The Soviet Political System
Next year the Russian revolution will be fifty years old. It is an important task for historians to take another careful look at the events of 1917, their causes and their consequences. How much have events been determined by circumstances, how much by the strong and powerful personalities of Lenin and Stalin? To what extent was Stalinism a logical or a necessary consequence of Leninism? And to what extent do the present Soviet leadership and institutions reflect the principles and aims of the revolution? In their different ways, the works under review seek to cast light on problems of this kind.
Ulam’s book on Bolshevism is in many ways admirable. It is a pleasure to read, full of valuable ideas, insights, and wit. Lenin emerges as a most impressive character, a mixture of ruthlessness and humanity, whose political acumen was far superior to that of his friends and his opponents. Ulam shows how his contempt for the Russian intelligentsia and its lack of political sense was well-grounded in reality. It is all too easy to condemn his divisive tactics within the social-Democratic party and his refusal to enter into a coalition with the Mensheviks after the October revolution. But, not without reason, Lenin felt that such allies would ensure political paralysis. The Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries were remarkably ineffectual. Although it is true that they faced very difficult problems in 1917—as Ulam shows, the issues of “peace” and “land” were anything but simple—yet they seemed incapable of running the affairs of Russia even in more normal times. This was hardly an accident of personality. A. G. Meyer has put it well in his book:
Living in an autocratic society which would never allow their ideas to be tested in practice, they [the intelligentsia] tended to think irresponsibly…. They moved in a world which consisted of ideas which had become more real than reality itself; they were therefore addicted to dogmatism and sectarian quarrels.
In the circumstances, given Lenin’s determination to carry out a revolution—and this was the declared aim of the other socialist parties as well—his intolerance cannot be attributed simply to personal ambition. His success, as Ulam rightly points out, was largely due to the feebleness of his opponents and to the breakdown of Russian society and government. The Bolsheviks made their contribution to this breakdown but certainly did not cause it. J. K. Galbraith has said that a man who breaks through a rotten door acquires an unjustified reputation for violence, for some credit should be given to the door. One wishes that historians were more aware of this truth.
IT DOES NOT APPEAR that a democratic alternative to Lenin existed. The reasons for this lie deep in Russian history. It is interesting that a Soviet writer has recently considered this dangerous theme, in the thin disguise of a review of a history of Ancient Rome in Novyi mir:
…normal development should have led to the breakdown of the communal form …