Selected passages from Vladimir Bukovsky's book
From Utopia to Disaster
Robert Laffont, Paris, 1990.
Translated by Arthur Beard and Alissa Ordabai.
About “Russian” Fairy-Tales
A foolish fashion has spread among the authors of books about the Soviet Union, which compels them to contemplate the history of Russia, the nature of this land of great plains, the bad character of the Russian tzars and the suffering of the people. Be it out of a taste for the exotic, be it out of a scientific inclination, be it to please intelligentsia that does not want to recognize the legitimate child of their ideas in the Soviet freak, the Mongolian invasion always takes up more space in these books than scientific socialism, as if the Soviet state was founded by Ivan the Terrible and the nationalization was carried out by Peter the Great.
It would be difficult to find two events in history that were not related in some way, and if one tried one could prove convincingly that the current economic problems in England, for example, go back to the Norman conquest, and that Henry VIII set precedent for the increasing numbers of divorces. While such research may be entertaining to historians, no one would think of publishing it in a travel guide or popular science work on England, and the government is careful not to base its socio-economic policy on such analysis.
The foolish fashion I am talking about enjoys a different fate, no doubt because it is mutually convenient. For the Soviet authorities and for their western fellow travelers it means justifying the regime, just the way a provincial attorney makes use of his criminal client’s unhappy childhood. For those who are thirsting for socialism, it brings consolation: for in their civilized country it will have different results. For the vast majority of people who are not familiar with the subject, such an explanation is more accessible than all the confusing treatises of Hegel or Bebel. People today have little interest in the ideas which used to be fashionable in the last century, and they imagine the Soviet Union as a huge Haiti of Duvalier's time. In fact, it makes no difference where "human rights are violated,” whether here or there …
But why should one blame the man in the street, when the top politicians in the West do not know any better and seem to regard communism in all seriousness as a version of traditional Russian despotism? A well-known French politician attributes the invasion of Afghanistan to the traditional longing of the Russians for warm shores, and Margaret Thatcher explains to us after two conversations with Secretary General Gorbachev that this is an "honest and courageous" man whom one should trust and with whom one can "do business.”
It is hard to believe that there was nobody to make it clear to Ms. Thatcher that the USSR is not a monarchy and Gorbachev is not a tzar and that, even if he makes a good impression, you do business with the whole system and not with one single individual. And what does his courage actually consist of? That he is trying to save the Soviet Union from ruin? Lenin also showed "courage" in the same way and proclaimed the NEP policy in 1921, when he was standing on the edge of an abyss. Stalin could not be denied courage either, since he reopened the churches in 1941 when the Russian people were reluctant to defend his concentration camps and the collective farms against the German armies. And let's not forget Khrushchev, whose entire reign was an act of heroism. Is it so difficult to notice that attacks of courage plague Soviet leaders every twenty years and that these inevitably coincide with a crisis of the system?
Obviously, it is less a question of ignorance than of convenience that this view affords to Western politicians. If these mythical "Russians" have been like this since the beginning of time, if they, because they are fed up with vegetating in the Siberian ice, strive relentlessly to get to the warm seas, then there is nothing to be done and nothing to accuse anyone of. One can only wait for a good, enlightened monarch to appear in Russia with whom one can "do business.”
This view always concludes with the fact that the Russians, if they are attached to their centuries-old barbarism and have longed for warmth for centuries, can only be hostile to the interests of the West. The communist rulers of the USSR are something akin to natural allies of the West in the fight against this barbarism, especially when they become civilized through contact with their peers in the West and draw the courage to curb their barbaric instincts.
Lovely, isn't it? It is not just the shameless chauvinism of these ideas about the Soviet Union, but their absurdity — we are hostile to a people and make friends with communism, and then we are surprised that it spreads so vehemently over the entire world.
So about fifteen years ago, in the middle of the relaxation phase, the aggressiveness of the Soviet system was explained to us with the traditional "Russian paranoia" which , apparently, results from the numerous hostile attacks to which Russia had been exposed in the course of its history. But all hope was placed on the "doves" in the Kremlin, with Marshal Brezhnev at the helm, and you were well advised to support them in their fight against the paranoia of the people. But how can one help them? We were told that "the Russians,” if they were granted military supremacy, would calm down, become weaker and devote themselves to their domestic tasks. The results of this policy can still be felt, not only in Europe but in numerous third world countries, most recently and most obviously in Afghanistan.
Fifteen years have passed and the new general secretary sees himself once again greeted as the savior of humanity, proclaimed as the successor to Peter the Great, as a reformer and light-giver, who is finally able to cut the beards of his people stiff with filth and watch them dress in western-style clothes. As a result, we were presented with nonsense on television, a series about Peter, a Soviet-American joint production, where the emperor of Russia (whose weakness for carousing incidentally was rather famous) gives his people Gorbachev-style speeches about moderation and profitability of honest work.
Little is missing now, we are assured. We must of course support the new hero in this unequal struggle, and he will then grant us the long-awaited peace. In this way one will see the idiotic half-a-century-long dream come true: the USSR (to paraphrase the words of a young man trying to reassure his pregnant friend) will eventually “dissolve by itself".
In short, we are dealing with a universal theory that cannot be refuted by anything. I do not know to what extent the Western reader is familiar with the discussions of American scholars on this subject, which have long since been reduced to an examination of the Russian national character, but they have now reached such a degree of sophistication that I have given up.
The opponents of the policy of détente and other "hawks" defend their position with the argument that "the Russians cannot be trusted" because of their faithlessness and their centuries-old despotism; the supporters of détente and other "peace doves", however, try to prove to us that the "Russians" are essentially no different from the Americans and that one can therefore communicate with them. Once President Reagan flatly explained to us that there is no word in Russian for "freedom" and then his right arm sees the origin of Russian expansion in the fact that the Russian word "mir" means "world" and "peace" at the same time. On the other hand, numerous speakers have flooded television with documentaries of their trips to the USSR, from which it appears that the "Russians" walk on two legs too, that they love their children, are worried about the future and above all — about the struggle for peace, — and that in Russia everyone, from the greatest to the least, thinks in the same terms as we do. We conclude from this that you have to understand these Russians, that you have to sit down with them to talk about how things should be among the well-behaved people, that you have to overcome national prejudices so that the misunderstandings can be resolved as quickly as possible. Just look at the French, they eat frogs (disgusting, isn't it?), and yet you can live in peace with them.
This vision, peddled by the educated classes of America, becomes incredibly popular as relations with the USSR improve, and at summits it takes on the proportions of a national catastrophe. Anyone who has not stayed in America during these periods of "summit mania" can hardly imagine the extent of the catastrophe. One must witness this wave of childish and maddening enthusiasm, one must hear the unspeakable donkeys that innumerable groups of specialists in Russian friendship consist of. If it were up to me, I would have it forbidden by law — just as the sale of alcohol to minors is forbidden, for there are neither allies nor principles that the great American people, intoxicated by their own progressiveness, would not be prepared to give up for their new adoptive brothers.
God protect us from such exuberant friendship and understanding, but one must admit that the opposite side is hardly any better. One only has to remember how after the destruction of the Korean Boeing the mad people smashed all vodka bottles in the bars (the vodka, mind you, not the Soviet consulates) and that the Russian emigrants feared a pogrom in all seriousness. Such behavior pushes you, against your own will, into the camp of the "advocates".
What can you do if the smallest, but somewhat more complex idea does not want to get into an American head, and not only among bar customers, but also among journalists, professors and politicians? That leads to absurd situations: One day, for example, I got involved in a television debate on the subject of "Can you trust the Russians?" which I was invited to. Confused, I tried to explain that my participation would only mess up the cards, but the organizers did not understand my objections. Or was I mistaken about the purpose of the invitation?
Explaining something to academics is even more difficult. Imagine that a Martian accidentally finds himself in the middle of a debate about life on Mars. Such a phenomenon will certainly not end the debate. After a brief moment of embarrassment, it will flare up again as if nothing had happened. The majority of the participants have passed their exams, written their books, and gained a certain amount of social respect because they advocate a theory. Be that as it may, but various societal interests have built up and permeated each other around these debates, and no one cares about ending such a comfortable state of affairs just because some fool has fallen to earth.
On our poor earth, the aim of debates has long ceased to be the search for the truth, they have become a means of earning a living. What good could an old-fashioned affair like Truth be? In our pragmatic century, what is useful is true. For example, Marshall Shulman, a very influential professor at Columbia University, explains the hostility that characterizes Soviet-American relations the following way:
"The hostility does not result from any natural antipathy between the peoples of the two nations, but in the fact that over the course of time each has gained the conviction that the other has bad intentions, so that it is now difficult to distinguish the facts from fiction in relation to each other."
(Marshall Shulman, What The Russians Really Want, Harpers, April 1984).
Are we really to believe that the honorable Professor has never heard of Marxism-Leninism and the laws of class struggle? Of course he has heard of it, but he and his ilk regard the communist ideology as insubstantial and out of date, and the Soviet bosses seem to them, in the words of an even more honorable professor, namely the renowned George Kennan:
"... a collection of quite ordinary individuals, to a certain extent victims (...) of the ideology which they have been fed, but more decisively shaped by the discipline of their responsibility (...) as heads of a large country (...) worried much more about preserving the current limits of their political power than expanding them (...) whose motivations are actually defensive (...) and whose attention is primarily focused on the constantly open problems of economic development of their own country.”
(George Kennan, The Nuclear Delusion - Soviet-American Relations, in The Atomic Age, NY Pantheon, 1982).
Note, this was written in 1982, at the time of Brezhnev, before Gorbachev appeared on the scene with his reformist speeches. Nowadays Professor Kennan shouldn't shy away from anything. If such a view of the USSR and its leaders could be reconciled for him with the invasion of Afghanistan and the support of numerous murderers, he would only be able to interpret the behavior of a bankrupt Soviet system as evidence of goodwill, a sense of responsibility and the power's tendency to self-restraint.
Whether you call them victims or pioneers of ideology has little meaning. Lenin defined precisely what kind of compromise a communist can make with the class enemy and what kind of compromise would be impossible. Let's assume, he says, that armed bandits stop your car and, under threat of death, take away your money, your papers, your revolver — without which Vladimir Ilyich obviously couldn't imagine a going for a drive — and your car. This is obviously a compromise, he says, since you can save your skin as a result of it, it is a compromise that no sensible person would refuse, as it allows you to later settle accounts with the bandits. In other cases, according to the leader of the world proletariat, compromising with the class enemy is treason.
A nice upbringing
As a result, the same ideological norm served to bring up a good three generations of Soviet leaders. Nice education! Which eliminated anyone who poorly understood the business of acceptable compromises (and thus became a traitor) by means of a bullet in the head. It will be found that such trauma is long-lasting, and that a compromise with Lenin's heirs is likely to be possible only if the pistol is put to their chests. Why does it matter whether they believe in communist ideas or not, if in their constant struggle for power they do not have the slightest freedom to disregard ideological norms? Whether these men are taken for "victims" or "followers of the doctrine”, for ordinary people or knights of the world revolution, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has never declared peace on its class enemy.
However, to quote Lenin today, one has to be an extremist kind of Martian. Because Lenin, it is said, lived a long time ago, too long ago to influence the current Soviet development. It's not like the times of Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible. It is astonishing, but the connection between Marxism-Leninism and the present-day Soviet state in its foreign or domestic policy is either ignored or even completely denied by the American universities, often more energetically by the conservatives than by the liberals. The more the world learns about the crimes of the regime, the worse the impression the Soviet Union makes, the more the subject becomes taboo. A self-respecting American professor talks about communism like a deceased colleague: nihil nisi bene. Sometimes when you have to say something that is just a little bad, you do it with restraint and apologize for it. It is a kind of moral taboo, like the rule that one does not speak of the rope in the house of someone who was hanged, and whoever breaks this taboo will not find anyone to polemicize with him, a vacuum is created around him. Consequently, the opponent of the deceased tries to be particularly considerate, because every disturbing word from his mouth could be interpreted as deliberate rudeness.
Indeed, it is people who are considered conservative and "who could not be suspected of sympathy for communism" who invented the following legend, now valid:
“The answer to many puzzles of Soviet behavior lies not in the stars, but in the Tzars. Their bodies lie buried in Kremlin vaults, and their spirits like on in the Kremlin halls. In many respects the revolution that brought the communists to power in Russia was less a change from the tzarist ways than it was a refinement and reinforcement of those ways. Russia has never not been an expansionist power. Nor, except for a few brief months in 1917, has it ever not been either an authoritarian or a totalitarian state. There simply is no tradition in the Soviet Union of freedom internally or of nonaggression externally. Territorial expansion comes as naturally to Russia as hunting does to a lion or fishing to a bear.”
“The Soviet police state traces its lineage to the Tartar yoke. … The brutal exercise of total power, the subjugation of the individual to the state, the ruthless marshaling of all resources for the purposes of the state, the idea of constant, unremitting war — these all have their roots deep in the Russian past, in the terrors of Mongol rule and in the bitter necessities of fighting the Tartar hordes.”
“The first ‘Tsar of All the Russias,’ Ivan the Terrible, was also the first Tsar to make the use of terror a state policy; the origins of both the tzarist secret police and today’s KGB can be traced to him. … In our own century Joseph Stalin personified Russia’s tzarist heritage. The dynasty he represents was a party, not a family, but like the ‘great’ Tzars before him, he extended Russian rule over vast new areas. … Like Ivan the Terrible, Stalin created his own private secret police and employed terror as a basic instrument of state policy. Like Peter, he appreciated the value of Western technology in fashioning a modern fighting machine.”
(Richard Nixon, The Real War, Warner Books, 1980).
We can only speak with a touch of sympathy about today's Soviet leaders, enlightened through contacts with people like Nixon or Kissinger:
“Khrushchev and his successor, Brezhnev, have gone a long way toward making Russia a truly European country. It could be said that Stalin, like Mao, was basically a nationalist, and that Khrushchev, like Zhou, was an internationalist. Stalin rarely left the Soviet Union, but Khrushchev was a world traveler, taking fifty-two journeys abroad in his eleven years in power. Stalin was an Asian depot looking east, but Khrushchev and Brezhnev both looked to the West.”
(Richard Nixon, Leaders, Plan 1984).
While we let our learned writers take responsibility for such exotic views of Russian history, we would like to understand how the ominous and reactionary traditions of the autocracy survived the Bolshevik revolution. As we know, not only were the physical bearers of these traditions — aristocracy, officer corps, intelligentsia, merchants, ecclesiastical dignitaries — wiped out, but all Russian traditions were rewritten and turned into a history of class war that was well guarded. It was even decided to create a completely new, "proletarian" culture in which the old "legacy" was only represented by a few revolutionary writers. Thus several generations were brought up in the struggle against “the inheritance" so effectively that when Stalin decided in 1941 to rehabilitate some of the servants of tzarism in order to raise the morale of the population, the commissioners had to explain to an astonished audience who were all these Suvorovs, Kutuzovs and Alexander Nevskys. Who would have found a way, and by what miracle, to continue the forbidden traditions?
This problem is happily explained by another American thinker who is not so conservative and even more dignified than the previous ones. You see, the crux of the matter is the Russian peasantry, which Stalin, despite all his best efforts, could not completely exterminate. These peasants suffered the worst consequences in conforming to the Mongol yoke and serfdom, which they "managed to survive ... not by entrusting themselves to the protection of laws and customs, but by exercising extreme cunning and single-mindedly pursuing their private interests,” and this peasantry now provides “practically the entire elite of the Soviet government.” So consequently, in the opinion of our learned author, the "overwhelming majority of the Russian population" carries this bacillus of totalitarianism:
“Various elements of historical experience blend to create a very special kind of mentality, which stresses slyness, self-interest, reliance on force, skill in exploiting others, and, by inference, contempt for those unable to fend for themselves.”
(Richard Pipes, Detente: Moscow’s View, 1977).
If our Harvard professor had not been so stingy with epithets, if he had added a few more to this charming bouquet, we would have had before us the classic picture of Judaism depicted in a certain type of literature that has set itself the task to ascribe the Jews the leading role in the communist movement. One has to admit that two thousand years of diaspora, humiliation and persecution are not much better than four hundred years of serfdom and it could not have been an ethnic character that had no way of "relying on the protection of law" and good morals. Is it to be assumed that the blacks will bother us too, since they too were liberated only four years after the Russian serfs? And not to mention the gypsies: can you really trust gypsies?
It must be mentioned that such an argument from the mouth of the American "hawks" comes in handy for their opponents, the "doves", because it brings them close to those radicals who, after the affair with the Korean Boeing, smashed all the vodka bottles in the bars. Also, when Russians find themselves in some kind of huge ghetto, the question begins to take a familiar turn for the American liberals. Hence a lot of recipes in the style of their bill about civil rights, "positive discrimination,” "desegregation" and the demand to "understand" the other camp.
But what can we suggest if our conservative professor sees practically no way out?
“Nothing short of a major cataclysm that would demonstrate beyond doubt that impulses rooted in its history have lost their validity is likely to affect the collective outlook of the Russian nation and change it, as defeat has caused the Germans or Japanese to turn away from dictatorships, and the Nazi massacres have caused the Jews to abandon their traditional pacifism.”
(Richard Pipes, Detente: Moscow’s View, 1977).
But you can't send the National Guard to change the "historical impulses" of this nuclear superHarlem. If it would have been difficult to defeat Japan without Hiroshima, there can be no question of defeating today's USSR without nuclear war.
This is another argument in favor of the "doves" who try to convince us that their recipes have no alternative but the world war. In this way, then, the scholarly discussion has continued for half a century in a climate of harmony and mutual support. The devil himself wouldn’t be able to find out which of them is now liberal and which is conservative. The world map changes, peoples and nations disappear, only the substance of the debate remains unchanged. Some, like Gogol's Manilov, dream of building a bridge to connect with a neighbor, with a pergola in the middle, which would invite nice encounters and pleasant conversations. The others, like Sobakevitch, divide the subjugated peoples into classes by distinguishing between the pigs and the villains.
