Hiding the Truth: “Victorious Socialism” Holodomor Propaganda Hid the Great Famine in Ukraine
May 30, 2023
Dr. Henry H. Prown, Temerty Fellow, HREC
In the early 1930s, the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) desperately sounded the alarm. Party propaganda outlets repeatedly warned that famine had struck the nation, impacting “hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions.” It was, their journalists accusatorily claimed, “murder of the people by a government…each day more than one thousand drop away.” The party’s principle paper, the Daily Worker, even wondered whether “it will continue to cannibalism?” According to these dedicated Communists, there was only one “way out – the way of Soviet Russia.”
CPUSA Leader Earl Browder Touted “Victorious Socialism” At the US Communist Party’s National Convention of 1934
The Soviet counterpart always loomed large in this coverage. As the CPUSA’s leader Earl Browder would explain at a national convention in 1934: “Clearly the world is divided into two systems, moving in opposite directions.” These words were not his, however. A few weeks earlier Browder had received direct and specific orders from the Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow to “contrast the world of dying capitalism to the world of victorious socialism” in his convention speech. In fact, the Comintern regularly relayed such orders to their comrades in New York – repeatedly telling them to damn the American government’s failures and celebrate the Soviet state’s successes, including its ongoing collectivization campaign.
But all was not well in the land of “victorious socialism,” and by 1933 disturbing news of mass starvation in Ukraine had reached the US. For instance, after visiting the Kharkiv region, Jewish Daily Forward editor Harry Lang testified that “these villages were the site of a terrible famine.” Meanwhile, the Daily Worker, which also had correspondents in Kharkiv, painted a very different picture: “Ukraine Collectives Have Best Harvest in 30 Years.” All contrary reports were merely “odious lies and slander…following the example of the German Fascists.” Indeed, Lang and his paper were absurdly accused of “repeating every lie that was coming…out of the publicity machine of the Hitler government.” Even Walter Duranty, now widely known for his downplaying of the Holodomor, came under fire for his otherwise mild equivocations.
Moscow-Based Comintern Directed Holodomor Propaganda
The Moscow-based Comintern directed this pro-collectivization press campaign, commanding the CPUSA to reassure the public “that the collective farm system was necessary and superior, that collectivization took place voluntarily,” and “that in the USA the collectivization of farming can be realized with less difficulty [italics added]” – an obtuse admission reflecting the institutional silence surrounding the Holodomor which has been noted by historian Anne Applebaum. The Americans did as they were told, profusely publishing party propaganda denying any starvation. As the Daily Worker’s leading editorialist would conclusively summarize in 1935: “The truth about the famine is that there was no famine.”
Dissenters From Communist Party Line Slandered and Harrassed
That same year, Harry Lang’s reporting was finally translated from Yiddish to English, and in response, the Communist paper printed a scathing series of rebuttals from a number of “prominent Socialists and liberals.” These included the celebrated theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who openly admitted that “I have not read the articles [in question].” This did not stop him from labeling Lang’s actions as “despicable,” however. And he was not alone, with “hundreds of…sincere friends of the Soviet Union” doing the same.
Lang’s wife, Lucy Robins Lang, would remember that “hell broke loose.” Her husband was subject to a vicious and sustained crusade of slander and harassment which led to his blacklisting from the Socialist movement. The attacks ruined her personal life as well. “I was like a stranger among friends,” Lucy ruefully recalled, “I wanted to die…I carefully planned the end of my existence.”
One regretful participant later conceded that “I had no more thought of lying than of flying.” Such sentiments were not exceptional. “I told no lies, but I didn’t tell all the truth,” the fellow traveling journalist Anna Louise Strong would subsequently write, “and I still think this may be the correct procedure.” For, as she had candidly acknowledged at the time, building paradise came at a cost: “The greatest agricultural revolution in history could not possibly have been accomplished without sacrifices on the part of those who carried out this tremendous change, and suffering, especially on the part of those who opposed it [italics added].”
-  This blog is based in part on my contribution – “Module 7.7: How to Hide a Famine” – to an upcoming Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the Holodomor created in cooperation between the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (HREC), the University of Alberta, and the digital platform Coursera. It also draws on research compiled while preparing my dissertation (William & Mary, 2022) and upcoming book to be published by McGill-Queens Press – “Famine, Trial, War: The Daily Worker During the Great Depression.”
-  Editors, “The Hunger Government,” Daily Worker, January 24th, 1931, p. 1.
-  Ibid; Myra Page, “HUNGER MARCHES THRU AMERICA,” Daily Worker, February 9th, 1931, p. 3.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Earl Browder, Report of the Central Committee to the Eighth Convention of the Communist Party of the U.S.A. (New York, New York: Workers Library Publishers, 1934), p. 6.
-  Letter to the ECCI Representative in the USA Regarding the Draft Theses of the CC for the Convention of the CP USA, 15 March 1934, Russian State Archives for Social and Political History (RGASPI), Moscow, Russia, 495-20-508, p. 28.
-  The Farmers’ Movement and the Tasks of the CP USA, 21 May 1933, Russian State Archives for Social and Political History (RGASPI), Moscow, Russia, 495-20-508, p. 59.
-  Harry Lang, “Seen and Heard in the Villages of the Ukraine,” Jewish Daily Forward, December 27th, 1933, p. [unknown].
-  By Cable [presumably Nathaniel Buchwald], “Ukraine Collectives Have Best Harvest in 30 Years,” Daily Worker, August 26, 1933, p. 8.
-  Nathaniel Buchwald, “Big Profits from Crop for Collective Farmers – Debt-Free Farmers of Ukraine Get Large Excess of Cash and Grain, Plan New Clubs, Schools, Nurseries, Gardens,” Daily Worker, August 25, 1933, p. 1.
-  Editors, “The ‘Forward’ Spits Hatred at the USSR,” Daily Worker, December 26, 1933, p. 6.
-  Editors, “How Poison Is Brewed,” Daily Worker, August 25, 1933, p. 1.
-  The Farmers’ Movement and the Tasks of the CP USA, 21 May 1933, Russian State Archives for Social and Political History (RGASPI), Moscow, Russia, 495-20-508, p. 60; Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (New York, New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2017), Chapter 14: The Cover-Up.
-  Michael Gold, “Change the World!,” Daily Worker, January 29, 1935, p. 5.
-  Powers Hapgood, Francis Henson, Reinhold Niebuhr, Margaret Lamont, J.B. Matthews, R.E. Shallcross, Mary Hiler, J. W. Wise, B.Z. Goldberg, “Men, Women, Who Travelled in Soviet Union Indignant; Call Lang Traitor to Class,” Daily Worker, April 17, 1935, p. 1.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Lucy Robbins Lang, Tomorrow is Beautiful (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1948), p. 274.
-  Ibid, 275.
-  J.B. Matthews, Odyssey of a Fellow Traveler (New York, NY: Mount Vernon Publishers, 1938), p. 93.
-  William L. O’Neill, A Better World: The Great Schism, Stalinism and the American Intellectuals (New York City, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1982), p. 193.
-  Liston Oak, “Anna Louise Strong, Moscow Daily News Co-Editor, Tells of Soviet Achievements,” Daily Worker, November 1, 1933, p. 6.