Saturday, December 15, 2007

Moshe Lewin on Bolshevik Revolution
Le Monde Diplomatique December 2007
Socialist revolution displaced by return to tsarism
USSR: making and breaking

The October Revolution of 1917, improvised by the Bolsheviks amid worsening national chaos, was socialist in intent. That it was so soon afterwards hijacked by the autocratic Stalin and delivered over to bureaucracy and a police state was no fault of socialism
By Moshe Lewin

The Russian revolution of October 1917 (1), a key event in the history of the 20th century, provoked justifications and ideological pronouncements. But conflicting representations have helped obscure the reality of the assault on the Winter Palace; 1917 was a year of general disruption of the army, the police, the state apparatus, and economic and political life.

The consequent chaos had a profound effect upon the decisions made by the Bolsheviks. When the revolution is described as having been “perpetrated” by the Bolsheviks, the implication is that they were “guilty” of it, which shows total ignorance of what actually happened in September and October 1917. Russia was in a state of collapse, its government totally paralysed and the country on the edge of revolt, civil war and chaos. The revolution was a response to this disorder and to the awareness that Russia as a nation state was on the verge of extinction.

The revolution did not cause a crisis; the crisis was resolved when the Bolsheviks intervened, after other parties’ attempts to control the situation had only worsened it. The official political order, symbolised by the provisional government established after the fall of Tsarism in February 1917, was paralysed, exhausted and doomed. Central power was an illusion. There was no power to be seized; the Bolsheviks had to create it.

As Lenin wrote later, the Bolsheviks started with just slogans calling for socialism, revolution and the abolition of aristocratic and bureaucratic privileges and titles. The key to Bolshevik success was the appeal to peasants to appropriate the land they cultivated, which they regarded as their own. Such a measure could have saved the provisional government if it had not been attempting to seduce the landowners, convinced that socialism was impossible.

The provisional government’s assessment of the situation was accurate, but it drew the wrong conclusion. Socialism was impossible; but so was a democratic bourgeois revolution. That was the tragedy of the political parties involved in coalitions between February and November 1917: the situation was becoming chaotic, and they failed either to understand or control it. Those who seized the initiative and eventually took control ran a significant risk, not because the Whites (the monarchists) were regrouping their forces against the provisional government, but because of the severity of the crisis and the profound disturbances set in motion by the total disruption of society.

The Bolsheviks’ seizure of power was nominal and had little chance of withstanding the intense pressure of events. The party faced a massive influx of new members and intimidating tasks, for which neither its pre-revolutionary experience nor its nature had prepared it. Its failure to survive the upheaval, despite genuine internal democracy, was due not to the civil war (which the Bolsheviks won), but to the erosive effects of the administrative tasks involved in constructing a state.

A shadow party
In 1921, just before the launch of the New Economic Policy, a period of relaxation after War Communism, Lenin realised that he had to create a party; Bolshevism, though it had demonstrated its practical capabilities during the civil war, was no more than a shadow party. Bolshevism dominated the stage; but much of the literature on it fails to recognise that for all its domination, it was a ghost. The drama was the transformation of a revolutionary party into an administrative class.

In fact, two conflicting dramas were being performed on the same stage to define the nature of the revolutionary regime. As I showed in The Soviet Century, the confrontation between Lenin and Stalin opposed two antagonistic political programmes rather than two factions within a party. Real Bolshevism was dead. Lenin sought to define a programme for a new political camp able to meet the challenges of the post-civil war situation. Stalin, with his own take on what Russian history had signified in the past and implied for the present, formulated his own concept of what the state (with him at its head) must be – a concept that had nothing to do with Bolshevism and everything to do with his vision of personal power as an end in itself.

The rival programmes that confronted each other in 1922-23, initially during the debate on the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) (2), were mutually exclusive and openly antagonistic. The battle ended with Lenin’s illness and death in January 1924.

Digging its own grave
Stalinism (3) is a textbook example of what happens as a system ages and declines. Was its lifespan genetically predetermined by its inability to reform itself? Stalinism was a tightly controlled system built for and around an autocrat; it was by definition unreformable. The impact of the changes that state policy caused within Soviet society left the system digging its own grave.