Indeed, are Ukrainians Russians or not? On the one hand, it seems as if they aren't, since the Russians have occupied them. On the other hand, the Ukrainian peasant also got a taste of serfdom, and certainly not the obedience to the law. Their story was no picnic either: Poles, Turks, and Tatars took turns paying them too much attention. Speaking of which, those Tatars, from whom everything bad comes, are no better than the Russians. And the Bulgarians? How can you not be a villain when you've borne the Turkish yoke? The Vietnamese are bad, that's clear. They were always the aggressors. With the Afghans we don't know exactly yet, but it is said that they are a cruel and devious people, qualities which give them a good chance of becoming Russians.
Only the Cubans cause problems: they have never known serfdom, they are far from the Tatars and they still behave like Russians. What a mysterious nation. A lot can certainly be explained by the Russian influence, but who is forcing them to submit to this influence? Where do all these Fidels come from?
Indeed, where do all the Russian peasants in this world come from? How have they multiplied to such an extent that in France, at the heart of European civilization, the Communists received almost 25 percent of the votes and in Italy 33 percent? Perhaps every people (including the Russians) has its share of "Russians" whom Karl Marx urged in his indestructible manifesto to unite:
“The communist revolution is led by the class, which is itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, of all nationalities.”
(Richard Pipes, Detente: Moscow’s View, 1977).
If the climate and the soil are favorable...
Perhaps, if we will finally let the ashes of the Russian tzars rest in peace, we would notice that a completely different ghost haunts the halls of the Kremlin? The same ghost that haunted Europe in Marx's time and that has since then adapted perfectly to other continents? Perhaps one has to fall back on biblical wisdom and admit that there was a word in the beginning, in the present case — the teaching of Marxism-Leninism, which showed Russians of every nationality what to do in order to achieve universal happiness?
“No way, never!”, the scholars answer with contempt, for like Doctor Faust they are inclined not to attach such great importance to words. As if they didn't know! As if it wasn't their job to produce words! What would happen if one had to take responsibility for every word? But better let the stupid people smash vodka bottles:
"My answer to these questions is that the ideas do not bring about any important political or social changes, at most they encourage them: that is, they only have an effect if the climate and soil are favorable to them. The core of the problem is not the nature of the proposed ideas, but the way in which they are received."
(Richard Pipes, Detente: Moscow’s View, 1977).
I admit, there is some truth in that. But what should one do when the ground is always ready for a certain type of ideas in the moment of crisis, and their consequences are always predictable? Admit, Professor, that certain ideas can be interpreted in several ways, especially if they are addressed to a certain class of the population and leave a noble aftertaste, persuade people through historical necessity and make universal happiness dependent on their realization. It should also not be forgotten that there are people who receive the word of educated people much more reverently than the heirs of Faust do, and that these ideas are aimed precisely at them. So what should one do? Shall we admit that these "ideas", if only partly, have something to do with their consequences? Is it really not so? Not even such "ideas" like: "Death to the Jews!" or "Death to the bourgeoisie!"?
"It is true that Marxism contains the seeds of totalitarianism (as it also contains liberal elements), but how is it that this doctrine, which was born in Western Europe, never led to totalitarianism in its homeland?"
(Richard Pipes, Detente: Moscow’s View, 1977).
Of course! If instead of "Death to the bourgeoisie" we would have seen another idea triumphant, that does not change the discussion about word and deed. Whether the German proletariat has striven for national or international socialism after its unification is not a Tartar invasion, but it has behaved as badly under the influence of an idea as the Russians, and that is an important process. Should we see Mein Kampf as a little innocent book that everyone interprets according to the degree of his moral deprivation?
It is strange scientific reasoning to refer to what has not happened in history to explain what is happening. Much has not happened in our history. The Englishman Locke discovered the separation of powers, which was then realized in America and not in England. The Russians Bakunin and Kropotkin invented anarchism, which became popular in Spain, not in Russia. The Chinese invented gunpowder, but its military use became a matter for Europe.
And as for the Jews, around whom Christianity was born, strangely enough, they did not profess that religion. Must we therefore assume that the English love unrestricted power, that the Spaniards are more anarchist and the Russians, that the Chinese are more peaceful than the Europeans, and that the Jews are incapable of mercy?
If everything had happened the other way around, our scholars would have shown us the opposite with at least as much zeal. If the communists had come to power in France and not in Russia, one would remember the traditions of absolutism, the terror of the revolution and the Napoleonic wars.
After all, the Russians did not choose communism, but it was imposed on them at the end of the civil war. We know that in 1917 there were no more than forty thousand Bolsheviks in all of Russia, a number so small that — alas! — nobody took them seriously, not even after the October coup. Because everyone expected that they would dissolve by themselves.
By the way, where are the "liberal elements" of the Marxist doctrine that we were promised? Why have they not revealed themselves in any country, to any people, on any continent where the communists have taken power? Well, let us leave the question of where and for what reason the communist regime prevailed, on what historical premises, on what traditional basis. Once it had established itself, it developed further and acted according to its teaching, as far as external circumstances made it possible.
What interests us more if we want to understand the further course of the disease — the type of bacillus that caused it or the childhood of the sick person?
“The thought that a nation of more than ten million inhabitants with the legacy of a thousand years of documented history can be radically changed and, over the decades, be forced to behave differently in a scandalous way under the influence of certain 'perverse ideas', amazes me with its phantasmagoric side. ... Basically, one and the same people, who inhabit the same country, speak the same language, cultivate the same land and inherit the same thousand-year history, would not have developed, even with the greatest imagination, two different political systems that have nothing in common. The deepest natural mutations affect different biological organisms; but such a phenomenon is inconceivable in history.”
(Richard Pipes, Encounter, April 1980).
All these considerations are up to the author and his imagination. We can only pity him or comfort him with Kosma Prutkov's advice: "If you read the word 'buffalo' on an elephant cage, don't believe your eyes".
A biologist’s imagination would not be so deeply shocked by such a startling mutation. Different kinds of organisms differ from each other only by a few mutations, and the biologists differ from the historians in that they research what they have seen instead of denying it. What use would science have if, in the face of a mutation, we tried to prove — foaming at the mouth — that no change had occurred? It is, in fact, a science that allows you to measure and weigh. It is different from history or politics, where pluralism of the charlatans reigns: you think this, well, and I think that.
It took hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and mutation for man to escape the animal condition. To return man to the animal condition, not a single mutation is needed, all it takes is a whack on the head. The matter is even simpler when it comes to our civilisation, for it leaves no traces in the genes. Perfectly civilised English schoolchildren, abandoned by fate on a desert island, easily turn into savages; children separated from their parents by a barrier of hate and from all past traditions by propaganda easily become Maoist Red Guards, SS soldiers or the likes of Pavlik Morozov. Lord of the Flies lies dormant in every one of us, biding its time. You think you are better, mister Professor? Scratch yourself and, under the Harvard varnish, you will be sure to find your very own Russian.
Is it not striking that in the 20th century, after Camus and Ionesco, Brecht and Bulgakov, Orwell and Zamyatin, we still believe lullabies and fairy tales about good and bad nations? Why stick to our century? Didn’t Goethe create the first dystopia by demonstrating that each of us harbours a rebellious and worried spirit, a doctor Faust who suffers from the imperfection of men and the injustice of this Earth?
Look about, from this height’s extreme,
Across the realm: it seems like some bad dream,
Where one deformity acts on another,
Where lawlessness by law is furthered,
And an age of crime is discovered.
(Goethe, Faust, II, v.4782-4787. Poetry translation in Kline, A.S., Goethe: Faust Acts I and II Complete.)
What other choice than to rebel against the power of Speech that has created and perpetuated this world order? Indeed:
With words fine arguments can be weighted,
With words whole Systems can be created,
With words, the mind does its conceiving,
No word suffers a jot from thieving.
(Ibid, I, v.1996-2000.)
Yes indeed, action is the premise of existence! Without action, no progress, the conditions of existence cannot be changed, rendering happiness impossible.
But action alone cannot create without speech, for it ignores the what? God had it easy. He said, “Let there be light”, and there was light. Let me attempt to act without Speech. In that case, it is possible to destroy, but impossible to create.
However, this problem is easily solved: wherever there is man, there is also the devil, always ready to back up our noble impulses. As long as our impulses are sufficiently powerful to bring us to make a deal with him, the Devil will take them into consideration. Faust knows only what he doesn’t want: the old world, with its ever-sterile desires:
Curse what deceives us in our dreaming,
With thoughts of everlasting fame!
Curse the flattery of ‘possessing’
Wife and child, lands and name!
Curse Mammon, when he drives us
To bold acts to win our treasure:
Or straightens out our pillows
For us to idle at our leisure!
Curse the sweet juice of the grape!
Curse the highest favours Love lets fall!
Cursed be Hope! Cursed be Faith,
And cursed be Patience most of all!
(Ibid, I, v.1595-1606.)
Let us note that this list of curses allows us to easily imagine the world in which Faust would like to live: a world where wealth, that corrupter of souls, no longer reigns, where there will no longer be power, nor family, nor the constant worry of having to provide for one’s needs, a world where neither the sacred nor vain luxuries, nor the selfish appetite for glory, nor indeed the never-ending wait will detract man from eternal happiness. In short, death.
When, to the Moment then, I say:
‘Ah, stay a while! You are so lovely!’
Then you can grasp me: then you may,
Then, to my ruin, I’ll go gladly!
(Ibid, I, v.1699-1702.)
You must admit that this enterprise is taking on a bizarrely familiar form. And this is only confirmed by what follows. After a long period of wandering, after numerous adventures and quests, not one of which, of course, satisfies Faust, a grand project springs to his mind: to tame the arrogant rage of the sea, to steal a part of its domain and to create the world of his dreams there. Well, clearly, if one has the Devil in support: no sooner said than done. At the place where the greying abyss boiled, “sterile and fecund in sterility”,
See a garden planted, widely,
See the Paradisial view.
The tide extended its wide flow.
Clever Lords set their bold servants
Digging ditches, building dikes,
To gain the mastery of ocean,
Diminishing its natural rights.
(Ibid, II, v.11085-94.)
On top of that, the harbour may offer a hospitable welcome to merchant ships. But the devil is indeed the devil, it is he who manages the practical side of life in our earthly paradise, he who fills the treasury’s chests with the booty of naval plunder, and the vessels in this harbour do not arrive of their own accord. The moral principles introduced by the devil to this paradise sound equally familiar:
You have the might, and so the right.
You wonder what, and never how.
I know a little of navigation:
War, trade, and piracy, allow,
As three in one, no separation.
(Ibid, II, v.11184-88.)
Another familiar trait: it is dangerous to live in the neighbourhood of this paradise of Faust’s:
[…] like subjects we must kneel,
When we boast such neighbours.
(Ibid, II, v.11133-34.)
Not far away, some pious old men live peacefully, which, presumably, shouldn’t stop Faust rejoicing in the greatness of his creation. But no!
It’s a thorn in my eye, and deeper:
Oh! Would I were somewhere other!
The least tree in another’s field,
Detracts from my whole estate.
(Ibid, II, v.11161-62.)
As a result, the Devil is charged with the mission of moving the old men away. No, not like that! Without cruelty nor violation of human rights! The only demand is that they be relocated to a beautiful manor, set aside for their exclusive use, on the paradise’s territory, where they will be infinitely happier, and have anything they could possibly wish for. But the Devil stays true to himself:
That pair knew scant anxiety,
They died of terror, peacefully.
A stranger, who was hiding there,
And wished to fight, we tried to scare. But in the fast and furious bout,
From the coals that lay about,
The straw took fire. Now all three,
In that one pyre, burn merrily.
(Ibid, II, v.11362-69.)
What is to be done? Faust comes to terms with his dissatisfaction. He decides to build a high tower from which to contemplate his possessions.
But he knows no peace of mind. Here he is, powerful without limit, wise without measure, rich with uncountable riches, the coryphaeus of all the sciences and the best friend of the navigators, but he does not have happiness. Care chews away at him: his work is not done, his creation is not perfect.
It is, incidentally, difficult to say whether the men who populate Faust’s paradise are happy. We do not know much about them. We know only that the Devil has three helpers, three “Mighty Warriors”: Bullyboy, Grab-quick and Hold-tight, whose functions correspond perfectly to those of the army, the KGB, and the Party apparatus. We also see a border guard on duty at the top of a tower. He is eternally happy and never stops singing. For the joy of it, like an itinerant Turkish poet: what he sees, he celebrates. In particular, he sings that the world is beautiful and that he loves this world.
As for Faust, blinded by Care, he is consumed by questions and economic plans.
Up from your beds, you slaves! Man on man!
Reveal the daring of my favoured plan.
Seize the tools: on with pick and spade!
Let the end-result be now displayed.
Strict order, and swift industry
Then the finest prize we’ll see:
And so the greatest work may stand,
One mind equal to a thousand hands.
(Ibid, II, v.11503-10.)
He orders for a canal to be dug, the social significance of which is important, but not completely clear. This canal is dug among other by lemures, that is to say restless spirits or malignant shadows (uncannily similar to zeks), whose overseer is of course the Devil.
Come on! Come on! In here, in here!
Quivering spirits of the dead,
All you patchwork semi-natures,
Sinew, bone, and tendon wed.
(Ibid, II, v.11511-14.)
Is this not similar to the departure from the camp to the work site? All these lemures have left to do is to get drugged up on chifir.
However, mesmerized by Care, Faust does not even know that they are digging his grave and not a canal. But Faust is finally happy. The ringing of spades flatters his ear and the project of making “the waves accept their boundaries” grips him once again. He pressures the Devil, orders him to scold the workers (even though the Devil knows full well that his parent Neptune will soon be reclaiming this nice building site in its entirety). There it is, that long-awaited moment!
A swamp lies there below the hill,
Infecting everything I’ve done:
My last and greatest act of will
Succeeds when that foul pool is gone.
Let me make room for many a million,
Not wholly secure, but free to work on.
(Ibid, II, v.11159-64.)
What a poor blind old man who, on the edge of the grave that constitutes his greatest achievement, continues to deliver pathetic speeches about the universal happiness of “liberated labour” in this earthly paradise that is sure to blossom among “his” lands.
Childhood, manhood, age’s vigorous years,
Surrounded by dangers, they’ll spend here.
I wish to gaze again on such a land,
Free earth: where a free race, in freedom, stand.
(Ibid, II, v.11577-80.)
Well there you go! Get to work, humans, and build for evermore this earthly paradise (your mass grave) and be happy with your lot! For Faust, the main thing is that:
Through aeons, then, never to fade away
This path of mine through all that’s earthly. –
Anticipating, here, its deep enjoyment,
Now I savour it, that highest moment.
(Ibid, II, v.11583-86.)
And that’s that. Faust’s sputtering propaganda comes to an end. The lemures, or the zeks, drag his body into the grave while making sordid jokes. True, the Devil got it wrong, and he does not take Faust’s soul, but that is another story, which has neither beginning nor end, and which, in the best case scenario, promises to give rise to numerous episodes derived from contradictions between Speech and Action, between the end and the means, between creation and destruction. The history of mankind does not stop there.
But, do tell me, how on earth did Goethe so rigorously predict, over a hundred years ago, present-day USSR in its entirety, with its White Sea canal and its zeks, its international trafficking and its “submission of nature”, its ideology of collective work and its three “Mighty Warriors”, its cult of personality and its perpetually drunk border guard? Does this not convincingly prove that it is not the particularities of the development of this or that nation, but the very nature of Man that is responsible for the fact that his best intentions turn out regrettably?
One more point: how did generations of revolutionaries, who kept Faust on their bedside table, manage to not understand his sombre prophecy? Because the ultima ratio of human wisdom, proposed by Faust:
He only earns his Freedom and Existence,
Who’s forced to win them freshly every day.
(Ibid, II, v.11575-76.)
has become the motto of revolutionaries, their battle cry and, for some, an end in itself. But, just like Faust, blinded by Care, they did not notice the yawning grave in place of the awaited paradise.
Finally, how do they not get this, these Harvard professors and Western politicians who bring the eternal tragedy of Man back to platitudes about “bad” nations?
Unless, in professing Action as the premise of existence, we have made ourselves slaves to fine words, to the delight of the Devil?
Another fashionable take, just as stupid as the previous one and connected to it, involves claiming that revolutionaries, especially Russian ones, have defaced the ideas of socialism, interpreted them wrong, and applied them in contradiction with the precepts of their masters. Each person sees these distortions differently, according to their own conception of socialism. For some, the first to distort this bright idea was Marx, who was, according to others, distorted by Lenin, who in turn, according to yet others, was distorted by Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, etc. We can think that some Christian sects did the same and considered that the evangelists had betrayed the Christ, while others had sinned against the apostles, and yet others against the Fathers of the Church, the ecumenical council, or this or that pope.
It is, however, revealing that non-believers, in both cases, do not notice any distortion. It is surely more logical to speak of the evolution of ideas in the Darwinian sense, that is to say, to admit that distortions (or mutations) appear successively, survive, and the ones that adapt best to real conditions spread. For the biologist, it is irrelevant whether we designate the giraffe or the zebra as distortions or improvements of the horse. Only die-hard lovers of the Arabian racehorse will be outraged at the sight of Przewalski’s horse.
Nevertheless, surrendering to this vulgar legend, contemporary researchers will, cautiously, never call the Soviet Union a socialist State, but invariably refer to “eastern European socialism” or, worse still, a “Soviet model of socialism”. It is obvious that there is no objective index to these distortions other than the self-evident fact that the results of socialist experiments have everywhere turned out the opposite of what was expected. In this way, the creation of the kingdom of freedom was envisioned, and a great concentration camp appeared; imagined a classless society was imagined, and unprecedented differentiation between classes was born; the State was supposed to wither away, and it was reinforced and concentrated beyond words; there were predictions, thanks to the liberation of work, of unprecedented growth in productivity, perfect abundance, irresistible technological progress, the disappearance of societal ills, and instead we have witnessed the formation of an indigent and backward State, with its empty shops, its flourishing black market, its extraordinary criminality, its corruption, its alcoholism. Finally, we were meant to witness the unification of nations, a triumph of peace and creativity, and we were served a prison of nations, national hatred bordering on generalised disembowelment, excessive militarisation of society and the permanent threat of planetary slaughter. “Is that what you call socialism?” say the socialists, indignant.
