Roderic Day
Original publication:

Everyday Subkulak (2021)

22 minutes | English | The Crew

A while back a friend was illustrating the many ways in which Slavoj Zizek fell short as a Marxist theorist (I had retained some sympathies from when I first discovered him as a liberal) with a pretty bad bit of writing on Mao Zedong. To Zizek’s credit, as usual, it’s at least bad in a somewhat interesting way. Titled Mao Zedong: the Marxist Lord of Misrule, the piece indulges in citing Robert Conquest — professional British anti-communist propagandist working for the IRD, who posed as academic historian after the Second World War — at length:

An additional category was thus introduced, that of a subkulak, a peasant who, although, with regard to his economic situation, was too poor to be considered a kulak proper, nonetheless shared the kulak “counter-revolutionary” attitude. Subkulak was thus

a term without any real social content even by Stalinist standards, but merely rather unconvincingly masquerading as such. As was officially stated, ‘by kulak we mean the carrier of certain political tendencies which are most frequently discernible in the subkulak, male and female.’ By this means, any peasant whatever was liable to dekulakisation; and the subkulak notion was widely employed, enlarging the category of victims greatly beyond the official estimate of kulaks proper even at its most strained.

No wonder that the official ideologists and economists finally renounced the very effort to provide an “objective” definition of kulak: “The grounds given in one Soviet comment are that ‘the old attitudes of a kulak have almost disappeared, and the new ones do not lend themselves to recognition.’” The art of identifying a kulak was thus no longer a matter of objective social analysis; it became the matter of a complex “hermeneutics of suspicion,” of identifying one’s “true political attitudes” hidden beneath deceiving public proclamations, so that Pravda had to concede that “even the best activists often cannot spot the kulak.” [1]

I was reminded of this excerpt recently. The Guardian published a promotional long read advertising the book Rescapée du Goulag Chinois [Escape from the Chinese Gulag] written by Gulbahar Haitiwaji and Rozenn Morgat. The piece was a great example of atrocity propaganda. Sun Feiyang performed a very thorough analysis that pointed out inconsistencies with the premise (“She had been on ‘unpaid leave’ for ten years, they never thought to fire her, but called her a decade out to ask her to sign ‘retirement docs’”), the accusations (“It is impossible to sterilize someone via a shot to an arm, and bizarre that they would want to sterilize a 50 year old mother of two”), and the overall structure of the article (“The entire camp atrocities section reads like someone desperate to hit all of the common XJ talking points”). [2] As part of his analysis, Sun contextualizes Haitiwaji’s account that “after graduation, we were offered jobs as engineers at the oil company in Karamay,” [3] by explaining that Karamay was “China’s first ever commercial oilfield, and one of the largest — it turned Karamay into a prosperous oil boomtown.” [4]

This got me thinking about how, despite imperial propagandists tirelessly framing every civil conflict scenario in Enemy States as David versus Goliath, the pool of people who get radicalized into participating in American regime change operations isn’t ever grassroots. It’s the upwardly mobile.

Journalism focused on Xinjiang terrorism, Hong Kong riots, Venezuelan and Cuban “expats” lobbying for sanctions and starvation, QAnon and Epoch Times cultists, or Ukrainian Nazis in Canada is often so lush with detail and characterization that, whether sympathetic or antagonistic, it obscures the fact that there are in fact broad similarities among all of these groups of people.

For example, in North America, the classic Steinbeck adage about the “temporarily embarrassed millionaire” is more popular and relevant than ever. Even meek demands to raise the minimum wage are met with armies of seemingly working-class commentators explaining that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk earned their keep, that as an EMT they should not be earning the same wage as a “burger-flipper.” Perhaps they are ineptly imagining they are defending their own future hoard of gold? At any rate, whatever their motivations, they exist: working poor defending billionaires.

Consider the radical difference in the portrayal of the American Civil War, and the 1932-1933 Civil War resulting from the Soviet Union’s collectivization of agriculture. In both cases we have an entirely domestic class struggle. In the case of the US the conflict occurred between the newly-minted Northern dictatorship of the bourgeoisie — enthusiastic adopters of wage labour and unsubordinated entrepreneurship — and the Southern slavocracy and its plantations. In the case of the USSR it was between the urban proletariat — factory workers who had taken over their workplaces — and the feudal kulak system ruling over vast majority of the countryside. In both scenarios a triumphal revolution that upset the class order was seeking realignment in the “backwards” periphery after stabilizing the core. However, one is taught as a valiant struggle for the abolition of slavery, and the other is grotesquely mischaracterized by Nazi propaganda as ethnic prosecution and even genocide — a narrative that has been fully normalized and mainstreamed today, at least in Canada and the US. [5] However, such caricatured and manichean accounts of world history are the stuff of comic books, not serious study.