Stalin struggled constantly against the revolutionary past because it offered him no security; he had learned nothing from it and was even hostile to its lessons, as his battle to create a hegemonic Great Russian Soviet Union demonstrated. He sought a past that suited him and summoned Russia’s autocratic heritage to define what would become the USSR. Only Tsarism, which exercised unmediated, divinely derived authority, could confer the legitimacy to which he aspired. It is surprising that he should have continued to borrow systematically from the ideological structures of Tsarist Russia during and after the second world war. This shows his determination to deny the fact that the Tsarist regime had exhausted all its possibilities by 1914. He does not seem to have noticed the self-destructive tendencies of the model nor to have realised that his idol, Ivan the Terrible (4), had been responsible for a national nightmare.

The Stalinist regime suffered a similar fate just when it seemed to be at its zenith after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Stalin, as the leader of a victorious superpower, enjoyed enormous prestige; but the system he controlled ceased to function and went into decline. All his associates could see that the superpower had feet of clay. The Tsarist regime had no redeemer; no legitimate, competent successor. Stalin was blessed with close associates waiting impatiently to get to work and revitalise a system beset by absurd dysfunctions. It was difficult to foresee a healthy future for a regime that was denouncing cosmopolitans for bowing down to the West, requiring senior government officials to wear uniforms and adopt titles originally created by Peter the Great, murdering Jewish intellectuals and leading officials (5) and putting “white blouses” (6) on trial.

Some of Stalin’s closest associates tried to clean up the mess he was making. They acted quickly and radically after his death in March 1953, promoting major reforms introduced at the 20th conference of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956. Some people, whose psychologically-driven hatred of the USSR I struggle to understand, have expressed shock at my assertion that one of the first measures of the post-Stalin leadership was the suppression of the Gulag. But it is essential to distinguish the Gulag under Stalin, an economic and industrial complex under the ministry of internal affairs (MVD), from the radically reformed system of camps that continued to exist after his death (7).

There is something peculiar about the West’s obsession with the Gulag, which it equates with the Soviet system, defined as an absolute evil. The West hailed Alexander Solzhenitsyn as a prophet when he was, I consider, the defender of an obsolete ideology who hated the social democratic circle around the review Novi Mir and its editor, Alexander Tvardovsky. Solzhenitsyn was the sworn enemy of western democracy. Maybe this preacher of a medieval orthodoxy was necessary to fill the ideological void created by the cold war.

Mistaken diagnosis
The Soviet system stagnated at the end of the 1960s, when fundamental change was emerging at its heart. Urbanisation and modernisation had become inescapable, since the majority of people were now educated town-dwellers, familiar with new technologies. The status of women had improved significantly. These major social changes also indirectly affected the substantial number who, despite remaining in the country, largely adopted an urban mode of life.

This rapid process of change produced a relatively new urban society that was young, unlike the old bureaucratised state derived from the Tsarist system. In just 50 years the system had aged prematurely.

Were there any signs of life? The bureaucratic Soviet state practised a rigorous top-down centralism. But power at the top became entirely dependent upon the bureaucratic machine, especially at ministry level. As the balance shifted in its favour, the bureaucracy ceased to obey orders and turned into a monster motivated by its own logic and dragging the system towards the abyss. The centre lost the ability to control events. It had showed itself incapable of reforming and adapting, unable to modify its strategy and political orientation, to make new allies and overcome obstacles. The system had become depoliticised and unable to impose its will. And the USSR had as its leader Leonid Brezhnev, a man close to death (if not already dead).

Depoliticisation, in the sense of the loss of the ability to make policy, signifies the reaching of a point of no return. There was no longer a ruling party capable of conducting coherent political activity; the centre had become fatally dependent upon a mass of senior officials in various departments, concerned only with their own interests and overseeing the privatisation of the very entities that they were supposed to be administering.