Meanwhile, the western European model, although it has not led to concentration camps, has gone bankrupt everywhere, and, as a result, has brought results contrary to expectations. Voters everywhere, even the unemployed, vote against socialism, and, in those places where for local reasons socialists have come to power (France, Australia, New Zealand), they have, willingly or not, been forced to implement policies contrary to the recipes of socialism.
Where, then, is our Arabian purebred? Our unaltered socialism? Well, we will surely soon be building it Nicaragua (reportedly under the oversight of Soviet and Cuban advisers). Sweden, another country where socialism triumphs, does not seem condemned to bankruptcy. The same goes for the island of Madagascar, that has, apparently, reached unprecedented levels of justice. But, even were the Swedes to go bankrupt, the idea of pure socialism tends to linger, radiant in the popular memory. A wonderful idea, they will say, but of which humans are not yet worthy.
There is nothing more absurd than this tendency to justify theory and to deny practice. There is no such thing as an industrial design that is beautiful on its own, in abstracto, that does not take into account the materials available for its realisation. A rule is not valid if it does not take into account the possible errors of those executing it. The distortion of utopian ideas is as inevitable as entropy, with the caveat that Newton’s third law is due a correction here, for the resistance of the material will always prevail over the action of the idea.
Indeed, show me a single utopian idea that did not lead to the opposite of the desired result. It is impossible to come up with an example of this, at the same time as examples to the contrary abound, even today. Why stir up the dust of history if, before our very eyes, for example, the champions of the fight against racial discrimination in America have ended up demanding reverse discrimination, against Whites, which they have coyly referred to as positive, as if an adjective could change the nature of the phenomenon? The limitless humanitarianism of the supporters of animal rights or unborn children has turned them into terrorists planting bombs in clinics or laboratories; as for the champions of Islam, they have killed more Muslims than the enemies of Islam have managed throughout history.
You will argue that these are exceptions, excesses on the part of the tiny minority of extremists that exists in any social movement? But the extremists are simply the most consistent implementers of the Idea and this is precisely why they are in charge of these movements. Without them, there is no movement. The mere apparition of the utopian idea is a manifestation of extremism, rejected by the majority, and this is why the idea seduces potential extremists first of all. As a result, for non-believers, fanatical adherents to the utopian idea are extremists whereas, for believers, they are heroes, saints, examples to follow.
Once the goal is reached, the utopian movement, if it has imposed its ideas to the majority, will modify itself; it is no longer the work of extremists, but of conformists. It is the latter who are in charge of leading the initial idea all the way to illogical absurdity.
Over the last few days, while listening to the radio, I heard a distribution of condoms being announced as the prelude to a pop concert. Golly, I said to myself, but logically they should have been distributed instead of the concert. How did the era of “sexual revolutions”, unlimited happiness and pop music start? Do you remember?
All you need is Love!!!
the angels of the sixties sang for us and, inspired by this revelation, a generation of hippies rushed to remake the boring world of their parents, of housewives and of civil servants. What is the point, really, of money, work, the government, science, education, all that hygiene and discipline stuff, all these inventions of a disorientated world if all problems could be solved by universal love, by the immediate bliss of drugs and the deafening bellow of amplified music?
We don’t need no education!
In our lax world, no one can forbid you from organising revolutions or enjoying existence. However, you see, sooner or later, an invisible waiter brings you the bill. Sorry, we don’t take credit cards. And, twenty years later, our quite shrivelled “flower generation” once again fills the streets. What do they want now? Money. Oh! Because you still need money? How so? To study AIDS and make a vaccine. You mean science and education are useful too? And the government too, apparently, because that’s where they are demanding money from, indignant that so little is being spent. In stadiums still full, but of conformists now – unlike the idealists of Woodstock –, a silent reminder is distributed before the celebration: love alone is not enough, you need condoms too.
This is how in one generation “revolutionary” ideas have degenerated, leaving behind them only ritualised forms, the meaning of which is lost. And even then, they have only survived thanks to the might of the entertainment industry. Should we be surprised that today’s pop stars are the artificial products of advertising, driven only by the lure of easy profit, voiceless, talentless, without a single new idea, reduced to electronic trickery? What possible pleasure is there for us to watch other people getting rich? If it were not for conformity, we would pocket the free condoms and go home peacefully.
Ideas that are more complex and profound than these – which succeeded only in giving rise to a generation of narcissists – usually live on for longer and lead to their opposite much later. The lifecycle of ancient civilisations was measured in centuries, if not millennia. It is common knowledge that the effervescent development of socialist ideas over the last two centuries was a reaction to a crisis of Christianity. These ideas themselves go back to High Antiquity, but the attempt to create a radically new civilisation, albeit based on these ideas, is an absolutely new phenomenon.
The external causes of this crisis are of little importance to our reflection. Be they the results of the Reformation, or of the political struggle against absolutism expressed as a rejection of monarchism by divine right, or of the rapidly growing authority of science, understood as the triumph of reason over faith, or all these reasons put together, the question is purely academic. Whatever the cause, the immutability of the cosmic order that sprung from the Word of God was doubted, and a shadow of doubt spread all the way back to the prehistory of this notion: either the world was created and is therefore immutable, or it appeared as the result of a process of causality and it can therefore be changed radically. Either Good and Evil come to us from above – Virtue and Vice are already formed in us at birth – or they take shape under the influence of outside circumstances, as part of a process of evolution. Consequently, either man is free to choose between good and evil, or his choice is predetermined by conditions and circumstances.
In short, the very principles of Christian doctrine were reconsidered: just like Doctor Faust, the Enlightenment thinkers rebelled against the first line of the first page of the Gospel. The more the revolt of Action against Speech developed, the more pages were discarded. We should not be surprised if, two centuries later, the civilisation founded on socialist ideas is as radically different from Christian civilisation as Lobachevsky’s geometry is from Euclid’s.
We can think that each era generates its own prejudices, and if faith in sorcery characterised the Middle Ages, the modern era is characterised by blind faith in the magic of science, all the more understandable given that science has obtained absolutely tangible results. The idea of a utopian society managed to inspire thinkers for millennia, much like other obsessions – the perpetuum mobile or the philosopher’s stone –, but only the successes of science managed to incite a social experiment. Science can do anything, and in particular it can create conditions of existence capable of making man perfect. Scholars, naturally, were the least inclined to the vast generalisations that students and philosophers dedicated themselves to. This is how absolutely scientific observations demonstrating the empirical nature of the human mind were used as proof, during the Enlightenment, of the original equality of men, although such a conclusion in no way follows from the observations in question.
Indeed, Enlightenment thinkers, whether moderates or otherwise, started from the conviction that human reason is a blank slate that experience fills in. As a result, men were all assumed to be born free, be it in a royal family or among bedraggled vagabonds, and their ulterior experience was to lead them to different results. What we are talking about here is not so much professional habitus, general culture or the elegance of one’s manners, but instead about moral profile and the formation of personality. Or rather, all of this is taken together as a unique process of filling in the “blank slate”. Therefore, for Rousseau, man is good by nature, and it is society that makes him bad. By judiciously choosing favourable external conditions – education –, you can create a society of sublimely virtuous individuals.
Such a society, we are assured, existed in the past, at the dawn of humanity, when men obeyed the laws of nature, being themselves a part of nature. Do we even need to add that they knew nothing of domination over one another, nor of wealth, poverty and violence? To return to this felicitous condition, it is paramount to destroy the inequality and injustice that have appeared in the meantime and especially their source: private property.
All the Enlightenment thinkers certainly did not share such an extreme point of view. Locke, for example, was even a fierce advocate of private property and did not see in it the fatal source of inequality. But, as we have said above, it is the most logical opinions that set movements in motion. And it is Rousseau, with his preaching of “general will”, to which one must sacrifice all one’s individual rights in order to build an absolutely happy society, who was the precursor of scientific socialism. In its relations with its constituents, the State takes control of all their goods.
Hence, the philosophers of the French Revolution were inspired by the most radical ideas of their encyclopaedist teachers, sometimes pushing them to absurdity. Helvétius, who had an enormous influence both on his contemporaries and in posterity, already believed that all individual differences are due to differences of education. According to him, talents and inclination were the effect of teaching, and genius is simply a game of chance. If Shakespeare, he tells us, had not been caught for poaching, he would have ended up as a wool merchant.
In any case, this idea is no more absurd than the representation of man as a blank slate. It is difficult to separate the development of talents from the formation of personality, and “genius” from other character traits. You must admit that the inculcation of the “characteristic traits of the builder of communism” in an entire people and for seventy years is no less absurd a pastime than attempting to elevate the national literature by organising search parties against poachers. Over the course of these seventy years, or the life of three generations, proclivities and the spirit of property have been combatted in all sorts of ways, lawful or otherwise, from prison and the execution block to the material motivation of the most disinterested individuals. And then what? According to the estimations of Soviet economists, the value of the black market has now reached ninety billion roubles, or 15 percent of the GDP, and the number of clandestine millionaires is certainly no fewer than several thousand. Nevertheless, there are plenty of people on this planet who suppose that private property is the source of all evil and its abolition, or at least the suppression of the inequality of its distribution, would ennoble humanity.
But enough about property! Name a single country where schoolteachers do not believe they are engaged in a good deed when they inculcate elementary truths about honesty and hard work to their students, or lawyers do not defend their clients by invoking their difficult childhood! As a general rule, neither one nor the other remember the doctrine from which these convictions emerged, just as socialists probably do not remember either. The prejudice remains incarnate in social structures, habits, sometimes in entire countries.
It is curious that science, which originally did so much to spread these prejudices, quite quickly came to opposite conclusions. Nowadays, physiology itself no longer defends the empirical nature of perception, and insists instead on mechanisms of centralised control of the process or, in simpler terms, on the fact that we perceive selectively what we want to perceive. Some observations on identical twins, separated at birth, have demonstrated a stunning resemblance in tastes, inclinations, talents and even minute character traits, decades later. Neither archaeologists nor historians have found any trace of the golden age in the most ancient civilisations known to us. There is no need to restrict ourselves to our era because Darwin’s theory of evolution, welcomed by socialists as the very latest triumph of reason, rigorously refutes the idea of the natural equality of men. Indeed, natural selection is impossible if differences between adults are entirely defined by education.
However, all this passed unnoticed, or at least did not impress those who just cannot wait to build the perfect human city. Even nowadays, when schoolchildren are asked to know the basics of genetics, a group of feminist scholars in Berkeley ran experiments with the objective of proving that differences in behaviour between men and women is the result of education. Over the course of several years, they kept a group of new-borns of both sexes in rigorously equal conditions, dressing them in the same clothes, making them play with the same toys, making them sing the same songs. You can easily guess the results: the little girls did not notice anything growing on their bodies, nor did the boys notice anything dropping, the former sought out dolls, while the latter sought out toy soldiers. What phenomenal force of attraction must the idea of natural equality possess for an American university to run such experiments at the end of the 20th century? In reality, it is an indestructible dream. Not long ago, in a jungle in the Philippines, a rogue explorer “discovered” a primitive tribe whose language had no words for weapons, enemy or war. The whole world immediately believed this fable. Even a journal as serious as National Geographic published a story about this find. The scam was revealed only later, after the ousting of Marcos, who the crook happened to be a friend of.
Should we be surprised that the dreamers of the 18th and 19th centuries were even less inclined to perceive reality? Genetics had not been invented yet, and scholars had yet to agree on the heredity of acquired character. Of course, there were already identical twins back then, who can be observed without any special apparatus, and who are far less difficult to study than social revolutions are to carry out. If Marx or Lenin had directed their energy towards twins instead, perhaps humanity would have escaped many a calamity. The task must have seemed too modest to them compared with the fabrication of scientific socialism.
Everything in its own time and to every era its own heroes. In our hyper pragmatist century, educated people pull a face at the very word of “concept”: do forgive the vagueness, my dear sirs! Let us have a good look at the facts. What is valued nowadays are mechanisms, models and functions. A century and a half ago, any self-respecting academic, like Kant or Hegel, aimed for nothing less than a global system designed to explain everything, rigorously, from the macrocosm to the microcosm, thanks to a single concept.
One must recognise that if, in lieu of God the Creator, we are dealing with a process of development, then it is only right to work out its laws with as much care as ancient metaphysics took to study the nature of deities. So be it! We will admit that there was never a Word of God, but surely there must be some little word at the origin of creation! If Newton discovered the laws of physics and Darwin the laws of the evolution of species, why would the evolution of human societies not have laws too?
The person who wishes to create perfect men must know exactly the conditions and the results that derive from them and elaborate the chain of conditions with the utmost precaution, for fear of consequences that would stun Doctor Frankenstein himself. This is how one can easily end up rounding up poachers who then become poets, who, as we know, Plato banishes from his ideal city. Let us talk about the likes of Fourier and their phalansteries or Owen and their cooperatives! What is needed is a scientific basis, exact knowledge of the social process valid for centuries and allowing one to calculate the tiniest particle of existence with as much rigour as for celestial mechanics. How should we move from the exploitation of work for profit to an inspired labour destined to bring happiness to society? Could we manage it by sticking to exhortations or by calling upon people’s conscience?
Let us not get into the detail of the debates between philosophers and socialists of the time, indeed we certainly do not have the intention of writing a detailed history of Marxism. Today, people do not properly understand the nature and the stakes of this debate. We do not properly understand this faith in the inevitability of progress, in the laws of history and the even stronger faith in the omnipotence of science. The quarrel between materialism and idealism, so important back then, has been completely emptied of its meaning, and to understand the reasons that drove Marx to “put Hegel back on his feet”, one would have to scratch away for many, many pages. In vulgar terms, if Hegel recognised the laws of dialectics only in the work of the mind, of thought, Marx and others extended the domain of dialectics to all of nature, to the entire “material” world, because, according to them, thought is only the reflection of processes common to all of nature.
It is pleasing to notice that a similar method was used by the Scholastics to demonstrate the existence of God. And, by the way, if thought is only a reflection of reality, where did this tenacious idea of God come from, that appeared among all men of all people throughout history?
Nowadays, such demonstrations obviously seem fantastical. The more we learn, the more we become sceptical, preferring to express hypotheses in terms of probability, and the figure of Sisyphus, since Camus, has significantly dampened our historical optimism. The thinkers of yesteryear still fought the Bible, and, in their desire to emancipate reason from the chains of religion, they failed to notice that they ended up submitting reason to the diktat of “objective laws of development”. And if, for Dostoevsky, “without God everything is permitted”, it is quite the contrary for Marx, for whom “freedom is the consciousness of necessity”. From this point of view, Marx’s “dialectic materialism” marked the clearest primacy of Action over Speech, which guaranteed it the approval of his contemporaries.
Translated from French by Arthur Beard.
The New Faust
Frankly speaking, I don't like Faust, nor any of his ugly breed. Externally, especially on a person of little experience, they can produce a strong impression, because they speak loudly, with conviction, even intelligently, although a little too loud, in a voice trembling with contained passion. Their monologues (for they are accustomed to speaking in monologues, even in the midst of a conversation) are usually devoted to high matters, to pan-historic and universally human problems, without condescending to dealing with earthly, mundane things, refusing, so to speak, of getting dirty in contact with practical things. On the other hand, on the global level which they operate on, they are unmatched in denouncing our weaknesses and our imperfections, nor in the art of discovering the surest solution to any issue. How not to be seduced by the brilliance of their mind, the breadth of their erudition and the nobility of their thought? They have an irresistible effect on young ladies and adolescents.
However, looking more closely, we begin to realize that their knowledge is rather superficial, their nobility — too global, their inclination to apply their theories to living, concrete people — too small, and their absent-mindedness of scientists, their lack of practicality, the simplicity — even the self-neglect — of their clothing, are less the result of disinterested thought or of hard work of the intellect and more a deficiency of their practical sense, a form of sterility, or terror in the face of real life. A kind of camouflage hiding the interior of a parasite. Their entourage, however, are convinced that they cannot let a man of this caliber go unnoticed.
What a brilliant man who gave us such a vivid picture of how the world should be reconstructed, but who is incapable of driving a nail or earning enough to buy a pair of shoes! It is we, of course, who will drive his nails and buy him shoes. Anyway, let's see, he can do anything, but he judges certain things below his dignity. He was born for great works, for global solutions. His task is to "set hearts ablaze with the fire of the Word" while we will carry out his grandiose designs, feed him and clothe him during his lifetime, and erect monuments for him after his death.
In short, I don't like Faust. I don't believe that a man unable to afford shoes can rebuild the world. I remember that during my school years, while studying Tolstoy, I was indescribably annoyed by Pierre Bezoukhov. Here was another one who was devoured by his noble feelings. He must have owned about five hundred thousand serfs, and he dreamed of liberating all mankind. He should have freed the serfs, given them a decent life and saw how this is done. But that was too difficult. Instead, preferred to tackle the task of reconstructing the world. If it's so hard to rebuild the lives of half a million men, why would it be easier to reform the whole world? If one is incapable of remaking oneself, why approach others with this task?
Let us take another hero of Russian literature: Tchatsky. Throughout the play, he does nothing but run around the salons in order to accuse everyone there in a stern tone. For sure — the inhabitants of these salons were unappetizing people, rather dirty people, to be frank. But then why lecture them? If this company is not to your liking, find another one. What profit is there in going to visit them every day to tell them that they are bad people? Well, no, he doesn't do anything else throughout the play. It is only at the end that he decides to move away.
It was the Tchatski and the Bezoukhov who subsequently descended on the Senate Square. Loud cries, loud noises, mutual encouragement to act. Enough words, they said. "Freedom! To the people!" Once in the Square, they stayed there all day long, waiting to be dispersed.