So let’s stick to actual history. The Soviet Union was collectivizing farmland as part of both the construction of a new society and, more pressingly, in preparation for the foreseen onslaught of the Second World War. Naturally, they faced stiff opposition from the elite of those regions, who had no concern for the well-being of the nation as a whole, and looked out only their short-term interests. American historian Frederick L. Schuman thus describes:

[The kulak’s] fellows in the villages had no leadership, but decided as one man, with the unanimity and stubbornness of wronged farmers the world over, to oppose their oppressors. Their opposition took the initial form of slaughtering their cattle and horses in preference to having them collectivized. The result was a grievous blow to Soviet agriculture, for most of the cattle and horses were owned by the kulaks. Between 1928 and 1933 the number of horses in the USSR declined from almost 30,000,000 to less than 15,000,000; of horned cattle from 70,000,000 (including 31,000,000 cows) to 38,000,000 (including 20,000,000 cows); of sheep and goats from 147,000,000 to 50,000,000; and of hogs from 20,000,000 to 12,000,000. Soviet rural economy had not recovered from this staggering loss by 1941. [6]

It shouldn’t be surprising that kulaks would be accompanied by an ideologically-aligned wannabe-elite. After all, we observed the same in the Confederacy.

How can we make sense of this phenomenon? To understand the logic of the kulak and the subkulak, there’s no need to dive into history books and Russian dictionaries, or to racist stereotypes about inscrutable orientals. We can simply read The Economist on Twitter discussing Venezuela in 2019:

Juan Guaidó and Donald Trump are betting that sanctions will topple the regime before they starve the Venezuelan people. [7]

Far from a very region-specific, dated, and difficult-to-understand phenomenon, the “kulak” mindset turns out to be something that we’re all already very familiar with! Guaidó is said to be supported by elements of the “middle class.” His base cheers whenever the US expands their murderous sanctions regime against Venezuela, knowing that, though it affects them, it disproportionately kills the poor. They then proceed to cynically exploit the ensuing misery as justification to lash out violently and demand even more sanctions, all with the express purpose of eventually restoring their (and their lord’s) local privileges. A vicious cycle.

Let’s illustrate this with more examples.

I’m Peruvian, and I can attest from personal experience that the elite from which I come largely does not give a damn about the fate of the country. They’re narrowly focused on their own gain, and any inconvenience — usually the prospect of a leftist government taking the presidency — provokes endless “jokes” about moving to Miami and hoping the country chokes. The less reactionary elements prefer to defend the status quo by arguing it is universally beneficial, but fascist sympathies — say, praise of Pinochet — are very socially acceptable (whereas any socialist sympathy is cause for alarm). This collaboration between “center” and “right” is facilitated by genuine ignorance, but there is a voluntary element: material that challenges widespread propaganda is approached with extreme intellectual laziness, as if in deliberate pursuit of “blissful ignorance.” In this way, extreme reaction is always on the table, resource redistribution is not, and a slow fascist fire burns underneath surface liberalism.

Le Monde Diplomatique put out a very interesting piece documenting Maëlle Mariette’s visit to Santa Cruz in Bolivia, the stronghold of reaction, back when triumphalist euphoria following the right-wing coup against Evo Morales still reigned. As a blonde white woman she was received warmly and openly by the citizens of the region, who enthusiastically revealed exactly how they felt:

I saw women with their hair in plaits, wearing the traditional wide skirts of the Altiplano. Tulio said, ‘They shouldn’t be here. They’re not adapted to their surroundings. Animals shed their winter coats in summer … These people are hot and sweaty, and they stink.’ The indigenous women do not conform to the Santa Cruz aesthetic, embodied in the magníficas, slender, fair-skinned models who pose in lingerie alongside new combine harvesters and hormone-inflated cattle at the annual Santa Cruz Exhibition Fair (Fexpocruz).

We drove through vast fields of soy beans, listening to camba pop stars Aldo Peña and Gina Gil performing their greatest hits, La cruceñidad (Santa Cruz-ness), Pena cruceña and Víva Santa Cruz. I asked what cruceñidad was, which perplexed the brothers. In 2003 Bolivia’s entrant for Miss Universe, Gabriela Oviedo, also a native of Santa Cruz, said, ‘Unfortunately, people that don’t know Bolivia very much think that we are all just Indian people … [That’s] La Paz … poor people and very short people and Indian people … I’m from the other side of the country, the east side, and it’s not cold, it’s very hot and we are tall and we are white people and we know English.’ Herland eventually answered me by quoting from memory a passage from Mein Kampf. ‘The book by Hitler?’ I asked. ‘Yes, of course,’ he replied. ‘It’s a classic. Have you read it?’ [8]

Hitler in Bolivia? It’s actually not very surprising at all. The jungles of Bolivia are, after all, where Che Guevara was assassinated by US-backed paramilitaries, in so doing putting an end to what threatened to be the realignment of the continent in a series of sequels to the Cuban Revolution.

