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 [obshchina] with its corporative concepts, the emergence of freedom of the individual, the attainment by Man of value as such, independently, without belonging to a corporation. But this did not happen. The concept of the value of the individual, of Man, had not developed in Rome when the archaic commune disappeared, giving place to the mighty Roman state. It needed the horrors of the imperial regime before the minds of men realized that there is value not only in “mankind,” or its chosen part, the “people,” but also in Man. *
Others have written about the Russian roots of Bolshevism, for instance, Berdyaev. However, in spite of the title of his book, Ulam treats Bolshevism as if he were writing a political biography of Lenin, and his useful and interesting chapter on the Russian revolutionary tradition is so arranged as to explain the ideas and men who influenced Lenin. Let me repeat at once that it is an excellent political biography of Lenin, perhaps the best yet written, and anyone interested in the period should certainly read it. But its stress is on political events and the arguments of politicians and ideologues. He mentions Lenin’s book The Development of Capitalism in Russia, but he has little to say about the question of economic development itself.
Even Ulam’s account of personalities is incomplete. There is a sympathetic discussion of the Populists, but hardly any attention is paid to other Bolsheviks besides Lenin. It is true that men like Bukharin, Kamenev, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Lunarcharsky, and Bogdanov appear and reappear in his pages, but one gathers little more than the fact that they were intellectuals and that they (like the Mensheviks, whom they in some ways resembled) were at times the subject of Lenin’s anger. But what manner of men were they? What was their background, their education, their view of the world? Of these matters, hardly a word. Of course Lenin was the leader; his influence was immense, but he did not rule Russia alone. Ulam’s book, after all, is not entitled “The Bolshevik.”
ONE IS STRUCK by the contrast between the intellectual cosmopolitans and the slower-witted and tougher men of the people, among whom Stalin was prominent. (Randall, in his much weaker work, describes Stalin as a member of the intelligentsia, apparently because he read books!) Lenin was a “bridge” between the two kinds of Bolsheviks, and was himself a unique combination of both. One can see why Lenin felt that the necessities of civil war and administration required the substitution of tough apparatchiki for gifted journalists and eloquent debaters. It is no accident or temporary aberration that such men emerged, or that Lenin helped them to emerge. Perhaps we should see their victory as the inevitable consequence of the Bolshevik decision to seize and hold power in a backward peasant country and then to transform it in the name of socialism. This called for tight organization, repression, discipline, and hierarchy. The tough organizers were bound to emerge into the foreground if the Bolsheviks were to succeed. Lenin knew that Stalin would “cook peppery dishes.” But peppery dishes were on the menu, and the Bolsheviks needed someone to cook them if they were to remain in power. In this sense Stalin was the legitimate successor of Lenin and of Leninism, though no doubt Krupskaya was right when, a few years later, she-was reported as saying: “If Ilyich were alive today, he would be in prison.”
STALIN AND STALINISM can only be understood in this way. Yet no one doubts that, as Stalin maneuvered for power, and still more after he had achieved it, his will and personality made a significant difference to the history of Russia, and that many things happened as a direct result of his arbitrary decisions. In one of his few happy phrases, Randall asserts that “in a paradoxical way the cause of human freedom rides with Stalin.” If Stalin, of all men, was a creature of circumstances, then determinism indeed engulfs us all. However Randall, in my view, makes two fundamental errors of approach. The first lies in his failure to distinguish between what might be called micro-history and macro-history. Let me illustrate the distinction with an example. Stalin, like any autocrat, could and did take a number of decisions arbitrarily; he could say: “Off with his head.” Stalin could decide not to kill a particular politician or writer, or he could decide to have Khrushchev boiled in oil, just as Henry VIII could have had Ann Boleyn beheaded or reprieved. Similarly, the location of a given factory, or the decision to build or not to build a particular canal may well be attributable to Stalin and only to Stalin. But it is quite another matter if one is considering, say, the foreign policy of Russia in the Stalin period, or the decay of the Comintern, or policy towards literature and culture, or the shift towards nationalism or the priority of heavy industry. No one denies that Stalin had power to make decisions on these questions. However, he usually carried out a general policy which could be explained by the logic of circumstances, or which other communists would also have chosen. Thus, while Stalin could have decided whether to kill a particular writer, the principles of so-called Socialist realism (and a preference for pseudo-neo-classical architecture) cannot be attributed to the whims of the dictator, since such views were wide-spread among his non-intellectual comrades. There are exceptions, of course. The most obvious of these was the Great Purge itself, in which he massacred not only the intellectuals but also most of his own faction. Here his aim appears to have been the achievement of supreme and unquestioned despotic power for himself. However, in most instances, the policies can be properly understood only if we go far behind the proposition—and here I quote Randall—“that it was the will of Stalin.” To cite a small example: to say that investments in grandiose projects were due to Stalin’s personal preferences is to overlook the predilection of many other “developmental” statesmen, in and out of Russia, for equally grandiose projects.