Isn't that admirable: on the one hand our Faust despises words, celebrates action, and on the other he is incapable of acting, but understands how to deliver sublime speeches. There is nothing surprising: deep inside they feel they are demiurges, creating by the force of their words the dry land and the depths of the water. The word is their action. Each of them believes in the power of his word as wizards of the Middle Ages believed in the power of his incantations. It is up to others to act: to those to whom they address their words. To put it plainly, each Faust is in search of his Devil.
It is evident that most of them are completely harmless to mankind, and that, without having done anything remarkable, they usually find themselves a peaceful and devoted companion prone to self-sacrifice (among the young girls formerly intoxicated by their words), a narrow circle of admirers; in short — a microcosm where they are masters of thought. The woman, of course, raises the children, lets herself be absorbed by the household, does her best to stretch a meager family budget (without the slightest protest, of course), and the friends-admirers make small donations of money in a hiding place, while Faust is busy composing a great work which this time will not fail to shake humanity and remake the world. It's a good bet that the work in question will never be completed, but all these little people seem to live only for a great goal, in contact with immortality and ready to sacrifice themselves to it. A pious silence reigns in the house, the children walk on tiptoe, while God the Father dozes over his manuscript. "Children, silence, daddy is working." And the mother's eyes shine with indestructible fidelity to the ideal.
The matter becomes rather different if our Faust gets hold of his Devil. This is something that can happen either during his lifetime, or posthumously, thanks to the great work that friends-admirers do not fail to publish as a subscription publication after his death. This vast work could have collected dust on he shelves of a library for dozens of years, but as soon as some young Devil grabs hold of it, we see such a merry-go-round round begin to rotate, such a mayhem being to unfold, that we begin to wish all the fires of hell upon all the Fausts.
There is no use pretending. Of the two, the Devil has much more sympathy from me. He is cynical and realistic (there is no harm in that), a hard worker, he doesn’t balk at doing any kind of messy work as long as it achieves its goal. And above all, he does not deny his faults, does not shirk his responsibilities and with the greatest patience endures the curses incumbent on him eternally. Besides, are his faults as great as we usually think they are? He is simply slandered by claims that he disfigures all the noble designs of Faust out of malice.
Take a closer look and you will see that he never or in any way dodges the assigned task and that he does not add anything of his own. On the contrary, one could perhaps accuse him of excessive dogmatism, of servile docility to the words of Faust. It is quite true that he pays little attention to Faust's words. It is also true that he pays little attention to the means, and he is not too scrupulous, but Faust himself is convinced that the expenses of the company are largely compensated by the majesty of the result. In any case, he never corrects the Devil, never tells him how to do things, but simply tells him what to do. And he does well: because the Devil is not God, he cannot work miracles, he is only conscientiously carrying out projects conceived elsewhere. It is not his fault that the world is so imperfect and the grandiose purpose fails to come true. You cannot enforce a nail without making a hole in the wall. Or omelet without breaking the eggs. Even the Devil is incapable of that.
Notice that the Devil constantly apologizes, does not deny his faults, although, I repeat, they are not so terrible. But what about Faust? He acts the opposite way. He seduces a very young girl, goes berserk with her brother, poisons her mother, yet he is not guilty! Everyone is guilty around him, except for him. First of all this poor Devil (but he, Faust, did not know who he was dealing with), then the rotten society (Faust doesn’t what kind of world he lives in), finally his very victim, the unfortunate woman who did not flee (though he slips away and leaves her alone to face the judgment).
Without speaking of the obscurantists of the Middle Ages, even the civil court of Moscow would have condemned this with all the severity of socialist legislation. But he, you see, he dreamed of a sublime life and therefore did not have to assume responsibility for the consequences. Maybe he could have stayed with the little girl, taken the blame? As if! He goes off with the Devil to continue his escapades elsewhere.
Frankly speaking, I am not so irritated by Faust as by our tradition which always justifies him and accuses the Devil of all evils. We are ready to give all the credit to narcissistic talkers, who are the bulwark of our love of freedom, akin terrorists who barricade themselves behind their hostages. It is time to recognize each idea for what it is, the harm it can cause, and use common sense while doing it. The inhabitants of “the quarter of the crows" whipped thinker Vassissouali Lokhankine without harming the rest of the world and its freedom to think. For his absent-mindedness and his egoism his “tender parts” received quite a few lashes and just as well. You have the right to be a daydreamer, but at your own expense, and you should turn off the light in the toilet you share with other tenants. Why should those around him have to pay the cost of his deep thoughts?
Why persecute the Devil? He is only a technician, an expert serving the political commissar Faust. On his own, he would never have started digging. His fault is infinitely less serious, as is that of the executioner acting on an erroneous verdict, if we compare it to the crime of the judge who pronounced the judgment. Would Stavrogin and Verkhovensky therefore be less guilty than Fedka the convict? And would those who invented the "final solution" be less responsible than Eichmann?
In this area, our traditions are thoughtless and excessively unjust. Why? Because they were invented by other Fausts — masters of thought and legislators of intellectual fashions. The devil? He is not a master writer and he is not inclined to produce monologues. Perhaps in his old age, at odds with the entire world, he will undertake to write his memoirs in proud solitude, with little chance of seeing them finished. While we are raising monuments to Faust while cursing the Devil!
The trouble is that, unlike in the Middle Ages when the Fausts were few and far between and, therefore, less destructive, Europe at the end of the 19th century saw their breed multiply to the point of aversion. They became a real social class over there, and in Russia they became a social catastrophe. The human herd is not very pleasant, but imagine a herd of Fausts, the least of which is God the Father, no less, the Truth residing in one person, and a well of knowledge. Should we be surprised by their extreme intolerance, or their hatred for each other, or their tireless struggle sometimes pushed to the extent of intellectual horror? One of them, a keen observer with a sharp tongue, described the mores of this fauna a hundred years ago:
My soul sat hungry at their table too long; I am not, like them, trained to pursue knowledge as if it were nut-cracking. I love freedom and the air over the fresh earth; rather would I sleep on ox hides than on their decorums and respectabilities.
I am too hot and scorched with mine own thought: often is it ready to take away my breath. Then have I to go into the open air, and away from all dusty rooms.
But they sit cool in the cool shade: they want in everything to be merely spectators, and they avoid sitting where the sun burneth on the steps.
Like those who stand in the street and gape at the passers-by: thus do they also wait, and gape at the thoughts which others have thought.
Should one lay hold of them, then do they raise a dust like flour-sacks, and involuntarily: but who would divine that their dust came from corn, and from the yellow delight of the summer fields?
When they give themselves out as wise, then do their petty sayings and truths chill me: in their wisdom there is often an odour as if it came from the swamp; and verily, I have even heard the frog croak in it!
Clever are they - they have dexterous fingers: what doth my simplicity pretend to beside their multiplicity! All threading and knitting and weaving do their fingers understand: thus do they make the hose of the spirit!
Good clockworks are they: only be careful to wind them up properly! Then do they indicate the hour without mistake, and make a modest noise thereby.
Like millstones do they work, and like pestles: throw only seed-corn unto them!- they know well how to grind corn small, and make white dust out of it.
They keep a sharp eye on one another, and do not trust each other the best. Ingenious in little artifices, they wait for those whose knowledge walketh on lame feet, - like spiders do they wait.
I saw them always prepare their poison with precaution; and always did they put glass gloves on their fingers in doing so.
They also know how to play with false dice; and so eagerly did I find them playing, that they perspired thereby.
This endless internal quarrel is in no way an obstacle to the cohesive defense of the interests of their "corporation", of its authority, or of the dominant idea of the moment or rather of intellectual fashion. More particularly — defense of the indestructible dream of all the Fausts of all times and all countries who intend to rebuild the world on "reasonable" bases. Disagreements are then put aside to form a united front against the enemies of reason and progress.
It was the same with our Russian swindlers, spiritual children of "useless men" (useless, apparently, not because there was a lack of work to do in the country, but because these men did not know how to do anything other than to pronounce exterminating monologues) which matched their European counterparts in pretension and resentment.
To their chagrin, our Tsarist obscurantists did not want to listen to them and rebuild society in the latest fashion. From despair they put on their traditional bark slippers and went "to the people" to preach there the idea of socialism which their masters thought was inherent in the Russian people. The people, however, received them as blatantly "useless" men, saw them as sated and capricious gentlemen, and handed them over to the police everywhere. Others, more humble, would have reflected on this failure and would have concluded that it was necessary to revise their ideas, since the government as the society had unanimously rejected them.
It would have taken an ounce of humility to do that. But now we had an "elite" which had proclaimed itself public opinion. And which had less ideas than reveries and dreams borrowed from Vera Pavlovna, all steeped in foreign schools of thought, the bitter fruit of pretentious knowledge, imported from hazy Germany by a mysterious verb, so they decided that progressive ideas were not to be questioned: it was necessary to attack the backwardness and the lack of culture of the people which needed to be “awakened”, and the obscurantism of the autocracy which had to be destroyed.
Revolution thus appeared as the only way out and became the idee fixe of our thinkers. From modern liberals who saw in it the "purifying storm" charged with atoning for their own original sin, to the terrorists who only considered it the first step to be taken in building an ideal society, all the educated flock dreamed of a revolution. Several generations were brought up on this nonsense and on a mystical faith in the people — not the people who handed the troublemakers over to the police, but in a certain people, other, "spontaneously socialist", which only asked to be "woken up".
The Tsars, however, carried out liberal reforms, developed industry, expanded railways. It was all bad, all in vain. They needed the revolution, otherwise they would remain "useless".
They ended up waking up the people, to their own peril. Everyone happened to be wrong except for them: the "people", to begin with, who refused to become sufficiently socialized, then the tsars, who were not reformist enough. National history was ungrateful, the country deplorable, too slow to evolve. Once again they accused each other of "deformations" or "deviations", without ever questioning their own idea of "reasonable reconstruction" of society or the social class which had given birth to it. They remained just thinkers, concerned with the happiness of this poor humanity.
I hear from a jovial growl: "It is Russian barbarism, Russian intolerance, the peculiarities of Russian history. We ,civilized Europeans, have had our own socialists, and our socialism is moderate.” No doubt: the Fausts will always be hiding behind the backs of the Devils.
The Political Condition of the Soviet Union
The Crisis of Ideology
The imminent downfall of the Soviet regime has been announced in the West almost every decade since the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd seventy years ago. Indeed, by the standards of the Western democracies they were always in deep crisis in the sense similar to that of traditional Marxist-Leninist teaching, which states that “the world crisis of capitalism is historically predetermined.” But, apparently, whatever the problem of a given society, it does not become “crisis” unless it is perceived as such by those who matter. Consider these examples:
The loss of some 50,000 American lives in Vietnam created a national crisis, while comparable Soviet losses in Afghanistan seem to cause little concern in Moscow;
At the same time, the Kremlin perceived as real threats to the Soviet system such “trifles” as a relaxation of political censorship in Czechoslovakia and the appearance of a new trade union in Poland;
Communist takeovers in Southeast Asia and in several African and Central American countries left the American public quite indifferent, while a minor episode with hostages in Iran became a turning point in the American political mood;
Mass unemployment during the Great Depression shook the foundations of American society while, at the same time, several millions were starved to death in the Soviet Ukraine without any awareness of a crisis.
Clearly, “those who matter” in the United States do not matter at all in the Soviet Union, and vice versa. In a country where every life is supposed to be dedicated to a long-term ideological goal — the worldwide triumph of socialism over capitalism — the short-term well-being of the people means nothing. In the Soviet system, a crisis can only mean a serious challenge to the fundamental principles upon which the regime was built — described by the terminology of MarxismLeninism. Richard Pipes (1) is probably closer to the truth than he suspects when he ironically describes the current Soviet situation using Lenin’s definition of a “revolutionary situation”:
“for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realize the impossibility of living in the old way, … it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way.” (2)
Of course, Lenin’s “revolutionary situation” does not necessarily mean a revolution exists, only the possibility of one. The outcome will depend heavily on the degree of “impossibility” of living and ruling in the old way, as well as upon the rulers’ ability to reform. However, “those who matter” in the USSR already clearly perceive the existence of a Soviet crisis. In his speech to the Plenary Session of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) Central Committee in April 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev ruled out any alternative except radical changes in the Soviet economy:
“The historical destiny of our country and the position of socialism in the modem world will largely depend on the direction we take now…. There is simply no other way.” (3)
But there are no starving crowds or dead bodies along the roads, no riots or clashes with the police, virtually nothing to show or hide on the evening news. Nonetheless, the stagnation of production and general backwardness of the Soviet economy has threatened the cause of socialism in the world. The hard-earned advantage in the “correlation of forces” may be lost to “world capitalism.”
The current crisis and its implications for internal developments in the Soviet Union are described by Prof. Zaslavskaya in her famous “Novosibirsk Document” (4) in unusually frank and clear Marxist-Leninist expressions. This influential scholar — Gorbachev uses many of her definitions in his speeches — sees the cause of the Soviet economic problems in “the lagging of the system of production relations, and hence of the mechanism of state management of the economy which is its reflection, behind the level of development of the productive forces.”
Lest somebody might have doubts, Zaslavskaya quotes a classic Marxist formula describing what actually happens in a time of contradiction between productive forces and the system of production relations: “There ensues either a period of acute socioeconomic and political cataclysms within the given formation, which modify and readjust production relations to the new mode of production, or there comes an epoch of a general crisis of the given social formation and of its downfall caused by a social revolution.”
Nor should we believe that the socialist formation is a miraculous exception to this general rule; “attempts at improving production relations, bringing them into greater correspondence with the new demand of productive forces, … cannot run their course without conflict.”
So, the Soviet people should brace for a new spell of class struggle in their classless society — or a struggle of “interest groups,” as Zaslavskaya tactfully calls them —because “radical reorganization of economic management essentially affects the interests of many social groups, to some of which it promises improvements, but to others a deterioration in their position.” And no class (or “interest group”) in history has been known to give up its position without a struggle.
Not surprisingly, Zaslavskaya becomes vague and inconsistent, even evasive, when she defines the “social group” whose interests are antagonistic to the goal of social progress, and whose position, therefore, must “deteriorate” in the forthcoming class struggle. She speaks about an “intermediate link of the management” that has acquired more rights and responsibilities than those on the top and at the bottom; and about some bureaucrats on the top who do not want to have more responsibilities requiring better professional qualifications than they have. She mentions some officials who “occupy comfortable positions with high income and vaguely defined responsibilities,” and she describes the general tendency of the Soviet system to reward the docile rather than the more gifted and efficient.
However, a description of general human characteristics and tendencies cannot substitute for a clearly defined social group that, in Marxist terms, shows similar economic interests and occupies a certain place in the production relations. She comes close to naming this mysterious group when she says that the “central element in the system of production relations is the dominant form of ownership of the means of production” — a classic Marxist formula. Should she go a bit further and name the culprit, she would not be an influential Soviet scholar anymore, but a dissident, because every schoolboy in the Soviet Union knows that under socialism the means of production belong to the Communist Party apparatus, acting on behalf of the “proletariat.”
This is exactly the “interest group” — or “new class,” as Milovan Djilas called it long ago — the bureaucrats who occupy comfortable positions, with high incomes and vaguely defined responsibilities, who reward the docile instead of the gifted, and whose interests are opposed to a radical reorganization of economic management. When Zaslavskaya speaks about the need to shift from “administrative methods to economic means of management”; and when Gorbachev, echoing her, speaks about the need for more “independence and rights” to be given to the enterprises; when he, finally, says that “it is impossible to achieve any tangible results in any sphere of activity as long as a Party official substitutes for a manager…” (5) one has little doubt whose interests must be affected by this reorganization.
The emerging dilemma is truly paradoxical: If the Party retains its control over the economy, the cause of socialism will be endangered and finally lost. If, however, the Party loses its control over the economy, it will thereby lose its control over Soviet society, and there will be no cause of socialism in our world.
If the inevitable end of socialism can be predicted by the implacable logic of Marxist-Leninist analysis, then, indeed, we are witnessing a crisis of the system.
The Soviet State: Dual Structure, Dual Purpose
The Soviet state emerged as the first compromise between revolutionary ideology and reality, a compromise the communists had to make in order to survive.
As soon as the Bolshevik victory within the borders of the former Russian empire had been secured, it was obvious the rest of the world was not going to follow the example. There was not a single sign that the world socialist revolution was soon to come. Attempts in Hungary, Germany, and Italy failed. An attempt to speed up the “historically inevitable process” by invading Poland also failed miserably: the Red Army was defeated, while Polish proletarians rallied behind their bourgeois government instead of revolting and joining forces with their Russian brothers.
Everywhere in postwar Europe, economic conditions were gradually stabilized. Even Lenin had to admit by 1921 that the world proletarian revolution had been “delayed.” This was a major defeat for Lenin personally and for the cause of socialism in general.
For Lenin it was a failure of his own pet theory, his main contribution to Marxism, according to which Russia was merely a “weak link” in the chain of world capitalism, and the Russian Revolution was to serve as a trigger for a general revolution in Europe, particularly in the industrially developed countries. His personal authority was thus at stake; the October Revolution was his personal gamble, initially opposed by almost all of his colleagues. The question remained: was it just an adventure or the beginning of a new era?
The longer the new era was delayed, the less likely it was to occur. A long shadow of a doubt was cast on the true nature of the Russian Revolution. If it was a real socialist revolution as predicted by Marx, it was bound to be repeated in all developed capitalist countries “within the reasonably near future”; (6) it would signify a real historical change, as had been true of the change from feudalism to capitalism, and from slavery to feudalism before that.
The whole edifice of Marxism started to crumble right in front of the victorious proletarians, who believed in it as a religion, and who had just destroyed their country to achieve their victory, murdering a few million people in the process. The question remained: was it just a slaughter, or would history justify the casualties?
It was even worse for the cause of socialism because its very survival appeared threatened: “For our victory to be secure and lasting, we must achieve victory for the proletarian revolution in all, or at least a few, of the main capitalist countries,” said Lenin at that time. (7) Otherwise, the “class enemies,” both outside and inside, could be expected to seize the opportunity of “strangling socialism in its cradle.”
