The Gulags of Stalin’s USSR remain a controversial and contested area of recent communist history, still likely to divide opinion amongst comrades committed to the cause of socialism. Supporters of Stalin typically challenge the usual bourgeois estimates of the number of people transported to and incarcerated in the camps. The standard bourgeois estimates now come from the research of Stephen Wheatcroft who presents documents to show that 1,500,000 were incarcerated in the Gulag in the USSR in 1941, the alleged worst year. (There may also have been another 500,000 in other prisons, he states.)
The debate on the left about Stalin aside, what is becoming more clear is that while the West’s propaganda machine consistently condemned (and continues to condemn) Stalin’s gulag unequivocally for its lack of basic humanity,a not dissimilar, and in some cases worse, series of deportations, incarcerations and abuse was occurring at the hands of Western governments at the same time.
The idea of this article came from reading about Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, charged with uncovering what happened to around 150,000 First Nation and mixed race children,taken from their parents and forced into so called residential schools run by the churches (Catholic, Anglican and Non-conformist). According to the latest findings, these children were often abused physically and sexually and more than 4,000 of them died as a result of beatings and neglect on the part of their guardians.
Canada was also one destination (along with Australia, New Zealand and Rhodesia) of another Gulag- type practice, the Child Migration policy in which as many as 130,000 children from poor working class families or orphanages in Britain were, with little or no consent, sent to the outer reaches of the British Empire. Whilst Canada was seeking to forcibly assimilate children from its First Nations with fatal results, it and the other countries which received British children were motivated by wanting more people of ‘British stock’ to shore up the white, colonising populations in those lands. Forced assimilation of non-white children and forced resettlement of working class white children from Britain were opposite sides of the same racist, imperialist coin.
For the British children concerned in this migration policy this did not mean the privileges we usually associate with colonialism; instead it meant being wretched from their families, friends and hometowns and sent to the other side of the world where they typically ended up doing hard labour for foster or adoptive parents or in religious institutions which housed them. Once again, sadistic abuse was so common an experience of the children concerned, as to have been virtually systematic.
Like Canada, Australia had its own policy of breaking up the families of First Nation peoples; this was applied to Aborigines and Torres Straight Islanders. The Child Removal Policy began in the early 20th Century and continued as late as the 1970’s. It has been described as an attempted genocide as one of the motivations for the policy was the belief that Aborigine blood lines would be diluted through forced integration.This was the calculation of the so-called Northern Territory ‘Protector of Natives’ in the 1930’s, a Dr. Cook;
‘Generally by the fifth and invariably by the sixth generation, all native characteristics of the Australian Aborigine are eradicated. The problem of our half-castes will quickly be eliminated by the complete disappearance of the black race, and the swift submergence of their progeny in the white’.
Inevitably the numbers of children involved over the decades is hotly disputed with a low estimate of 20,000 and a high estimate of 100,000. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stolen_Generations
It was for the Child Removal Policy that Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd famously said ‘sorry’ in 2008. That oppression of Aborigines continues in Australia despite the governments ‘sorrow’ suggests that far from being the ‘hardest word’, saying sorry is actually very easy, acting to reverse hundreds of years of oppression is much more difficult.
Not in NATO but still very much part of the ‘family of free and democratic nations’ during the Cold War, Ireland had its own gulag in the form of the Magdalena Homes. Girls and women who were believed to have violated the strict moral codes laid down by the Catholic Church were turned over by their parents to these homes where they were subjected to forced labour, typically working in laundries, for no pay. Needless to say physical abuse was a daily occurrence at the hands of the nuns and priests who presided over the network of homes which constituted what has been called a state within a state. Estimates put the number of girls and women subjected to these horrors at 30,000. The last home closed as late as 1996.
One aspect of what here I call the Western gulags goes way beyond anything reported even by the USSR’s most trenchant critics, indeed its closer in analogy with SS medical research carried out in Nazi Germany and that undertaken by Japan’s notorious Unit 731; the forced use of human beings in medical experiments.
Of course white middle class Americans were never used in these experiments. When the ‘subjects’ were white they tended to be either working class orphans or prisoners. Amongst many examples we find:
In 1940 470 black prisoners in Chicago were deliberately infected with malaria in order to trial a new drug treatment. One remarkable, but little known fact, is that Nazi doctors on trial at Nuremburg for their use of concentration camp inmates for medical experimentation cited the Chicago experiments as a precedent to justify their own actions.
Overwhelmingly American authorities looked to black and other non-white populations for their subjects just as the Nazis used Jews and Gypsies.
The Tuskagee syphilis experiment involved nearly 400 black men who, under the guise of being treated for syphilis, were in fact denied treatment so the medical establishment could assess the impact syphilis had on patients over the long term. This experiment began in the 1930’s but continued up to 1972. The men continued to live with their families thus leading to infection spreading within their communities;
‘By the end of the experiment, 28 of the men had died directly of syphilis, 100 were dead of related complications, 40 of their wives had been infected, and 19 of their children had been born with congenital syphilis.’http://www.thetalkingdrum.com/tus.html
As recently asthe 1990’s similar abuses continued:
‘[In] 1990 More than 1500 six-month old black and Hispanic babies in Los Angeles are given an “experimental” measles vaccine that had never been licensed for use in the United States. CDC[Centre for Disease Control] later admits that parents were never informed that the vaccine being injected into their children was experimental’.
This experiment was carried out after an unsuccessful trial of a virtually identical drug was experimented on 2,000 Haitians leading to a large number of deaths. Indeed much of the US medical authorities’ abuse of non-white human subjects has occurred off-shore, in countries where US imperialism has flexed its power; Haiti, Philippines, Puerto Rico. The latter colony was the scene of the notorious contraceptive pill trials;
The use of hundreds of prisoners in successive medical experiments like those cited above without the niceties of informed consent (a minimum requirement for ethical research) is more than horrendous but it has to be said that the numbers involved are tiny compared with the overall prison population in the United States. This is because the USA has the largest incarcerated population of any country in the world, with around 2,000,000 prisoners at any one time. What is increasingly being called the prison-industrial complex takes centre stage here as a not insignificant amount of the US economic output is generated behind prison walls. Moreover the population is inflated as private companies seeking cheap (25 cents per hour) workers have both a vested interest (the supply of cheap labour) and the resources (money, access, power) to lobby for longer sentences thus securing rich profits from prison work. Needless to say the people caught up in this trap are disproportionately non-white.
Though not as coherent and systematised as the Soviet model was alleged to be, the West’s networks of institutions, children’s homes, medical centres, prison labour projects and so on had a number of commonalities. The common denominator of the churches as agents in the abuse and exploitation of women and children is one such. Similarities with critiques of the Soviet gulag abound too; the transportation regime, incarceration without any judicial process, legal recourse or term limits, the use of victims for economic exploitation. The most obvious of the commonalities linking the victims of the western gulags have no direct comparison to the USSR’s experience however, the fact that the victims, who were either black, Hispanic, poor whites or women, were drawn from the most oppressed and exploited in capitalist society.
This is necessarily only a surface scan of decades of the most oppressive behaviour meted out on victims in the ‘free’ world. I haven’t even touched upon other abuses such as the eugenics programmes (again closer in their barbarity to Nazi Germany) or the US and Britain’s use of conscripted and unsuspecting military service personnel to test nuclear, chemical and biological weaponry. There are probably many other similar episodes of barbarism we are yet to learn about but maybe one day the full extent of what happened will be revealed.
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