LET US AGREE, however, that Stalin had great powers and that the way in which he decided to act altered Russian history. Nevertheless it does not necessarily follow that we must invoke Freud. We are seriously asked in this book to reflect on the historical importance of Stalin’s weaning and toilet training. Nor does Randall fail to bring up swaddling, though the authors of the swaddling theory were concerned with national characteristics; if everyone is swaddled, it is surely unhelpful to attribute to this practice the peculiarities of any one individual. “As a Bolshevik,” Randall writes, “Stalin was not hostile to sex.” And, naturally, he was short. So was Napoleon. It is possible that Napoleon suffered from an Oedipus complex or that Josephine was a mother substitute. Is this the way to a better understanding of French history? General Gamelin, commander of the French in 1940, was also short, and a lot of good it did him! And perhaps De Gaulle was self-conscious because he was tall. What of it? Let us by all means accept that Stalin’s tendencies toward paranoia did a great deal of harm to Russia in his later years, and leave it at that.
Some analysts stress the necessary and logical descent of the Stalin system and policies from Leninism, and at the same time dwell on the vastness of Stalin’s arbitrary power and the importance of his personality in Russian history. Perhaps the two views are not inconsistent if one distinguishes between macro-and micro-history in the manner suggested above. One could argue with some force for the proposition that the rise of Stalin, or of a Stalin-substitute, was a necessary consequence of the attempt by the Bolsheviks to govern and to industrialize, and then say that the circumstances provided the opportunity to establish a personal despotism. Once the opportunity was taken, the subsequent behavior of the despot could be said to have contained large elements of arbitrariness, in the sense that one could readily conceive of another Bolshevik leader acting differently. However, Randall’s argument on this matter misses the point completely. He asks the rhetorical question: Who exactly would have overthrown Stalin if he had refused to agree to the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939? But the determinist view which Randall is arguing against here does not rest on conflicts of personalities, but on the view that other individuals in similar circumstances would have acted similarly. In any case, why should Stalin have refused? The real cause of the Nazi-Soviet pact was not Stalin but Munich. Much more to the point was the disastrous consequences of Stalin’s obstinate blindness to Soviet preparedness in 1941, though here the Soviet historians also stress the reluctance of his subordinates to take responsibility, which is part of the price of despotism.
Randall’s “historical reconsideration” is also marred by unsupported assertions and inconsistencies. Thus Preobrazhensky did not urge “the cutting down of peasant consumption.” We are told that “mass murder” was a “standard part of Communist ideology” (“except in San Marino”). But the word “ideology,” which is alleged to be the mainspring of Stalin’s actions, is so defined as to include “all new doctrines which he worked out and all new sentiments which he adopted.” In other words, ideology is considered to be the quintessence of what Stalin did, or what he said to justify what he did; in that case ideology cannot be said to determine his actions. Moreover Stalin was particularly given to concealing both facts and motives. Thus forcible collectivization was certainly not due to ideology, if the latter is defined as either doctrine or precedent; Stalin knew this very well, which is doubtless why he denied that it was forcible.
Why was Stalin’s regime accepted, at least by those members of the party who carried out his policies? The answer might seem to be: They obeyed because of the terror. Yet the coercive organs themselves suffered severely in the purges. Furthermore, this does not explain the support that Stalin received before he was in a position to terrorize his associates. The belief that Russia was in a state of siege, that military discipline and firmness were essential was widespread among the Bolsheviks. Even today one meets Soviet citizens who had suffered in the purges and still argue that the terror was a historical necessity. Whether or not such a proposition is acceptable, the belief that it was so helps to explain both the triumph of Stalin and the acceptance of Stalinism.