The internal “class enemy” was already rearing its head all over the country. Peasants were in revolt against the “war communism” policy. Sailors and proletarians followed in Kronstadt and Petrograd. The country, still overwhelmingly agrarian, had been virtually ruined by civil war. Fortunately for the cause of socialism, the external class enemies showed less interest in finishing it off, “because the capitalist world is progressively decaying and increasingly disunited.’’ (8)
So sure were communists of the forthcoming world revolution that they did not try even to anticipate any of these problems, let alone to prepare a workable program. Even the most fundamental problems had not been discussed among theoreticians because “for a Marxist, relying on European revolution is a must.” (9)
Needless to say, there could be no way back and the revolutionary ideology could not be abandoned. Instead, Lenin proclaimed a new policy “of switching from a strategy of assault to one of a siege.” (10) “We are in the position of people who have to keep retreating in order, in the end, to seize the offensive.” (11)
Internally, it was the New Economic Policy (NEP); externally it was “peaceful coexistence,” diplomatic relations, and even concessions to foreign capitalists, which, Lenin insisted, did not mean “making peace with capitalism.”
Indeed, it was not peace. First, the Communist International declared “that fate [of the revolution] in the West would depend entirely on the progress and strength of the revolutionary movement in the Eastern [colonial] countries,” (12) a view accepted by Lenin. Basically, the idea was that the surplus value stolen from the workers of colonial and dependent countries, plus the plunder of the natural resources of those countries, had allowed the developed capitalist countries to bribe their workers, thus aborting the original Marxist scenario. Since that time, the main thrust of the Soviet revolutionary efforts has been directed to the Third World, creating a huge machinery of subversion with its own logic and dynamics.
Second, because of their fabled inability to unite, the capitalist states offered the Soviet regime an opportunity to exploit their own “contradictions.” In particular, it became possible to conduct a dual policy, one through official diplomatic channels, another through the Comintern. As Lenin stated it: “We must declare our wish for immediate resumption of diplomatic relations with the capitalist countries — on the basis of complete noninterference in their internal affairs.… In fact, they will be beside themselves with joy, will throw open their doors to us — and in will march our Comintern agents and Party spies to infiltrate their countries, dressed up as diplomatic, cultural, and trade representatives.” (13)
The Comintern developed into a huge machinery of disinformation and subversion, as indispensable for the cause of socialism as the “revolution in the East.”
Although these changes helped Lenin overcome what he called “the biggest internal political crisis Soviet Russia ever faced,” (14) more fundamental problems continued to haunt the Soviet system long after his death.
Central to these problems is an inherent contradiction between the state and a revolutionary ideology. Socialism promises a complete elimination of class structure and, therefore, elimination of the state as an “instrument of class oppression.” There would be no crime and no police, no army, and no national borders in the perfect society, no private property and inequality. How is this possible in a single underdeveloped, predominantly agrarian country, encircled by powerful capitalist states? According to Lenin’s own theory, the state is supposed to “die out” under socialism; yet its power must grow in order to survive and to promote revolution in the world.
The state is interested in increasing productivity; yet the ideology demands elimination of inequality and imposes a principle of reward through collective social benefits, as well as strict central control of the economy.
The state must establish good relations with other countries, particularly if one expects to attract foreign investments. It needs stability in the world and stability in its foreign relations; yet ideology seeks to subvert them by spreading revolution and turmoil.
The state needs the development of science, culture, and education to compete in the world market; but its ideology recognizes the universal values and declares science and culture to be class-oriented, serving the interests of the ruling class. It rejects bourgeois culture and must protect the population from its influence.
The state needs calm and stability, a governmental structure and order, a just system of law, and citizens’ conformity to it, while ideology pushes to keep the “masses” in a revolutionary fervor, expecting world revolution as an advent of eternal happiness. Being a revolutionary force, it cannot rule by law, which is based on recognition of at least some inalienable rights of its subjects, but only by coercion. Its purpose is to remake man into a new creature, Homo Sovieticus.
In short, communist ideology was created to destroy (and later rebuild) the world, not to compete or coexist within it. A “socialist state” is thus a contradiction in terms, which ultimately can never be reconciled.
The contemporary Soviet state has evolved precisely out of these contradictions, according to dialectical laws.
The new system of government was proclaimed a “dictatorship of the proletarians,” which in practical terms meant a dictatorship of the “advance-guard of the proletarians — of the Communist Party — ruling on behalf of the proletarians. By that time the proletarians — industrial workers and poor peasants — constituted barely 10 percent of the population, while the Party members constituted about 10 percent of the proletarians. (15) Leaving aside the terror needed for such a tiny minority to rule dictatorially, partocracy (16) became the only solution to resolve contradiction.
Thus, there is always a Party “shadow government” — the Central Committee the CPSU and its respective departments — which oversees and works in accordance with ideology behind the backs of all other governmental institutions. And a network of Party cells penetrates every institution, from top to bottom, in order to guarantee that each Party directive will be carried out to the letter.
The Foreign Ministry of the USSR, like the foreign ministry of any normal state, is preoccupied with its professional duties of maintaining relations with other states, promoting trade, negotiating agreements, and, in general, advancing Soviet state national interests. At the same time, the International Department of the Central Committee promotes world revolution everywhere, making sure that the interests of communist ideology are given priority over any consideration of normal diplomacy.
The Ministry of Education is concerned with preparing specialists in every sphere of activity, but its counterpart in the Central Committee is concerned with making a good builder of communism out of every student. And the Central Committee’s task gets priority when it comes to promotions and appointments, ideological content of educational programs, etc.
The Ministry of Defense is supposed to be concerned with defense of the country and with training good soldiers and officers. But a parallel department the Central Committee, acting through the Chief Political Directorate of the Army, makes sure that these soldiers are good Soviet soldiers, the liberators of humanity from the chains of capitalism.
The Ministry of Culture is supposed to attend to the promotion of arts, literature, and entertainment. But it is subordinate to the Department of Propaganda the Central Committee, which ensures that its real concern is effective propaganda for communist ideology. Accordingly, it became a ministry of political censorship, weeding out “wrong” tendencies and promoting the “right” ones. There is no such thing as “culture,” only “socialist culture” and “bourgeois culture.”
Even the intelligence service, apart from its “normal” duties of collecting military and strategic information about potential enemies, has a task of ideological subversion: disinformation, organization of mass movements, “liberation movements,” international terrorism, drug smuggling, etc. — in short, the organization of any activity that might destabilize, confuse, or scare the external world into submission. Internally, it evolved into a powerful secret police force.
This dual structure, established in every sphere of life, on all levels — national. district, regional, local, with vertical and horizontal subordination — is a perfect instrument of control and an ideal system of government for the dual purposes of Soviet state: to maintain socialism within and to spread it without. For the Soviet state is not a traditional state: it is the material and operational base of the world socialist revolution. Internally, it maintains a regime of occupation; externally, a state of permanent ideological war. One is impossible without the other.
Ideological Warfare Backed by Military Power
As much as a “socialist state” is a contradiction in terms, the Soviet man, a kind of a “revolutionary conformist,” is also an irreconcilable contradiction. This new humanoid, Homo Sovieticus, is supposed to be seething with revolutionary zeal while working, resting, rearing children, or waiting for five years for a flat to live in. He must be filled with ever-consuming “class hatred” toward the American capitalists, while observing the governmental villas and the party bosses’ limousines, or while waiting in line to get a pound of rotten potatoes.
Clearly, such states of mind can be maintained only in a completely isolated country, where people do not know their own history and cannot communicate with each other except through official channels. Yet, it is impossible to live and compete with the outside world, let alone spread the revolution across the globe, if the country is totally isolated. It must be a kind of “semiconductor,” which exchanges lies about Soviet life for lies about the outside world.
The nation must constantly be kept on the edge of a catastrophe, of a crisis, to make the system work. What can provide that condition better than the permanent threat of war?
Constant hostility to the outside world and a permanent threat of war fit perfectly into communist ideology and its dogma of inevitable class struggle. The basic thesis is simple: the socialist state, which is promoting the liberation of the brother-proletarians in the capitalist world, can only be a deadly threat to the capitalist system. As such, it is a constant target of its plots, aggressive plans, provocations. The Soviet state is not an aggressor, according to this doctrine: it is simply on the side of the exploited masses, who fight for their liberation against their greedy rulers. The mere existence of the socialist state (and, particularly, its every success, whether a huge construction project or fulfillment of a five year plan) is a ray of hope for the oppressed proletarians in the capitalist countries and is a threat to the existence of capitalism.
The Soviet people must work hard because each success is a new blow to the common enemy. They must be disciplined. They must not tell the enemy their shortcomings or their secrets. They must be vigilant; and, because the enemy may be nearby, they must inform on each other. They must not relax; they must defend themselves — therefore, their army must be the best. Above all, they have no right to demand justice or equality, mercy or prosperity, until the crisis is over — until, that is, world capitalism has been destroyed.
Such propaganda is administered to every Soviet person, from cradle to grave, through all forms of media, arts, and education. This is a crucial element of the Soviet system, fostering secrecy, mutual suspicion, and the incentive to work for less, while making demands for improvements in material living standards or individual rights illegitimate. The system, finally, turns human beings into ideological warriors. In reality, the system is much more important than the Marxist-Leninist teaching itself, which is ridiculed by people in every walk of life.
To be believable and effective, propaganda must bear some relation to reality. To survive, the Soviet regime needs the constant threat of war, international tension, and certain tangible proofs of its successes in the world conflict.
On the other hand, a world war, particularly a nuclear one, would be a complete disaster for the Soviet system. Let us remember that only months after Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, several million Soviet soldiers had surrendered to the enemy, something totally unprecedented in Russian history and quite out of character for the Russian people. The reason was simple: those conscripted peasants and workers refused to defend the communist regime, with collective farms, purges, and Gulags, even though they knew next to nothing bout the Nazi regime. Needless to say, a war with a democratic country will certainly produce even more defections.
Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Soviet military machine engages in a war with the Western democracies. This could not plausibly be presented as another Great Patriotic War, and the army would probably soon disintegrate. If it advanced into Western Europe, the poor soldiers would see more food and consumer goods than ever before in their lives. All of them would be looting and drinking. None of them would willingly fight or return home.
If NATO were strong enough to prolong such a hypothetical conflict, the Soviet economy would not be able to sustain the military effort. Fear, mass desertion, and an economic collapse, which are bound to happen in a prolonged war with the democratic world, make it extremely unlikely that the Soviet Union would ever try to solve its internal problems through a foreign war.
Even less attractive is the prospect of a nuclear war. If the Soviet system needs anything in the West, it is technology, goods, and credits, not a gigantic stretch of charred earth. Above all, the leadership must fear that even a few nuclear explosions on Soviet territory would finish it by disrupting the system of centralized control over the population. Thus, as long as the West has the will and the means to defend itself, there will be no world war. But there will be no peace, either.
Because the Soviet regime needs the threat of war for its survival, and yet cannot survive an actual war, the purpose of Soviet military might is to project the threat of force, not fight. Then, in the shadow of its force, it can employ its powerful and successful weapon—ideological warfare. The bigger the shadow, the better.
The main principle of the ideological war is to claim sovereignty over your population, and then communicate directly with this population over head of its government. In essence, you pose as protector against an illegitimate, oppressive, or unjust government, and in doing so, you make the government look illegitimate, oppressive, and unjust. This principle implies a two-prong policy: one with the hostile government, another with the population, which is friendly and protective. The object of ideological war is to generate civil war or civil disorder, or to use already existing civil disorders to increase your influence and, finally, to take over the country. A more modest goal might be to create a constituency that will advance your interests. Your objective in this case is to change your neighbor’s policy, to modify his behavior, or even to force certain changes.
Needless to say, the Soviet system is perfectly suited for conducting ideological war. Although the Soviet Union wages this war against the entire noncommunist world, it differs slightly in two large areas; the Democratic Industrial and the Third World. In the 1920s, when it became obvious that the world revolution was “delayed,” the main center of revolutionary activity was shifted to the Third World countries, where ideological war was waged for a kill. Revolutions followed in China, Vietnam, the Middle East, North Africa, etc. There was no need for actual projection of Soviet force, only for help to the indigenous revolutionary movements.
Colonial revolutions have caused considerable trouble in the democratic countries, occasionally bringing an acute political crisis, such as in the United States during the Vietnam war or in France during the liberation of Algeria. These revolutions, nevertheless, never developed into a serious economic crisis of the type predicted by Marx. No increase in class struggle in the metropolis occurred. Meanwhile, most of the world’s colonies gained independence. By that time, the Soviet machinery of “liberation” had acquired its own self-importance and logic. It became a part of the Soviet state and the Soviets’ most effective weapon of foreign policy. Its next operational concept was aimed at several strategically important areas: the Persian Gulf (Ethiopia, Somalia, South Yemen, Afghanistan); Southern Africa (Angola, Mozambique, Namibia); and Mexico and the USA (Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador). It developed useful helpers (Vietnam, Cuba) and clusters of mutually dependent socialist countries. It involved East European satellites in the process. Today the distant colonies are a large part of the socialist world and cannot be “dropped” at will.
Most importantly, they became the only tangible measure of success the Soviet system could produce — the only proof that communist ideology is still correct and world revolution is still in the making. Besides, in the areas of expansion a direct clash with American interests often occurs, producing an additional source of tension and another opportunity to show Soviet superiority over “enemy number one.”
This, of course, is a powerful reminder to the sullen majority back at home that the threat of war is real and that the communist forces are still strong.
This message is especially important for the numerous nationalities of the Soviet empire. War is always a risk, and ideological war is no exception. Countless Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Lithuanians, Estonians, Ukrainians, Armenians — to say nothing of the Eastern Europeans — are watching Soviet adventures in the Third World with great interest: one day the tide of war might turn the other way. (Some of these nations were occupied only recently, during World War II, and armed resistance continued until the early 1950s).
Thus, the Soviet Union seems to be trapped in its own expansionist policy because a collapse of a communist regime anywhere in the world may set an example to many, triggering a chain reaction. Lenin’s own theory seems to turn against his disciples: where is the weak link in the chain of socialist countries: Afghanistan, Poland, or Nicaragua?
And so it goes, a vicious circle: the inherent instability of communist regimes drives them further on, around the world in search of a new target — even though it strains their economy and makes them more vulnerable. (17)
Meanwhile, in Europe, ideological war has been conducted much more modestly. The second strategic decision made by Lenin in 1921 concerned the developed capitalist countries, still the ultimate target though not an immediate one. This strategy called for “peaceful coexistence.” It did not mean, of course, anything like peace in the bourgeois sense. No such nonsense as friendly cooperation and relaxation can really exist between the class enemies. But the revolution was delayed, leaving a backward and half-ruined country facing powerful enemies. The task, therefore, was: a) to neutralize the class enemy, while b) strengthening the country by developing its industry, and c) quietly preparing infrastructures necessary for a forthcoming revolution.
Accordingly, a more mild form of ideological war was selected for Europe: not to foment a civil war, but to organize and strengthen the forces sympathetic to Soviet Russia. Consequently, by the end of 1921, Lenin launched, through the Comintern, a new “United Front” — a broad alliance of revolutionary forces with the nonrevolutionary, “progressive” forces of social democracy, the reformist trade unions, groups of fellow travellers, and “useful idiots” among intellectuals. This was a long-term policy.
On the other hand, capitalists were given broad concessions and long-term trade agreements, on very good conditions, to create a vested capitalist interest in the survival of the Soviet Union. Curiously enough, Lenin viewed it as a purely political ruse: “So, in negotiating the concessions, our own primary interests were political…. The economic aspect was secondary.” (18)
Little did he know at that time how important this “secondary aspect” would later become. Practically every “industrialization” project carried out during the subsequent five-year plans was made possible by imported Western technology. (19) From that time on, Soviet dependence on Western technology and know-how continued to grow until it became a major Soviet vulnerability.
The need for a constant threat of war and international tension — both currently necessary for the Soviet regime’s survival — did not exist in Lenin’s time. Communist ideology was still sufficiently attractive in Europe, and revolutionary zeal had not yet subsided at home. Soviet propaganda about the “capitalist encirclement” and about “class struggle” was still effective. As Lenin remarked:
“So how come that from all our contacts with bourgeois Europe and America, it is always we who have been the gainers and not they? Why always they who have been afraid to send delegations to our country, and not we to send our delegations to theirs? And, from these they have dared to send, we have always managed to lure some of its people (however few) to our way of thinking.” (20)
But as the communist ideas became less attractive, the Soviet population grew more cynical and the Soviet regime had to rely on fear and the threat of war as substitutes for revolutionary zeal and devotion. The European peace movement, organized in the best traditions of the “United Front” and similar infrastructures, is fueled by fear of a nuclear holocaust, not by a sympathy with the cause of socialism. The emergence of nuclear weapons as a new factor in international relations gave an additional dimension to “peaceful coexistence,” with the “struggle for peace” being perceived by the Kremlin as a substitute for “class struggle.” And when the Soviet people watch on their television screens millions of Europeans demanding unilateral nuclear disarmament or protesting against placement of American missiles in Europe, their fears are reinforced and their willingness is strengthened to accept the Soviet regime as a lesser evil than destruction. After all, “better Red than dead” is a far more realistic proposition in the East than in the West.
These changes in the equation of ideological war have occurred since World War II, as the Soviet population and especially the peoples of “liberated” Central Europe lost their belief in the socialist revolution. This myth was destroyed during the war, when millions of Soviet soldiers saw Europe and lived in occupied territories without commissars breathing down their necks. Stalin himself had to admit the complete failure of communist ideology when he appealed to the nation at its most difficult moment in 1941, invoking Russian national tradition and religion and carefully avoiding any socialist phraseology. Throughout the war, anti-Western propaganda was abandoned because of the Great Alliance, while high-quality American goods destroyed all talk about “rotten capitalism.”