Analysts, planners and writers publicly predicted catastrophe; but the government was paralysed. From the late 1960s to the 1980s any movement in any direction was regarded as fatal. The widely believed legend that the Soviet Union collapsed because of the unsustainable costs of the cold war and the arms race is a mistake. The brief reign of Yuri Andropov, who was secretary general of the party from 1982 to 1984, was interesting but too short to draw any conclusions. Nevertheless it exhibited the potential to repoliticise the system and mobilise it for urgent economic and political reforms. The conditions necessary for success were present.

The fall of the USSR can tell us a great deal about how political systems change, decline and collapse into crisis. To say that a system can age is to suggest that it passes through different stages marked by dynamism, periods of stagnation and decline, then renewed dynamism. These different moments can be seen as links in a chain, provided that the system is not beyond repair.

Great leaps forward
This will be better understood if we compare the USSR with China. Mao Zedong’s China and Stalin’s Russia both attempted great leaps forward, followed by stagnation and decline, then by recoveries. Nevertheless, the two regimes developed differently.

Although much more advanced, the Soviet system fell into stagnation and proved unable to introduce the essential major reforms for which the country was ready. Despite political similarities, and being far more repressive and autocratic than its Soviet counterpart, the Chinese system achieved spectacular reforms. The problem is not inherent in communist regimes, as is so often claimed, but reflects the degree to which the leadership is capable of transforming itself at specific stages.

There can be no question of the socialist, or at least emancipatory, character of the October revolution. But it is difficult to sustain the claim that the Soviet state was socialist. It may have called itself socialist, and the party communist, but these were just labels. Socialism is a form of democracy that goes beyond any other that might exist in a capitalist world. But all that tells us about the sort of economic system that such a democracy might want to institute is that it would have to be controlled by society as a whole, without capitalists or bureaucrats.

The Soviet state proclaimed itself as socialist, ruled by a communist party. Like all national myths, this was an essential element in legitimising the system in the eyes of its own people and the world. But such assertions were unable to stand up to harsh reality outside and within. In post-Stalinist Russia, an advanced, educated, urban society emerged, with many officials experienced in every domain, including the management of public affairs. Such a society would not take the party line on socialism for reality.

The tragedy was that the weight of history had not been and could not be removed. Bureaucracy rooted itself deeply and spread right across Tsarist Russia; individuals could be eradicated, but the species flowered again under new forms adapted to Soviet realities. The Soviet state requires serious historical study. Even if it was not socialist, those who precipitated the October revolution were. The ideas in which they believed and which they put into practice remain as vital today as they were in 1917 when they made their commitment and turned Russia into a player in history.

Translated by Donald Hounam

Moshe Lewin is a historian and the author of The Soviet Century, Verso, London, 2005

(1) The storming of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, the seat of the provisional government, was a crucial symbolic event in the seizure of power. According to the Gregorian calendar, adopted in Russia a few months later, this took place during the night of 6-7 November 1917. According to the Julian calendar, still in force at the time, the Bolshevik revolution was in October.

(2) Lenin, backed by leading members of the government from Grigory Zinoviev to Leon Trotsky, supported a federation that granted significant rights to non-Russian republics and reserved only foreign and military policy to the central government. Stalin wanted tocentralise power and allow the non-Russian republics only token autonomy. Hence Lenin’s accusation that Stalin sought to perpetrate “Great Russian” hegemony. See Lewin, The Soviet Century.

(3) I use the term Stalinism to refer only to the period during which Stalin was in power.

(4) Ivan IV (1530-84), the first Grand Prince of Moscow to be formally crowned tsar, is regarded as having made one of the most important contributions to Russia’s greatness. History remembers him as a bloody tyrant because of his cruelty (and mental instability).

(5) During the Leningrad affair of 1950, all the former leaders of the Communist Party and the administration in the city were executed. The main accused was Alexei Kuznetsov, whom Stalin had appointed secretary of the central committee and who was therefore a potential successor. Another victim was Nikolai Voznesensky, the deputy prime minister and director of Gosplan (the committee for economic planning).

(6) On the persecution of Soviet Jews, which culminated in 1953 with accusations of a plot involving Stalin’s Jewish doctors, see Laurent Rucker, Staline, Israël et les Juifs, Presses universitaires de France, Paris, 2001.

(7) See Lewin, op cit.



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