change to be seen in the class character of death. Not that perestroika or post-1991 liberalisation made an improvement. The 1990s saw a rise in income inequality and a fall in life expectancy.

The book is broad in its sweep, and, hopefully, there will be more work done on the subject. No one can adequately deal with the history of Russia during the twentieth century in a mere two hundred pages, but the authors have done an excellent job of opening up a new line of historical inquiry. This is not something that has been possible before, since Stalin and his successors kept much demographic data secret, well aware of what could be done with it in the way of analysis. With the opening of the archives, there is a lot to catch up on.

It is also to be hoped that others will be inspired by the authors’ methodology. Numbers matter when looking at the history of entire societies. Go to any bookshop and you will find entire sections devoted to the biographies of the rich and famous. Much less common are biographies of those less prominent.

The lives of the rich and famous are recorded in detail. For the vast majority of people the only records they leave are their contributions to social statistics: counted when they are born, when they marry, when they die. How – and how well - they lived is only known by aggregate totals in the national accounts of consumer goods sold and in tables showing the distributions of income.

These and related statistics reveal facts about the lives of people whose individual lives were never recorded. They open up facets of society that are otherwise hidden. And for these reasons, socialist historians should be making more use of them than we do. Numbers, too, can rescue people from the condescension of history. Haynes and Husan have provided an excellent illustration of what this sort of analysis can achieve.

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