On the other hand, the brutal Soviet subjugation of Central Europe has considerably reduced pro-Soviet sympathies in the West. The iron curtain fell, perpetuating the division of Europe. And from that time on, the Soviet regime has had to rely on the fear of its military strength to advance its influence. With the American presence in Europe and, later, with the organization of NATO, this projection of force could work only if it was greater than the American one. Hence, military competition between the United States and the USSR became an important feature of the ideological war. A shift in the balance of power can decide the destiny of Europe, because political behavior will follow the shift: either Western Europeans will impose a “self-occupation” upon themselves, Finnish-style, or the Central Europeans will progress to a Finnish status or beyond. The latter, of course, would begin the Soviet empire’s disintegration.
Accordingly, one final change has occurred in the ideological war: the Soviet regime no longer promises to liberate proletarians from the chains of European capitalists. Instead, it poses as a protector of all Europeans against American imperialism.
To sum up, the survival of the Soviet regime depends today on three permanent factors:
International tension and the threat of war;
Military competition with the West — mostly the United States; and
Expansion in the Third World.
It also depends on Western technology, goods, and credits, without which it cannot continue to compete militarily with the United States, or expand further in the Third World. This dependence has become an unplanned fourth factor that slowly becomes more and more important. To compensate for it, the Soviet Union needs the threat of war more than ever — as the best “export” it can offer in exchange for technology and credits. Thus, Soviet foreign policy must fluctuate from detente to cold war and back. Its cycle works as follows: after reaching a maximum point of tension and deriving all possible advantages from the “struggle for peace,” the Soviet Union “sells” peace to the West for a maximal profit and declares detente. Since the system cannot relax without eroding, it uses this pause to improve its military balance with the West, and expand further in the Third World, thus fostering a new tension. And so on.
Of course, such a fluctuating modus operandi is not perfect. Ideally, the Soviet regime strives to reach absolute superiority, and simply “collect a tax” from the West, under the blackmail of the threat of war. As it is, it continually extends control over a few more countries at a time. However, the decline of the Soviet economy endangers even this imperfect process. Within ten to fifteen years the Soviet Union may become a second-rate power, incapable of military competition with the United States, unable to project its force and, therefore, incapable of generating a plausible threat of war. Collapse of its Third World and, later, European satellites is likely to follow, setting off a chain reaction within the USSR.
The Crisis of the Dual Structure
The dual structure of the Soviet state did not appear overnight, but evolved during 1918-21 Russian Civil War, and the subsequent struggles within the Party. Initially, Party control over the governmental apparatus was justified with the argument that most of the existing functionaries were untrustworthy “class enemies.” During the Civil War, most of the Red Army officers were former czarist officers conscripted by the communists on Trotsky’s urging, to serve as voenspetsy — military experts. Since these officers were fighting their former colleagues in the White Army, instances of “treason” were likely. Therefore, political commissars were appointed to each unit.
The same was true in other spheres of life; old czarist teachers and engineers, although maintaining their posts, were perceived as “class enemies” and mistrusted. The Party was small (estimates show 115,000 members on January 1, 1918; 250,000 in March 1919), and consisted mostly of uneducated people (even by 1927 only 1 percent of them had graduated from universities, 8 percent had basic schooling, while over 25 percent were registered as “self-educated,” and 2 percent were completely illiterate), (21) as benefits a party of proletarians.
The latter point is not a joke, but a very serious contradiction that was never resolved. On the one hand, a party of proletarians ruling on behalf of the working class should include a clear majority of workers in its ranks. So workers “from the factory" were the clear priority in recruitment and enjoyed especially favorable conditions for joining the Party. On the other hand, as soon as they became full members of the Party, they were promoted to leadership on all levels, thus ceasing to be workers. Demand for “real proletarians” in the Party was so great that only complete imbeciles were left without opportunities for advancement. This practice has continued almost until the present, creating an ill-educated and incompetent Party bureaucracy.
In due time most of the old “specialists” were replaced by new “Soviet specialists,” often Party members. Thus, in the army only 4,500 former czarist officers were still serving by 1930 (22) out of 50,000 on duty. The number of Party “specialists” in the governmental apparatus increased from 5 percent in 1923 to 20 percent in 1927. But the practice of Party “control” through political commissars created conflict between the more competent specialist and his Party controllers, usually less competent but obviously more influential. (23)
Spheres of competence were defined vaguely: a Party leader was supposed to “lead, but not to interfere.” The considerable resentment thus accumulated was voiced at the 1923 Party Congress by People’s Commissar for Trade Leonid Krasin, an old companion of Lenin, who, on behalf of the “People’s Commissars as a whole” suggested that “Government should govern, while the Party should conduct propaganda.” (24) After 1923 this conflict became an essential part of the internal struggle in the Party; General Secretary Stalin defined the “proletarian dictatorship” as the rule of the Party apparatus over both the Party and the government apparatus. (25) Control of the apparatus was the main advantage against the opposition.
Stalin had to build his personal authority in tough competition with old revolutionaries, who as late as 1927 constituted three-quarters of the leadership, while being only 1.4 percent of the total membership. By combining promotion of new members with purges of the old, and by increasing the power of the Party apparatus, Stalin consolidated his own power. This meant the creation of many new positions of control and a more extensive dual structure. In 1925, the apparatus constituted only 2.5 percent of the membership, while by 1939 it had reached 10 percent. (26) After the mass terror of the 1930s, the domination of the Party over the state could not be challenged. Its power became enormous, its privileges huge. Naturally, by that time it consisted of careerists without any real ideological commitment. In 1939, 70 percent of its members had joined after 1929, and only 8 percent had joined before 1920; (27) total membership was 1,589,000, and at least half were educated. Thus, the dual structure was complete by the end of the 1930s, with its inner core, the apparatus, reaching maximum power.
A new class of bosses, of professional leaders and organizers, was what Stalin sought, a “certain type of Order of Sword Bearers (Knights Templars) inside the Soviet State, directing its every organ and spiritualizing its activity.” (28)
Indeed, they were and remained the very embodiment of revolutionary ideology, its priests and caretakers. For they are nothing without it but cynical parasites. But as long as the ideology reigns, they are omnipotent. There is no law, human or natural, that they cannot override. As a famous Stalinist wrote, “Our task is not to study the economy, but to change it. We are not bound by any law. There are no fortresses Bolsheviks cannot storm.” (29)
In 1939, at the 18th Party Congress, it was decided that specialist departments of the Party’s Central Committee responsible for the different branches of industry should be liquidated because they only “increased confusion by competing with each other,” and by taking on the functions of economic institutions. This, it was argued, undermined the independence and sense of responsibility of the directors of enterprises. However, the result was totally opposite: being used to strict Party control, enterprise management seemed to be in complete confusion. After so many years of terror and purges, nobody showed initiative or took responsibility. Performance of the enterprises went sharply down and “reorganization” was quietly killed. (30)
After Stalin’s death, the appalling state of the Soviet economy forced Premier Nikita Khrushchev to attempt different reorganizations. He tried to subordinate the Party to the economy, so to speak, by giving priority to economic factors over ideological ones. He split the District Party Committees (Obkomi) into an Agricultural and Industrial Obkom for each district; he recreated Sovnarkhoz, the Councils of the People’s Economy (thus weakening central control). All to no avail. The people he shifted and shuffled were the same old Party bureaucrats and his haphazard “reforms” only multiplied the bureaucracy.
Eventually Khrushchev was pensioned off as a “voluntarist" who had rocked the boat too much, but the problem refused to disappear with him. Under the next leadership the economic functions were separated. Unlike Khrushchev, who was tormented by the need to reconcile the two opposite drives in the dual system, Kosygin represented the interests of the government (therefore, the need for reforms), while Brezhnev embodied the interests of the Party apparatus. However, if soon became clear whose interests were more important. Kosygin’s reforms turned out to be modest: all he achieved was to insist that enterprises should be self-sufficient and should generate profits rather than losses. Even this simple wisdom was never fully accepted. Kosygin’s reforms were watered down by the party apparatus and then quietly sabotaged by the middle management of the bureaucracy.
The long years of Brezhnev’s reign saw the ultimate triumph of the partocracy. Not only did he outlive Kosygin, but he also was the first General Secretary in Soviet history to write proudly in the new Soviet Constitution (1977) that the Communist Party is, indeed, the supreme ruler of the Soviet Union and of its every institution. However, Kosygin’s efforts were not entirely in vain. His reform campaign generated debate in the hierarchy, and a barely noticeable split occurred between two trends: “managers” and “ideologists” (the actual terms used). Certainly, there was no questioning the ideology. Rather, the two sides argued how to better achieve the same goals. Thus, one side argued that, according to Marx, economic relations are the essence of history, a material force that moves society. And we are Marxists, aren’t we? Therefore, management efficiency should be paramount. Indeed we are, replied the other side, the ideologists — but did not Lenin write that the “ideas which come to possess the masses are a material force”? And we are Leninists, are we not? Therefore, ideological guidance is most important.
Nevertheless, a number of interesting industrial experiments were carried in the 1960s, and were written up ecstatically in the Soviet newspapers. The early euphoria passed, for the experiments illustrated all too clearly the superiority of capitalist methods over socialist methods. It was clear that, if extended country-wide, although they would lead to a more rapid economic growth, they would also restore those “ulcers” of capitalism with which Soviet propaganda loves to frighten people: unemployment, inflation, and “the anarchy of production.” That is, it would be a market economy, and the state would no longer maintain its control over economic life. More importantly, it would render Party control of the economy both superfluous and impossible.
In the ensuing muffled war, waged under the banner of economic reform, the Party apparatus used every means to suppress its opponents, including judicial repression. (31) But the decisive stroke involved the West. As an alternate to broad internal reforms, the ideologists proposed detente. They gambled on obtaining extensive economic aid and a trade boost from the West. Why introduce dangerous reforms if you can get what you want from abroad?
One must not assume that this disagreement erupted between members and nonmembers of the Party, or that the Party bureaucracy had only one opinion, while the government functionaries were moved by another. Anyone in a position of power must become a Party member, and positions within the hierarchy are often determined by chance. But in every society there is a certain notion of decency, or a criterion of dignity that is accepted by anyone with a modicum of self-respect. Nobody can explain how this came about, but “decent” people in the Soviet Union do not join the Party simply for a Party career. Those who do are widely regarded as “backward” types incapable of attaining a normal, “decent” profession. However, it is an entirely different matter when a good specialist is forced to join the Party. So, there is a dual path: one individual can become director of an enterprise because he is a good Party member, while another becomes a Party member because he is a good enterprise director.
Managers belonged to the latter group, and ideologists to the former, but one cannot tell them apart by their official biographies. Most Soviet officials in either are required to have a complete higher education in economy, technology or industrial processes; most must have experience in both Party and governmental work. And the closer to the top, the more indistinguishable they become from the outside.
Rank and file members in the Communist Party do not enjoy enormous privileges, but they have a better chance of being promoted, whatever their profession might be. The key positions in every community, in every occupation, are always filled by Party members. They constitute the ruling elite on all levels. Accordingly, they have a dual loyalty: first and foremost, to the Party which promotes them; second, to the enterprise, institution, or department they work for. The second structure — the Party apparatus — runs parallel to the local, regional, district, republic, and Central committees. There are currently 18 million Party members, roughly 6.5 percent of the population, or about 10 percent of its adult component. The ruling elite, the nomenklatura, is about 3 million, families included. (32) Other estimates go as high as 5 million. (33)
It is impossible to determine how many are “ideologists,” but they are a formidable force. It does not matter what they believe in; much more important is what they stand to lose. Their status being conferred by the Party, and not by their skills or talents, they could not remain on the same level in any other sociopolitical system (if, indeed, such a level of power and privilege exists anywhere else). Besides, many might be held responsible for corruption and crimes they have committed in the service of the regime, if the regime ever changes dramatically (as happened in Poland during the heyday of Solidarity). For these reasons, they prefer a long decline, a slow death, if the demise of the system should become inevitable. Although both sides seem to agree that some reorganization is necessary, radical economic reforms mean an immediate ouster and a loss of status for the partocracy. By contrast, a continuous decline in the economy, dangerous as it is, would mean only a gradual defeat for the Soviet camp, with the ultimate catastrophe coming perhaps fifteen to twenty years from now. Even if radical reform can “save the cause of socialism” (which is questionable), they would still prefer the slower scenario. Understandably, the idea of reform makes them uneasy — who knows if the process can indeed be managed?
On the other hand, the “managers” apparently believe they do not stand to lose anything except their ideological chains. Being good specialists, better educated and more confident, they believe they will remain at the same level (or even improve their status) in a more competitive society. Members of the top echelon in the nomenklatura probably hope to become the sole masters of the country if they can manage to remove the partocrats. They may become that in the long run, but let us have no illusions: these “reformers” are simply more energetic, more self-assured, and better educated communists than the old partocrats. Being “specialists,” they are used to relying more on calculations than on political intuition, and they are willing to run the risk of reforms in order to “save socialism.” Being younger, they do not want to preside over the downfall of their regime. It is less clear, however, how much they understand of the system’s limitations or the possible consequences of needed reforms.
Even if Gorbachev is a proponent of radical reforms, he will find himself in the same situation as Khrushchev twenty years ago. His reforms will have to be conducted through the same Party apparatus whose power he will strive to diminish. The General Secretary has no other instrument of control over the country, and by reducing its power he will be reducing his own, too.
Ever since Stalin established his own power, by establishing the power of apparatus over the Party, and that of the Party over the country, any significant change in Soviet life must start with the apparatus. Indeed, during Andropov’s brief reign, according to some accounts, “hundreds of persons who held real power either in Moscow or in the provinces were removed. Thousands of middle-echelon officials were replaced or shifted to other duties.” (34) This “purge” continues, but even if Gorbachev places people like himself in every position of influence in the country, he is bound to discover what Napoleon discovered when his brother Jerome, whom he appointed to be a “king” of conquered Spain, became a real king in due time. After all, Khrushchev was removed by the people he had chosen and promoted when they felt he had gone too far.
Structural constraints make far-reaching reforms impossible. But if they do not go far enough, they will not work. Where is the border between these two? The time when the government could govern, leaving the Party to conduct propaganda (as Krasin suggested), passed long ago. Once revolutionary enthusiasm died, the Party had to rely on an exclusive right to promote and to dismiss, to enrich and to impoverish any individual in the country. If people are promoted according to their talents and rewarded according to their performance, who will bother to join the Party? And if they do not — where is the reform?
So far, Gorbachev has not unveiled a plan for reorganization. We can only guess its main features, from hints in his early speeches. (35) Amidst invigorating appeals for better discipline, he reemphasizes Kosygin’s principle of “self-sufficiency,” which this time must be introduced “in reality”; he threatens to eliminate many bureaucratic governmental institutions and hints at a possible return to the Khrushchev version of the Sovnarkhoz, or regional economic authorities. His constant subject is a need to give more rights and independence to enterprises, the simplification of central planning, and a “revolutionary shift to state-of-the-art technology.” It looks like a fairly minimal adjustment within the system.
His other ideas are bound to be more controversial. Thus, his remedy for agriculture is believed to be wide introduction of a “family-based productive link system” (zveno), a system that was tested in the experiments of the 1960s but which, in spite of spectacular results, had been rejected as an attempt at restoring capitalism.
Some of his statements are quite radical:
“We should take measures that would strengthen the consumer’s impact on the technical level and the quality of production. We ought to radically improve price formation …”
It remains to be seen, however, how much of this “radicalism” will actually be introduced into Soviet economic life.
Clearly, there is no overlap between what goes too far ideologically and what goes far enough economically. Such is the nature of the system. As soon as merit, professional skills, and real prices are introduced, the dual structure of the Soviet state will collapse. A writer becomes prominent because his books are popular among readers (not among leaders); an enterprise becomes successful because its product is in great demand; a student becomes just a student, a teacher — a teacher, and a government — merely a government. At such a point ideology will disappear, along with the Party apparatus.
The introduction of “market socialism” in Hungary and the rapid modernization of China have created additional pressure (and temptation) regarding similar changes in the Soviet Union. But these are poor examples. The huge shadow of the Soviet Union prevents Hungarian society from going too far politically with its economic development. Nobody wants a repetition of 1956. But who is going to pull back the Soviet Union if it strays too far?
Chinese reforms are just beginning and their further development or results uncertain. There is, however, a very important difference between the Soviet Union and China: the latter need not ponder the repercussions of its reforms on a closely guarded “socialist commonwealth of nations.” Developments in Central Europe have always gone further than in the Soviet Union (Poland and Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, etc.). This centrifugal tendency will grow even stronger, because now the Soviet regime needs its satellites as an economic buffer during the present period of economic stagnation and costly reorganization. This strains the economy of Central Europe through the process of “further economic integration and international division of labor.” (36) Can the Soviet regime combine liberal economic reforms at home with tough policies in Central Europe (let alone with crushing popular unrest in these countries)?
Such will be a particularly difficult task during a period of detente, which the Soviet regime desperately needs to achieve the goal of a “revolutionary shift to state-of-the-art technology.” In fact, they need much more; according to Gorbachev they need:
“joint development [with the West] of new technology, planning and construction of [new] enterprises and exploitation of raw materials’ resources.” (37)
Of course, they hope to enjoy economic cooperation with the West without relaxing their internal “cold war” climate. Today, however, this may prove difficult to achieve. The Western public might, by this time, have learned something from the previous spell of detente. Also, the need for more initiative from the people in order to make reforms work, combined with an external detente, could make maintaining the internal “cold war” difficult.
In short, limiting factors and possible grave consequences outweigh any drive for radical economic reforms. Desperately needed reforms may result in a loss of control over the economy. Reforms, needed because the Soviet economy cannot sustain the huge military apparatus and the effort of maintaining or expanding its external empire, may lead to an erosion of the external empire, reversing the momentum and threatening the internal empire of the Soviet Union. Reforms are needed to sustain military competition with the West, but they may require prolonged period of detente with all the dangerous consequences that would entail.
Accordingly, two variables are enormously important: first, the behavior of the West; second, the behavior of the Soviet population. If the West provides help a great scale and places no preconditions involving internal systemic changes on its transfers of technology, equipment, and consumer goods, then the Soviet regime can get away with a policy of minimal change and will continue its “class struggle” for another decade or more before its next crisis. That is, the scale of its reforms is inversely proportional to the scale of conditions of Western economic assistance.