MEYER’S BOOK is primarily concerned with describing and analyzing the system as it is today, but his brief historical survey is very interesting. He rightly stresses the fact that the Bolshevik leaders carefully studied the lessons of past revolutions, especially the French Revolution, and were seeking consciously to avoid such phenomena as Thermidor and Bonapartism. Indeed they searched for potential Napoleons under every bed. (Perhaps Stalin in the end turned himself into Napoleon, though he was no more a professional soldier than was Robespierre.) Meyer also emphasizes the fact that Stalin, in the course of establishing his despotism, destroyed the old party. The elimination of so large a proportion of the original membership and the shock treatment to which the survivors were subjected must certainly have had profound effects, which are to some extent concealed by the nominal continuity of the ideology. For all Khrushchev’s efforts to restore to the party the vitality of which Stalin drained it, there is little sign indeed of genuine dynamism, a fact which was underlined by the remarkable dullness of the recently held 23rd Congress. Meyer’s description of the functioning of the political machine, its organization, the roles of terror and persuasion, of ideology, and the logic of bureaucratic control, are excellently done, and the book is certainly worth reading. Both Ulam and Meyer can give a great deal to the intelligent student who seeks ideas about the past and present of Bolshevism.
Meyer “dedicates” his book to bureaucrats, emphasizing the importance of their functions in East and West alike, and also the similarities of bureaucratic behavior in different systems. Significant similarities do indeed exist and are too often overlooked. It is also well to be reminded by Meyer that it is unhelpful to compare idealized Western systems with the ugly everyday reality of the USSR. Yet, in his efforts to redress the balance, Meyer may have gone too far the other way. One can sympathize with his refusal to use the confusing word “totalitarianism,” but this leads him, in his conclusion, to blur certain valid distinctions between West and East: There are dangers as well as advantages in using the concept of “USSR Incorporated.” Meyer gives the arguments on both sides, and deliberately leaves many questions open. His readers therefore will be left to think for themselves, an exercise much to be encouraged.
WE COULD END BY ASKING: Were the Mensheviks right? Has not the history of the past fifty years proved that Russia was indeed unripe for socialism, that the attempt to take conscious charge of the process of historical evolution led to tyranny and suffering on a vast scale? In spite of the softening which has taken place since the death of Stalin, a non-hereditary caste of leaders still exercises a monopoly of political and social power and has many privileges. What has such a society to do with the original aims of the Russian revolution? Such general questions make the reviewer uneasy. It is as if one were to say, as some do, that Russia would have been industrialized with much less pain and sorrow if there had been no revolution at all. Perhaps. Perhaps, too, the Czechs, Hungarians, and the Croats would have been better off if the Austro-Hungarian empire still existed. But the whole point is that the breakdown occurred, that it had deep-lying causes, and that we cannot reverse history. Given the appalling weakness of the Russian polity in 1917, was there an alternative to a dictatorship of the Left or of the Right? At what stage could the Bolsheviks have decided to hand over power, and to whom? Those who seized power in 1917 could hardly resign in 1920 and thereby condemn themselves to the gallows or to exile. No doubt the present state of the Soviet Union would have dismayed most Communist intellectuals if they had lived to see it, yet many of their original aims (including Lenin’s) involved elements of Utopianism which came into inevitable conflict with harsh reality. Revolutions are generally made by people who desire the unattainable. The Communists could imagine that terror and dictatorship were a temporary phase so long as world revolution was around the corner. Once they were isolated, they felt they had no alternative to changing Russia from above. Here the logic of backwardness asserted itself. By this I do not mean only the logic of industralization, but also the cultural backwardness of the Communist cadres and the political immaturity of the masses. Among the non-intellectual Bolsheviks there were many who felt strongly the need for discipline and order, who disliked clever “talkers,” and whose orientation was Russian and nationalist, as Lenin noted very early. As difficulties accumulated, such men naturally gravitated towards Stalin, and they sought a solution to the appallingly complex problems of the late Twenties through institutionalized violence and coercion. It is a moot point whether they (or even Stalin) foresaw the future Stalinist order. As the Soviet analyst put it, still in his Roman disguise: “Their activity was concentrated on concrete everyday measures, in response to current problems, and out of this there grew and became ever more tangible the features of the future dictatorship, the first signs of the regime of Augustus.”
Classical parallels, however, do not help us in assessing present trends. Brezhnev is neither Nero nor Marcus Aurelius. Meyer would emphasize his role as Chief Bureaucrat. He is also, at least for the present, a top manager of the USSR Inc., a successor to the rulers of the Russian Empire, and an inheritor of a revolutionary ideology which, fifty years after the revolution, is increasingly out of touch with reality. It is scarcely surprising that Mao does not approve of him. This, however, is another story
Novyi Mir, Number 9, 1965↩
Novyi Mir, Number 9, 1965↩