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Revolution ... from Above


George J. North, Jr.

HIST 4376, Fall 1994

Dr. Edward J. Lazzerini
Twentieth-Century Russia
November 28, 1994

Russian writer, Maxim Gorkii, in an often caustic essay entitled On the Russian Peasantry (1921), argued that for all their efforts to shape a new society in Russia, the Bolsheviks were victims of the circumstances in which they found themselves. More recently, the American historian, Theodore Von Laue, has taken much the same position in several works. Specifically he has written that "Stalinism has been blamed by many on the communists and their ideology. Responsible judgment, however, would suggest that it was circumstantial ...," caused by the precariousness of the Bolshevik regime, the vastness of Russia, traditional cruelty and escalated and politicized by war and revolution, and the pressures of global power and survival.

Communism will fail. The argument is one hundred years old. Only in the last few years can we say -- Communism has failed. More precisely, we can say that the dictatorship of the proletariat in Marxist-Leninist theory (Socialism) has failed. It was an eighty year experiment conducted on a massive scale ... Russia. Were the Bolsheviks victims of circumstance? Were the abuses of Stalin predictable? Does Communism imply totalitarianism? Is there another outcome? The political and economic ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels produced a theory that in its essence predicts the outcome of history. It alleges that bourgeois oppression under capitalism will inevitably lead to a socialist society, and then to Communism. Marxists expect a world wide revolution. V. I. Lenin held that workers could not develop a revolutionary consciousness without the guidance of a vanguard party and that imperialism was a particular stage of capitalist development. The extreme oppression of Joseph Stalin established the complete authority of the Communist Party in Russia, and in the process made Lenin and himself god like figures. Nikita Khrushchev could confess to Stalinist's crimes, but could not give up oppressionist's rule. Mikhail Gorbachev, a committed Communist, tried restructuring the Soviet economy and bureaucracy (perestroika). He introduced a policy of openness with regard to social problems and shortcomings (glasnost). With fifty years of totalitarian abuses put aside, Communism in Russia failed. The the party itself was outlawed.

Were there mistakes made in this Russian experiment? Yes. Can another Communist experiment avoid these mistakes? Who in this world would want to conduct such an experiment? An experiment is a test under controlled conditions that is made to demonstrate a known truth. Marx's theory predicts the outcome of history. The failure of capitalism and the advancement of socialist society to Communism. This is a zealous but impractical idea, a Utopia. Marx's theory is just plain wrong; an experiment cannot be conducted to prove it right. Leninist - Stalinist Communism was bound to fail. The abuses that are apparent in Russian Communist history were inevitable. Even if we could change this history so that, not Stalin, but some other Bolshevik had succeeded Lenin, or some how Mensheviks, not Bolsheviks, had gained power, the outcome would be the same. Maybe a case can be made that only Stalin would have been so viscous in his oppression. But it was this oppression that kept the experiment alive. Without oppression, a single, authoritarian party cannot hold power.

A goal of political leadership is to maintain power. In a one party system this translates into maintaining control of the party, and maintaining the party's control of the state. Communism is one party rule. Once the Bolsheviks gained control, by definition (theory), they must eliminate all others. "... (R)educe our strategy to one simple idea: the consecutive liquidation of fronts depending on their relative importance" (Leon Trotskii). "Bolshevik democracy is higher than elected democracy" (Lenin). Maybe it was inevitable that the Bolshevik's would prevail in the Russian Civil War, but these two statements are Marxist theory. Any communist's government would have used the same tactics. Lenin fully expected a world revolution, but eventually put aside this for Socialism in one country. This was not a mistake on Lenin's part, but just a logical outgrowth of an invalid theory. Bolshevism became the hair to Marxism. It was very ideological. Producing subjective judgments and extractions. The world is on the brink of a socialist's revolution ... the state would wither away ... there would be fewer and fewer bureaucrats.

One problem with theoretical ideology became apparent very early with NEP. The New Economic Policy was a radial break with Bolshevik doctrine. It is a prime example of what can happen when putting theory into practice. When the rules are devised as needed, it becomes apparent that as the rule maker, it was impossible to break the rules, that the ends justify the means. NEP freed the Russian people to be more creative and productive, but Lenin would have to strengthened control over the party and prohibit factionalism for sake of party unity. As it becomes acceptable to make up party policy to fit circumstances, it becomes necessary to limit who can make policy, especially necessary to suppress opposition to party policy.