If the West continues to help perpetuate the existence of the Soviet external empire by recognizing Soviet client-states and providing them economic help (Central Europe, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Angola, and, perhaps soon, Vietnam), then the price of the empire will continue to drop and the risk of collapse will be diminished, slowing the drive for radical changes in the Soviet economy. If, on the contrary, the West disassociates itself from these countries and supports resistance movements, then the drive for improving the performance of the Soviet economy must increase, producing, in turn, desirable internal changes.
A similar effect is produced by the American rearmament program and particularly, by the Strategic Defense Initiative. If the Americans abandon SDI, the pressure for reform will be reduced.
Finally, a second variable — the response of the Soviet population. How far must the forthcoming reforms go to gain their enthusiasm? How big must new incentives or popular belief in the stability of the reforms be to stimulate productivity to a required level? Will the Soviet people be deceived once again by propaganda and by their rulers’ television performances? Can they be simultaneously enthusiastic about reform and frightened into submission without a threat of war? In the final analysis, the extent and success of reforms will depend on popular reaction.
Exhaustion of Materials: Human and Physical
Of all the elements in Soviet society, the human being is the most neglected. Socialist ideology deals with classes, social groups, and “collectives.” The individual is absorbed in the collective and then, supposedly, is reborn, completely transformed as a function of the statistical average. While in a nonsocialist country, the prosperity of the whole is measured by the prosperity of each individual, Soviet citizens are supposed to define their wealth in the context of the common wealth of the society.
Therefore, in 1918, the first major economic decision made by the “proletarian vanguard” was nationalization of all enterprises; the second was the establishment of centralized state planning (GOSPLAN) as a substitute for market relations; the third was the introduction of a system of “leveling” benefits to proletarians, i.e., collective rewards through social benefits (free education, free care, etc.).
Whatever revolutionary enthusiasm among the masses might have existed in 1917, their response to this new system was lukewarm; by 1923, productivity had dropped to 60 percent of the prerevolutionary level (although the market oriented New Economic Policy was already in operation and some wage incentives had been reintroduced), and production reached only 25 percent of the average in the period just before the Revolution. Later, however, egalitarian “leveling” was abandoned. By 1934, the gap between highest income to lowest was a ratio of 29:1. (39) However, this did not include “rewards” for “productive” labor. Through the period of the Stakhanov movement and beyond during the 1930s, the higher productivity of the pacesetters was used to set production norms, not wages. Once the state (or, rather, the Party) became the sole distributor of (insufficient) goods, favors, and privileges, they rewarded loyalty, not productivity. Those who were more “loyal” were more “equal”. Money had little importance, and good relations with management and Party bosses became essential for survival. A popular book of the 1930s tells a story of an underground millionaire who, travelling with a suitcase of money, could not live decently or even buy basic things because he did not belong to a “collective.” (40)
Soviet economic development meant the rapid industrialization of the country, i.e., the development of heavy industry, engineering, and energy supplies. From the standpoint of Marxist theory, socialism can be built only in countries with a sizeable proletarian class created by industrialization. Further, heavy industry was an indispensable basis of military force, needed in a world of “capitalist encirclement”; and finally, economic independence from world capitalism is impossible without a strong industry. As a result, Soviet capital goods production, by beginning of the 1940s, increased four times over the level of 1928, while production of consumer goods trailed far behind. (41) By and large, heavy industry worked full blast for continuous self-reproduction.
This process made people even more dependent on the state (Party) distribution system because consumer goods were in permanent shortage. An extensive economy emerged, with huge capital investments and low return on investment. An increase in production could be achieved only by building more and more low-profit enterprises. In due time, such economic expansion reached its natural limit, with a permanent shortage of labor and capital. The economy survived only thanks to wholesale exploitation of natural resources (oil, gas, gold, etc.), a skimming of the easily accessible, low-cost upper layers. Thus, by the 1980s, extraction of practically all major natural resources in the country was becoming more costly, leaving the country with reduced means for expansion, and with shrinking hard currency resources.
On the other hand, persistent labor shortages led to further exploitation of the workers. A number of legal restrictions were introduced in the 1930s—50s, including the internal passport system, laws on “parasitism,” punishment of those who changed jobs too frequently, and a wide use of prison labor in the unproductive branches of industry. The latter created an economic need for mass repression under Stalin (up to 20 million prisoners in the late 1930s), (42) which continued as an indispensable part of the Soviet economy. Although the number of prisoners decreased in the 1960s—70s to 4-5 million, a much bigger number of petty offenders (those sentenced to up to three years of imprisonment) were sent to work at “construction sites for the people’s economy.”
At present, even the ruling Party has to admit that:
“Further movement along this course in a situation where the possibility of involvement of labor, raw materials, and natural resources in production is reduced, will only lead to [an] increased number of unfilled jobs, to an excessive growth of expenditure for development and transportation of mineral resources, and for protection of the environment. This way of development has no positive prospects now: more and more investment would yield less and less results. In the present conditions, this would be a dead end.” (43)
Developments in Soviet agriculture were even more disastrous. Communists could never make up their minds about what to do with the peasants, who because they earn their living with their hands cannot be regarded as a class of capitalists; on the other hand, they were not “proletarians” because they owned the “means of production.” This puzzle has never been satisfactorily solved and peasants were vaguely defined as a class with “petit-bourgeois instincts.”
This ambiguity was reflected in subsequent political decisions. The Revolution was made by peasants who, attracted by Lenin’s promise of immediate division of the land, abandoned an unpopular war in 1917 to get home for the loot. There followed Lenin’s policy of war communism and confiscation of agricultural produce, which produced peasant revolts and hunger riots. Lenin changed course and introduced the New Economic Policy; within a year, agricultural production reached three-fourths of the prewar level. But this meant loss of state control; workers were less well off than peasants, and industrial investment lagged. So, by the beginning of the 1930s, the NEP was ended and war was again declared on the peasantry. Agricultural production again dropped dramatically; “collectivized” peasants did not want to produce. Starvation ensued on a vast scale and was used to break the peasants’ will to resist (exactly as is now taking place in Ethiopia).
Soviet agriculture never recovered from this genocide, economically or morally. Although the 1928 level of production was surpassed by the end of the 1930s, this was achieved by increasing the acreage of arable land. Indirectly, Stalin recognized the defeat of his policy in agriculture when in 1935 he allowed collective famers to maintain private plots, a restricted number of individually owned cattle, and permission to sell their produce legally in the cities. By 1937-38, these tiny private plots (3.3 percent of arable land) accounted for 21 percent of all agricultural output in the country. (44) By the mid-1970s, the share of privately produced goods grew to 30 percent.
Paradoxically, when Brezhnev decided to increase agricultural production in the mid-1970s by investing more in it and by raising payment to the “peasants,” the production of agricultural goods decreased in inverse proportion to investment. With more money being paid for the same work and little to buy, the farmers simply decreased their private production.
Thus, both industry and agriculture reached the point of exhaustion; further expansion became impossible. Today the country must rely on imports of grain, technology, and credits to survive.
Even nature seems to have been exhausted by seventy years of communist rule. Unlike in the West, where public opinion prevents or rectifies the worst excesses of industrial pollution, there were no forces in the Soviet Union to stand in the way of the state. The very idea that nature should be “protected from man” was totally alien to the revolutionary philosophy. “We cannot wait for favors from nature. Our task is to take them from her.” This was the slogan of the “proletarians,” who believed that, in the appropriate conditions, one can make a pear out of an apple and a government minister out of a cook. Seventy years later, this philosophy has created a major environmental catastrophe: Chernobyl is only its best-known example.
By the end of the 1970s, air pollution in the Soviet Union had reached “threatening level” in more than 1,000 cities; a level of “immediate danger for health” in over 100 cities; and a level ten times higher than that indicating “immediate danger” in about 10 cities. (45) Total economic damages caused by air and water pollution at the end of the 1970s were estimated by official Soviet experts to be 20 billion rubles, and by 1990 may reach 120 billion. Soviet rivers carry to the Baltic Sea about 20 times more pollutants than the Rhine delivers to the North Sea. Since land reclamation is expensive, only about 8 to 12 percent of the land destroyed by quarries and other methods of exploitation of mineral resources is annually reclaimed. Thus, about 77,200 square miles of territory had been destroyed by the end of the 1970s, with an additional 400 square miles being destroyed each year. Another problem is the rapid depletion of forests.
More land is destroyed by huge artificial lakes and seas created by hydro electric power stations. The area submerged by these lakes equals 46,320 square miles. Soil erosion has made unusable a staggering 243,180 square miles of once excellent fields (with biological productivity being reduced by 80 to 90percent). Komarov has calculated that the total land lost is equal to the territories of England, France, Italy, West Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg combined. (46) An estimated 100 to 200 years will be needed to restore it.
Soviet policies have also destroyed rivers, turning them into stinking swamps. All this failed to produce the required amount of hydroelectric energy when the water level dropped. Evaporation, agricultural irrigation, and rapid expansion of industry aggravated the problem further. Natural lakes and seas — the Aral Sea, the Sea of Azov, the Caspian Sea — may shrink greatly or simply disappear by the next century. The ecology of the Black Sea is already damaged and will be damaged further. Shortage of water will affect development plans in industry and agriculture.
The main solution pursued is to continue building canals, dams, and lakes. Thus, the waters of the Danube are going to be diverted northward, and proposals — now abandoned — would have turned the course of northern rivers (Pechora, Sukhona, Onega, and North Dvina) to the south via the Volga. There are also proposals to redirect the waters of huge Siberian rivers (Ob and Irtysh) to Central Asia, through a canal 1,500 miles long. Both projects would have cost about 35 billion rubles (undoubtedly with the widespread use of prison labor). (47) Scientists predict that these gigantic projects would not have saved the south, but would have destroyed the fragile northern ecosystem. (48)
This background of general hopelessness and environmental destruction is necessary to understand two widespread human reactions to Soviet reality: degeneracy and dissidence.
One must remember that at least three generations have been born and have grown up under this system, watching the slow destruction of their country, culture, and fellow citizens. There is hardly a family that has not experienced repression at some time. For three generations these people have been obliged to listen and to repeat the obvious lies of official propaganda and to be cheerful at the same time because it is antisocial not to be cheerful in a socialist paradise. This contradiction alone, between reality and propaganda, is sufficient to produce a profound psychological trauma, to say nothing of ever-present fear, suspicion, and misery.
One of the main goals of the Soviet regime was always to convince the population that they are in a no-win situation: there is no escape from their misery, either physically or emotionally. There is no way to improve their situation or to escape abroad, and any initiative is severely discouraged. This pattern is known in experimental psychology as “learned helplessness” and leads to the inability of the subject to discover how to escape, even when escape is available.
One has to employ medical terminology because Soviet reality is not simply a matter of disillusionment, lack of prospects, apathy, or resignation. It is a biological exhaustion, a fatigue of human material. The signs are high infant mortality, low birthrate (below replacement rate among the Russians and some other nationalities), and an exceptionally high percentage of children born physically and mentally handicapped (about 6 to 7 percent by the end of the 1970s and projected to be 15 percent by the end of the 1990s). (49) The latter is partly caused by massive environmental pollution but largely by alcoholism, which is the most common escape-reaction.
Contrary to popular belief, the current epidemic of alcoholism has little to do with traditional Russian drinking habits. A Russian prerevolutionary encyclopedia (50) says that in 1905 about 50 percent of men and 95 percent of women were total abstainers; per capita consumption was much smaller than in the United States today. A document smuggled from the Soviet Union in 1985 (51) showed an enormous increase in alcohol consumption. Although it is hard to believe, it is there asserted that, in 1979, only 0.6 percent of men and 2.4 percent of women were abstainers, and 5 percent among
young people under age 18. In 1983, it reported, there were an estimated 40 million medically certified alcoholics; and that number is estimated to be growing to 80 million by the year 2000, or 65 percent of the working population.
The second main reaction — dissidence — should not be understood simply as narrow political disagreement. Professor Zaslavskaya explains it as follows in the “Novosibirsk Document”:
“Even with the most rigid regimentation of behavior in the economic sphere, the population is always left with a certain choice of reactions to governmental restrictions, which it does not necessarily … accept. Hence there is a possibility of overt and covert conflicts between interest groups and the society as a whole. When the established norms and rules affect the vital interests of certain groups of the population, … the latter often find a way to shirk restrictions and to satisfy their demands. When the state takes more strict measures to curb undesirable types of activity, the population responds by finding more subtle patterns of behavior to secure satisfaction of its demands in the new conditions, etc. Thus, reciprocally oriented behavior and interactions, of the state on the one hand, ... and of socioeconomic groups on the other, represent an important part of the social mechanism of economic development. (52)
Needless to say, the same kind of implicit “dialogue” occurs between the regime and society in all spheres of life. In the economic sphere, this “dialogue” has led to a “black market” of semilegal activities, corruption, and theft of public property. In other spheres it has led to cultural, religious, nationalist, and political dissent.
The black market and corruption permeate every aspect of Soviet life, from top to bottom. Shortages of consumer goods, food, services, and materials have made it necessary for the people to develop their own system of distribution. The government has tried to fight it tooth and nail (since the early 1960s, a wide variety of these activities have been punishable by death), but the system grows. It has developed into a huge and intricate network of underground business activity, private industry, and corruption. The system of internal Soviet trade, many official enterprises, and a large portion of the police have become involved in it. (53) Quite often Party basses and top governmental executives become involved, or are bribed to cover it up. Few have been caught. During the eighteen years of Brezhnev’s reign, the top echelon of power became practically immune. One can only guess what effect this has had on corruption.
To the population, the effect has been quite profound. If nothing else, people became less dependent on official favors and state distribution while becoming more and more cash-oriented. Consider the following, admittedly crude, estimate: the official average income in the country is about 160 rubles a month, and official governmental prices are calculated to allow people to barely make ends meet. However, little in the way of food and consumer goods is available in the shops, while in the black market their prices are three to four times (often five to ten times) higher than those established by the state. Since nobody dies of hunger or goes around naked, many actual incomes must be much higher — many people must be making 500 to 1,000 rubles monthly. When we hear that the black market price of blue jeans was 250 rubles in 1979, and they were “selling like hotcakes,” when we know that the prices of Soviet cars are in the range of 8,000 to 15,000 rubles, what else can we think? One cannot buy them with a 160 rubles monthly salary.
To sum up, the past seventy years of communist rule have destroyed any trust that may have existed originally between the rulers and the people. The latter can hardly expect significant improvements from any within-the-system reforms because the system has outlived itself. But, even if the system is dismantled, it may take a couple of generations before the country recovers and a huge, degenerated portion becomes replaced. Collective farmers have to relearn how to be peasants, “proletarians” have to learn how to be workers, surviving craftsmen have to teach their skills to the new generations.
Gorbachev cannot count on these millions of “medically certified alcoholics’ to sober up suddenly and to become high-output Stakhanovite workers, even if he pays them five times the present wage. If they were capable of such feats of production, workers already would have joined one or another of the semilegal businesses existing in the country. The best Gorbachev can use them for will be on the construction of a 1,500-mile-long canal from Siberia to Central Asia, and of thirty-two dams on the White Sea, as some authors have suggested. (54) Gorbachev’s reforms must appeal to those who are interested in improving their personal income, who therefore must compete with the black market. In a way, Gorbachev’s reforms will help the black market. Two obstacles currently curb its activity: one cannot spend a lot of money in the Soviet Union, and, above all, one cannot do it openly. Both obstacles will have to be removed if increased material incentives are to be introduced. Besides, Gorbachev’s main idea —to reduce control over enterprises and to give them more initiative — implies even more “uncontrolled” interactions between underground capitalism and the state enterprises.
In short, Gorbachev is going to learn what Lenin discovered sixty-five years before him: that the “market place is stronger” than socialism. It is of some interest to note what Gorbachev wants to do with the economy; it is far more interesting to see what the economy will do with Gorbachev. Whatever he does is bound to increase already growing inflation and, therefore, create conditions for widespread industrial unrest. Whatever his intentions, his actions will strengthen the existing trends.
Richard Pipes, Survival Is Not Enough (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), p. 199. This is a corollary of Plato’s assertion that changes in any constitution originated in the ruling class itself (Republic of Plato 545 AD). Cited in Alexander Shtromas, The Fall of the Soviet Empire, Second International Congress of the Professors’ Peace Academy, 1985.
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin, “Left-wing Communism — An Infantile Disorder,” 1920, in The Lenin Anthology(New York: Norton, 1975).
Pravda, April 24, 1985
Arkhiv Samizdata, No. 5042, pp. 3-4, 16, 18.
Pravda, April 24, 1985.
V. Lenin, “Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii,” 37, pp. 299-300. Quoted in Bertram D. Wolfe, Lenin and the Twentieth Century (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1984), p. 144.
Wolfe, p. 142.
Wolfe, p. 147.
Wolfe, p. 144.
Wolfe, p. 155.
Wolfe, p. 155.
Wolfe, p. 146.
Wolfe, p. 150.
Wolfe, p. 153.
These figures vary in different years. Thus, in 1919, 250,000 members; in 1923, 485,500; in 1928, 1,304,471. See Leonard Schapiro, Communist Party of the Soviet Union (New York: Random House, 1970).
This expression was used by A. Avterkhanov.
Charles Wolf, Jr., K. C. Yeh, Edmund Brunner, Jr., Aaron Gurwitz, and Marilee Lawrence, The Costs of the Soviet Empire (Santa Monica, Calif.” the RAND Corporation, 1983).
Lenin, “Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii,” 42, pp. 95-96.
Anthony Sutton, Western Technology and Soviet Economic Development (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1968-73).
Lenin, “Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii,” 42, p. 116.
Schapiro, pp. 331, 443.
Schapiro, p. 465.
Schapiro, p. 458.