The role of Klaus Barbie is worth highlighting here:

Klaus Barbie, byname Butcher of Lyon, Nazi leader, head of the Gestapo in Lyon from 1942 to 1944, was held responsible for the death of some 4,000 persons and the deportation of some 7,500 others.

In this position he became especially active against French partisans, promoting the torture and execution of thousands of prisoners. He personally tortured prisoners whom he interrogated. Among the more specific charges against him were that he ordered the death of French Resistance leader Jean Moulin and the deportation of 44 Jewish children (aged 3–13) and their five teachers, all of whom later were delivered to the Auschwitz extermination camp.

After the war Barbie was seized by American authorities, who recruited him (1947–51) for counterintelligence work and then spirited him and his family out of Germany to Bolivia (actions for which the U.S. government later officially apologized to France). Beginning in 1951, he lived as a businessman under the name Klaus Altmann in Bolivia, where Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld tracked him down in 1972. After long negotiations, the Bolivian government extradited him to France in February 1983 to stand trial. [9]

Is the relationship between Nazis and Ukrainian diaspora, and Nazis and Bolivian reactionaries, and the role of the United States in abetting their projects and narratives, all just one big coincidence? Of course not.

Acknowledging that these parallels exist, and then going on to understand them, allows us to analyze phenomena such as QAnon not as a quirky and unprecedented artifact of the information age, but as a particularly American expression of the recurring phenomenon of striver paranoia. A phenomenon that, in every single instance, will receive full economic, mediatic, and even military support from the United States and its allies. The Falun Gong, the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), Hong Kong rioters; they all fear the “Great Levelling” associated with talk of economic justice for a variety of reasons. There’s very few billionaires out there, but they always have admirers. People who see themselves as more deserving than their peers, who see themselves as the local übermen or, if not, at least able to accept the reality of übermen. [10] This stratum of society will always be fertile recruitment ground for reaction, with the promise of a local fiefdom or status.

Since there’s no prospect of deriving immediate economic benefits from the anti-communist crusades they’re signing up for, the would-be subkulak turn to cult and myth. The result of people elsewhere in the world absorbing propaganda about American Exceptionalism and its superheroes is often garish, and always revealing: altar boys and girls dressed as Captain America in a Catholic church service in Venezuela, a cartoon of a small and dwarfish man dressed in Hong Kong garb waving a flag telling “This way, sir!” to a gigantic and muscular Captain America behind him, a rendering of a yellow-and-blue version of Captain America’s shield with the Ukrainian trident emblazoned on it. And, of course, we also have the inverse: Communists portrayed as all sorts of vile and inhuman creatures — from classic Nazi imagery of a Judeo-Bolshevik octopus wrapping its tentacles around the globe, all the way to modern ETIM propaganda reminiscent of blood libel with a bloated red monster — sporting a hammer-and-sickle in lieu of eyes — tearing into the womb of a woman wearing Uyghur garb, preparing to eat her unborn child. [11]

This kind of exaggeration is necessary to whip up fervor because if we were to stick to mundane terrestrial affairs such as food and shelter, no case for the anti-communist crusade could be made, at least until economic sanctions succeed at producing mass deprivation. The Mallory Memo is worth quoting at length, directly from US archives:

499. Memorandum From the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Mallory) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Rubottom) [Washington, April 6, 1960]

SUBJECT: The Decline and Fall of Castro

Salient considerations respecting the life of the present Government of Cuba are:

  1. The majority of Cubans support Castro (the lowest estimate I have seen is 50 percent).
  2. There is no effective political opposition.
  3. Fidel Castro and other members of the Cuban Government espouse or condone communist influence.
  4. Communist influence is pervading the Government and the body politic at an amazingly fast rate.
  5. Militant opposition to Castro from without Cuba would only serve his and the communist cause.
  6. The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.

If the above are accepted or cannot be successfully countered, it follows that every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba. If such a policy is adopted, it should be the result of a positive decision which would call forth a line of action which, while as adroit and inconspicuous as possible, makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government. [12]

The explicit goal of US-aligned “expats” of all nationalities, whether powerful kulaks or subkulak ideologues, is to use sanctions to strangle the quality of life of those who stayed behind, in order to radicalize them and recruit them into regime change operations. It really is this simple.