When Stalin assumed control of the Russian Communist Party, the stage was already set. The Party was without opposition. The only rule was Communist rule, and now it was one man rule. The cards were already dealt. The hand was waiting to be played. Stalin was capable of maximum return from this opportunity. But, any Communist was capable of similar actions. It is not necessary to consider if Stalin had a master plan. It is obvious that he wanted to be 'Number One.' He was an opportunist. He took advantage of any opportunity to achieve his goal, with no regard for principles or consequences. The tools he needed were already in place, a one party political system, an ideology without conscience, and one man rule. The result was the Third Revolution, the Cultural Revolution. The establishment of Communist and Proletarian dominance over society, party control over social life. It was the unleashing of Russian youth, the new revolutionists ... the first to be born into Communism. It was time for a Soviet intelligencia, from the working class, experts who were Communists. It was time to get rid of the established intelligencia. With Stalin, anything was possible, against Stalin, no one could succeed. Not even history was safe from Stalin's power. Even failure could be recast as success. Collectivization wrecked agricultural production, savaging livestock herds and killing millions of people. Yet in official ideology is became obligatory to eulogize collectivization as a great accomplishment of Stalinism.

The murder of Sergei Kirov is the prime example of how Stalin was able to mold events to suit his (the Party's) needs. The investigative techniques used, the use of the media in shaping public opinion, the use of foreign enemies to influence domestic affairs were applied everywhere to strengthen his position. Whatever was left in Soviet Society that was revolutionary, was a shadow of its former self. The big lie had come to its fullest meaning. Whatever is said by the leadership is what counts, and they can say whatever they want. No one can refute it. Terror became an institution.

"A totalitarian regime crushes all autonomous institutions in its drive to seize the human soul" (Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.). Even Russia, a country with a long history of authoritarian rule would not willing accept communism. In order to make this system work, revolution had to be imposed from above. Revolution from above requires a great expansion of the state and its social functions, which meant a great proliferation of official jobs and privileges. While many were victimized, many people also profited from Stalinism and identified with it.

Marx's theories, Lenin's Socialism in one country, and Stalin's Russian Socialism can be viewed as a progression of events. It may not be a natural progression. But in the warped world of Communism, it is a logical one. It may not be the only possible progression from Marx's theory. But it is a progression that depends less on on individuals than on events . Communism in Russia may or may not have been inevitable, but the outcome of Communism was inevitable. Lenin and Stalin redefined Marx's theory as needed. So would anyone trying to establish a system of government in which the state plans and controls the economy, where a single party holds power. A government who's goal is to establish a higher social order in which all goods are equally shared by the people is a system of government bound to fail.

Lenin stole a country to experiment on. Stalin forced the experiment on the people. Khrushchev started to apologize. And as soon as Gorbachev allowed some freedoms to creep back in, the experiment was over. It would seem that Communism can only be started by revolution from above. It can only be maintained by totalitarian means. If you change the leaders without changing their principals, the result would be the same oppressive government. Although, I would give Stalin credit for being better able than most at exploiting the opportunities presented him. The Russian experiment may not have lasted it's eighty years without him. In any event, a totalitarian revolution from above defeats it own purpose. It will never succeed, for it deprives its subjects of the essence of cultural creativity, of freedom, because of the incompatibility of spontaneity and political discipline. A government that built a wall to keep its people in was bound to fail. Why did the failier take the world by surprise?

I deplore Lenin, Stalin, and Russian Communism. I bemoan the enormous resources wasted in such a totalitarian regime. The human effort of the oppressors, and the efforts of the oppressed in trying to resist, all wasted. I am sick to think of the missed opportunities. This is the same lament I have about the color line in America, what a waste of resources, and human effort. I admire the fortitude of the Russian populations. Their ability to endure pain and adversity with courage has been proved over hundreds of years. In questioning the outcome of history, I wonder ... if Russia and the United States were destined to compete on a global scale, would the US have prevailed if Russia had a non-Communist government? I wonder ... in history books three hundred years in the future, will Communism in Russia be more that just a footnote.