What about those who insist that it’s far more complicated? After all, what I’m saying here is essentially the exact opposite of what “Neither Washington Nor Beijing” pundits and Cultural Anthropologists are saying.

Consider Dr. Claire Wordley in posts — that she has since deleted — in which she woundedly scolded Naomi Klein for her condemnation of the 2019 coup in Bolivia:

Naomi I respect you hugely, and yes there are racist elements at play here which must 100% be stopped. But there are also many Indigenous and leftist people who are protesting against Morale [sic] & the International Left is excluding their voices. Listen to & uplift Bolivian voices.

I think it is a moment for the Global North to stop and listen to the narrative of Bolivians, not one we construct with our US-centred worldview. Bolivians I know including my partner are devastated by the response of the International Left in ignoring their voice. [13]

Of course, this narrative turned out to be pure hogwash. Evo Morales was indeed popular, and his party went on to a resounding first-round victory when the coup government was forced to hold elections anew.

Notice the similarity here to the plea from Wilfred Chan of The Nation attempting to do damage control in face of the widely reported phenomenon of HK activists changing their social media display pictures to photos of Donald Trump in solidarity with the storming of the US Capitol by right-wing lynch mobs. His concern was the ways in which growing awareness of the true nature of these groups was producing anxiety among his left-liberal target audience:

I couldn’t imagine disavowing Hong Kongers, HK or its movement because some within it support Trump, and then go on living in the West as a leftist, as if my slate is clean. I benefit amply from the systems that reproduce western ideology in places like HK whether I like it or not.

In my opinion our critical task is not simply to condemn colonized people drawn into western right-wing politics, but understand and illuminate the ongoing structural violences that reproduce that politics. Unknot our own relationship to it. Pose alternatives that center understanding. [14]

What are Chan and Wordley both saying? Don’t judge. They judge, of course. Openly and uncritically, they launch savage diatribes about Evo Morales’ “indigenous neoliberalism” or China’s “authoritarian capitalist nightmare.” However, if anyone is ever tempted to imagine, contra ubiquitous propaganda, that perhaps the person being presented as a freedom fighter by the corporate press is in reality something far more sinister? If anyone starts wondering whether perhaps the moral appraisals are inverted? If anyone starts to notice, in particular, that the domestically reviled QAnon bears a lot of striking similarities to Cruceñistas in Bolivia and ETIM in Xinjiang? Precisely at that point wounded demands for “nuance” and the perils of “Western projection” begin to surface.

Does this mean we should revive the usage of the term subkulak? I don’t know, probably not. The point I’m making here is more that it’s very easy to draw arbitrary and incorrect delineations across space and time, which is inevitably used to bring us closer to certain factions in certain conflicts, while creating ideological distance from others.

That this propaganda technique is at play does not mean we should react by engaging in chauvinism, declaring that we have seen it all before. We need to appreciate historical, geographical, cultural, and linguistic differences, always. However, other societies aren’t completely alien and opaque to us. A lot of dynamics are universal, just expressed differently. The exercise of testing our assumptions about social dynamics, by seeing if they hold up under a variety of different conditions, is very worthwhile.

The way I understand Marx and Engels’ project, they were following the natural sciences in trying to come up with basic rules undergirding the dynamics and evolution of all human societies. Academics insisting you cannot understand another nation or another people, that to even attempt to do so is a wanton projection of your local parochial biases, that you should filter all your understanding via university experts and hand-picked “refugee testimony,” aren’t building international proletarian solidarity. They are destroying it.

[1] Zizek S. Mao Zedong: the Marxist Lord of Misrule. All of Zizek’s citations come from Robert Conquest. [web] 

[2] Sun Feiyang (Twitter) [web] 

[3] Haitiwaji G. and Morgat R. 2021. ‘Our souls are dead’: how I survived a Chinese ‘re-education’ camp for Uighurs. The Guardian. [web] 

[4] Karamay Oilfield No 1 Well. China Daily. September, 2015. [web] 

[5] Roderic Day (Twitter) [web] 

[6] Frederick L. Schuman, Russia Since 1917: Four Decades of Soviet Politics, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1957, pp.151, 152. 

[7] The Economist (Twitter) [web] 

[8] Mariette M. July 2020. Bolivia: A tale of two countries. Le Monde (diplomatique). [web] 

[9] Klaus Barbie (Britannica) [web] 

[10] Landa, Ishay 2009, Who’s Afraid of the End of History? [web] 

[11] Roderic Day (Twitter) [web] 

[12] Mallory Memo. April 1960. US Office of the Historian. [web] 

[13] Naomi Klein (Twitter) [web] 

[14] Wilfred Chan (Twitter). Edited for more proper capitalization. [web]