12 S’ezd RKP(b), Stenograficheskii Otchet, 1923.
12 S’ezd RKP (b), pp. 56-57.
Schapiro, pp. 452, 621.
Schapiro, pp. 609-10.
I. Stalin, Sochineniia 5: 71.
S.G.Strumilin, Planovoe Khoziaistvo 7 (1927) 11.
Schapiro, pp. 628-29.
See Kudenko case, Khronika Tekushchich Sobytii 35 (1975) 56-58.
Michael Voslenksy, Nomenklatura (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1984), p. 95
Dusko Doder, “Andropov Rushed Renewal into Motion,” Washington Post, July 28, 1985.
Pravda, April 24, 1985
O. Bogomolov. “Soglasovanie Eknomicheskikh Interesov i Politiki pir Sotsializme,” Kommunist 11, 1985.
Pravda, April 24, 1985.
12 S’ezd RKP(b), p. 29
Leonard E. Hubbard, Soviet Labor and Industry (London, 1942), pp. 280-81.
Ilya Ilf, Evgenii Petrov, Zolotoy Telenok.
Donald Hodgman, Soviet Industrial Production, 1928-1951 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954).
Kommunist 11, 1985, p. 62.
Schapiro, p. 640.
Boris Komarov, The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union (White Plains, N.Y.: Sharpe, 1980).
David Tolmazin, “Soviet System and Environment: Degradation of Water Supplies,” Kontinent 44.
Grani, No. 133, 134, 1984.
Prof. Yuzhakov, ed., Bolshaya Encyclopedia, 1900-1907.
Russkaya Mysl, February 7, 1985, p. 435.
Arkhiv Samizdata, No. 5042, p. 26.
Konstantin Simis, USSR: The Corrupt Society (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982).
Andrei Babich, “What Is Concealed Behind Gorbachev’s ‘Reform’?” Russkaya Mysl, August 16, 1985, pp. 1, 4.
The contradictions of Marx
It is widely held that Karl Marx was simply a peaceful and learned economist who, although becoming severely muddled in his theory, could not possibly answer for the devils who disfigured this theory in a certain country, and a very distant one at that. Lenin, who represents the devil in this case, sees himself specifically accused of having introduced to Marxism three ideas that were alien to the dogma:
1. Revolutionary action;
2. Transitioning to socialism in an industrially underdeveloped country;
3. Creating a party of a "new type" as the avant-garde of the proletariat.
To my mind, these three accusations do not stand up to criticism. To refuse to see the revolutionary aims of Marxism, to state that Marx imagined a gradual transition from capitalism to socialism, is in itself a "distortion" or, if you prefer, a belated revision of Marx’s ideas. There is no point in getting lost in the discussion of this issue; the citations produced by Marx and Engels themselves serve as sufficient evidence. It is unlikely that a supporter of evolution could have used expressions such as the "expropriation of the expropriators," the "dialectic leap" or the "dictatorship of the proletariat" to describe a peaceful, non-violent process. Moreover, the central doctrine of ruthless class struggle is unlikely to signal any kind of pacifism, without even mentioning the suspicious enthusiasm with which Marx reacted to forms of local and rather unimportant unrest such as the Paris Commune. In short, if Marx was a supporter of the "pacifist method," he did a good job of hiding it, and Lenin was therefore absolutely justified in interpreting his ideas in the revolutionary sense (which he did in the most convincing manner in his work on the subject, The State and Revolution, which is chock-full with citations from Marx and Engels).
What is most curious lies elsewhere: why did so many people feel the need to seek out support in Marx when laying out their point of view? Why use that particular citation from Marx, rather than any other, in any discussion about the future? Because, whereas economists had not paid the slightest attention to Marx’s theories, quite rightly considering them unscientific, these very same theories had acquired an almost undisputable authority in socialist circles. Historians explain this by suggesting that workers’ organisations and the international socialist movement that appeared at the time needed a unifying doctrine, and Marxism, with its doctrine of the hegemonic role of the proletariat, was suited to the task. It is certain that the "scientificity" of Marxist socialism gave it a certain authority and his works became manuals for socialist beginners and lay on the bedside tables of confirmed socialists, just as the works of Darwin was required reading for the naturalists of the era.
With one difference, however: even in the 19th century, it would never have occurred to naturalists to support their discoveries with references to Darwin, rummaging through everything down to his letters in order to ferret out citations refuting the arguments of their opponents. This is logical: real science studies its object and not the works of a chosen "authority." These are of interest to historians of science, but not to the scientists themselves, for whom proof is more important than authoritative arguments. Furthermore, even if the results of an experiment or an observation contradict Darwin’s theories, the experimenter does not cease to be a scientist as a result, and his work will, in fact, attract increased interest from his colleagues. That is science. "Scientific socialism," despite its name, has never been more that a kind of theology in which the commentary of sacred texts replaces proof. Questioning the foundations of Marxism meant exclusion from the "Church" and the curses of colleagues. At best, it was possible to discuss what Marx could have meant in this article or that letter. If one, for example, concluded that it might not be necessary to resort to a "proletarian revolution," it was best not to mention such a ridiculous finding. It could only get you accused of betraying the proletariat. Things were quite different if you drew up a comparison between the "first" and "last" Marx, thus revealing the authentic meaning of Marx’s ideas which, of course, coincided with your own conclusion. Can you tell me of any biologists or physicists interested in the "first" Darwin or the last "Newton"?
In a word, in socialist circles, Marxism had become a dogma and an ideology well before the arrival of Lenin and not without Marx’s own involvement, which is even more important. Naturally, he tried to build a reputation as a dispassionate scientist, concerned with discovering an objective reality beyond the criteria of Good and Evil, and did such a good job of it that this legend has survived to the present day, but he was nothing of the sort. Both his theory and his behaviour swarm with incoherence and straight-up contradictions. Thus, he wanted to demonstrate, on the one hand, that the evolution of capitalism would inevitably lead to its downfall and the advent of socialism, according to objective economic laws independent of humans. As a result, economic exploitation was not so much immoral as, ultimately, rather unprofitable. At the same time, "exploitation," in his work, represents a universal Evil that he stigmatises, that he castigates emphatically, not unlike a provincial preacher. This could have been funny had it not led to the most extreme intolerance. By denying all universal human values in order to replace them with class values, he ended up justifying morally everything that was "in the interest of the proletariat" and its victory. According to the same logic, any idea, any theory, any point of view, being necessarily one of "class," became "bourgeois" as soon as it deviated from authentically proletarian views. Naturally, one could not be "tolerant" in the slightest toward a class enemy: they had to be unmasked and annihilated.
At first sight, if the "laws" thus "discovered" objectively regulate the evolution of society, and if the predicted results are inevitable, then there seems to be no reason to panic. Or to accuse. Or to bristle with rage. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine a more relentless and aggressive struggle than that led by Marx against other socialist movements in order to impose his authority, shying away from neither intrigue nor slander (as against Bakunin at the International). Herzen, who had also been roughed up along the way, only ever referred to the Marxists of his era as "sulphurous devils." Proudhon called upon Marx in vain:
"Let us seek together, if you wish, the laws of society, the manner in which these laws are realised, the process by which we shall succeed in discovering them; but, for God’s sake, after having demolished all the a priori dogmatisms, do not let us in our turn dream of indoctrinating the people; do not let us fall into the contradiction of your compatriot Martin Luther, who, having overthrown Catholic theology, at once set about, with excommunication and anathema, the foundation of a Protestant theology. For the last three centuries Germany has been mainly occupied in undoing Luther’s shoddy work; do not let us leave humanity with a similar mess to clear up as a result of our efforts. I applaud with all my heart your thought of bringing all opinions to light; let us carry on a good and loyal polemic; let us give the world an example of learned and far-sighted tolerance, but let us not, merely because we are at the head of a movement, make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance, let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, the logic of reason." (Cited in A. Wright, Socialisms. Theories and Practices, Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 1-2).
If only! But this precisely what Marx wanted to be: the apostle of a new religion. As a result, the more Marxism established itself as a proletarian ideology within a wider social movement, the more the ideologues became intolerant and dogmatic. The traditions of the pillory and fake erudition was passed on from the First International to the Second, and then to the Third. Karl Kautsky, the ideologue of German social-democracy, demonised the anarchists; Lenin fumed against "that renegade Kautsky"; everyone carried out their own "purges" within their ranks and, if people were not yet burned at the stake, it was only because the "proletariat" had not yet come to power. There was no other possible outcome for an ideology of class hatred, regardless of whether it came to power by "peaceful" or revolutionary means.
Now that this ideology has exterminated tens of millions of individuals, wiped entire people from the face of the Earth and ruined the richest country in the world, it has become quite fashionable to say that not Marx, but Lenin (or, according to others, Stalin) is responsible. In fact, he would apparently have been hostile to any type of ideology, whereas Lenin created one despite Marx, deliberately destroying the harmony of Marxist thought. Marx only ever used this word in the pejorative sense to speak of bourgeois ideology. What need could he have for an ideology since socialism is by itself inevitable, regardless of the will of the proletariat itself:
"It is not a matter of what this or that proletarian or indeed the proletariat as a whole meanwhile imagines its aim to be. It is a matter of things as they are, and of what the proletariat will historically be forced to do by reason of its own being. Its aim is … inexorably laid down by its conditions of living and by the whole organisation of contemporary bourgeois society." (The Holy Family, cited by Leonard Shapiro, Russian Studies, London, 1986, p. 161).
Furthermore, referring ironically to the simple-hearted Bakunin who believed that socialist ideas should be brought to the popular masses, Marx wrote:
"For them the working class is unworked material, a chaos that needs the breath of their Holy Ghost in order to take on form." (Ibid, p. 161).
That’s all nice and clear, one would think. But in this case why did he create the International, write The Communist Party Manifesto, fight to impose his influence in the German social-democrat party? Who is that famous call addressed to: "Proletarians of the world, unite!"? Surely not to Bakunin! And what is the point of this call if existence will compel them to do so anyway?
On the one hand, he demonstrates a superb, truly Faustian disdain for words and a cult of action, on the other he wages open warfare about the slightest word:
"Every step of real movement counts for more than a dozen programmes," (Ibid, p. 161) writes Marx to his followers in the German social-democrat party, and immediately after insults them furiously for their agreement with Ferdinand Lassalle (socialist leader who in 1863 founded the General Association of German Workers) on the basis of a dubious programme. How can he reconcile the two ideas? It is quite clear: the words of others are worthy of contempt, but not the words of Marx.
"The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes." (K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Party Manifesto, transl. Samuel Moore and Frederick Engels, 1888, p. 22).
Now that’s is a holy spirit which, unlike Bakunin’s, the masses have a need for. Who could possibly infuse them with it? Well, precisely those "bourgeois ideologues" who have moved to side with the proletariat, who help and teach it, that is to say provide it with the weapons to fight the bourgeoisie, because they "have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole." (Ibid, p. 20). In other words: such truly remarkable people as Marx, Engels and their followers.
It is true that Marx says nothing of the "proletarian ideology." This makes sense because, with the extinction of classes, there is no place for ideology in his theoretical constructions. But we of course remember that all this does not happen in the blink of an eye, that one must pass through a phase of the "dictatorship of the proletariat," a period where the proletariat will be the ruling class and will therefore have its own ideology, because:
"The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class." (Ibid, p. 25).
Still in the Manifesto, he tells us, for example, that all of communist theory can be expressed in a single sentence: "Abolition of private property." Is this not ideology? Abolition of private property, easily said. In practice, we see a host of difficulties arise: should all property be abolished or just that of the means of production? And what are the means of production? Should poultry be collectivised for example? Comrade Stalin avoided doing so and that was surely a mistake. For, after all, chicken produce eggs ex nihilo. Should such a source of property be allowed to subsist in the hands of individuals?
Abolish! Very well! And what if people do not want to give up their stuff? Should we resort to using force? And should we take from all or pick and choose? Take everything from the proletariat, for example? If not, a careful definition of what is proletarian must be drawn up. In a word, how could we leave this host of dialectic problems up to chance, relying on the spontaneous class flair of people who, as we have seen, would never without Marx have thought of "uniting" to fight the bourgeoisie? If you start taking stuff willy-nilly, in an over-enthusiastic and counterproductive manner, it’s the end of real socialism. Let us be reminded that, for Engels, "the political rule over men [turns] into an administration of things and a direction of processes of production." (F. Engels, Anti-Duehring, Foreign Languages Publishing House: Moscow, 1954, p. 358).
But who will do all this? Who, for example, will control the operations of production? Surely not the proletarians, but rather people like Engels. At the very least, a certain level of training is required. Engels, for example, writes to Bebel that "the proletariat does not need the State to guarantee freedom, but to keep its adversaries down; as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom, the State as such ceases to exist."
But who will define the "enemies" of the proletariat? The proletarians all together? How can one not shiver in horror at such a state of affairs? All the more so because, according to Marx:
"What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges." (K. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program in Marx/Engels Selected Works Volume Three, Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1970, p. 22).
In other words, there is no new Man yet, the old Man is still very much there, as capitalism has brought him up, cruel, unjust, self-serving, greedy and deceitful. Let us imagine a crowd of these men "abolishing private property" savagely, crushing their "enemies," "controlling the operations of production" and we can clearly see why the State will disappear "by itself." Most likely alongside the population it was made up of. Unless Marx and Engels considered that the "birthmarks" of capitalism affect everyone but the proletarians?
There is no doubt that Marx and Engels dedicated themselves to their activities as partisan organisers not simply to have their followers twiddle their thumbs in the expectation of an inevitable historical necessity. It was not with this in mind that they became the intellectual tutors of the German social-democrats, making them the largest Marxist party at the end of the century, winning almost 20 per cent of the vote in 1890. It was not to make them the passive witnesses of class war, but indeed to make them the leaders of it. This is what the Marxist ideologue of the German party, Karl Kautsky, meant when he criticised the programme of his Austrian colleagues:
"Modern economic science is a precondition of socialist production on equal terms with modern technology, and the proletariat, with the best will in the world, can create neither one nor the other. […] The bearer of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia […] In this domain, socialist consciousness arrives from the outside into the class war of the proletariat, it is not born spontaneously within it." (Neue Zeit, 1901-1902, v. XX, No. 3).
But it is actually no surprise that this contradicts Marx’s own theory. The contradiction does not arise from a distortion or a mistaken interpretation, but is rooted in the theory itself, in its incoherence, in its eclecticism. When you have taken on the task of analysing the history of human society from a dialectic point of view, you cannot simply send dialectics packing on a whim to move on to socialism. Dialectics simply do not lead to it, that is the problem. History can be conceived of as a conflict of opposites, let us say the old and the young generations, or men and women, or the ruling classes and the ruled, but it could not possibly bring about the complete destruction of one side for the greatest bliss of the other. If the opposites that we are talking about are truly dialectic, the struggle must be resolved by peace and the contradictions by harmony, even if this leads to new contradictions and struggles. Dialectics cannot simply abolish themselves, as happens in Marx, but if, as he also asserts, the contradiction is irremediable, then it can only be resolved by universal destruction, the death of the organism, the collapse of society.
Indeed, dialectics in no way imply inevitable progress, enrichment or improvement, and the infamous "dialectic leap" does not necessarily lead upwards, it can just as well result in a fall, a death, a passage from animate matter to inanimate matter. The evolution of a species can just as well lead to its degradation and extinction. The atom can split into its constituent elements to create a nuclear explosion, just as it can combine with other atoms to form molecules of albumin. History retains the memory of entire people, indeed of entire civilisations, which have completely disappeared from Earth.
It is also not a given that these "leaps" and "falls" must necessarily happen as a result of whatever these internal contradictions are supposed to be. The world has existed for so many millions of years that these "unreconcilable contradictions," -- if they ever even existed in certain systems -- have long neutralised each other one way or another. The majority of existing atoms will not split spontaneously unless an exterior force comes to disrupt the balance that has been established within them by the forces of attraction and repulsion. The majority of species existing on earth will not go extinct by themselves unless an unforeseeable catastrophe impacts them from outside the system which regulates their existence. It goes without saying that any event has a cause, but this cause is not necessarily to be found within the system under consideration.
Marx’s theory is not just unscientific, it is also contradictory and incoherent. On the one hand he takes the side of absolute determinism, and on the other -- of materialist determinism. According to him, development is absolutely determined by the laws of the "movement of matter" and that of society by the evolution of the "forces of production." Consciousness seems to merely play a passive role in this: it is, Marx tells us, determined by being. Nevertheless, these "forces" are created by human consciousness, by the development of science and technology which are in no way determined by some "social being." People observed the fall of apples and the boiling of cauldrons for thousands of years without discovering the laws of gravity or inventing the steam engine. Marx himself would not dare to claim that the thoughts of Newton or Watt were determined by their "social being." We can, of course, presume that sooner or later someone would have reached the same results, but this is nothing but a hypothesis, a probability therefore, and not an effect of determinism.
Such a contradiction undermines the idea of the inevitable transition to socialism. In reality, as we have seen in the previous citations of Marx and Engels, the difference between "late" capitalism and "early" socialism is insignificant; it lies only in the "socialist consciousness of the workers," formed by their previous existence and in particular by their control of the means of production. This should in turn lead to a tumultuous development of the forces of production, et cetera. As a result, both the transition from capitalism to socialism and the establishment of a socialist society relies on the "consciousness" of the proletarians. Therefore, consciousness determines being just as much as being determines consciousness.
Despite his determinism, Marx does not deny freedom, but he defines it as the "consciousness of necessity." This is one of the fundamental elements of his doctrine, according to which man is anything but passive. He domesticates nature and places it at his service. Man creates history. Apparently, people like to say that philosophers have tried to explain the world a thousand different ways when the point is to "change" it. According to Marx, "Man is both the author and the actor of the drama that we call history." (K. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy). In fact, socialism will lead man to the "kingdom of freedom" by liberating him from material dependency.
However, man is not free by himself, but only insofar as he becomes "conscious of necessity." That is to say, he understands the objective laws of nature. As a result, the better we understand the laws of nature, the more forces we can place at our service and the less we are slaves to these forces. Therefore, the better we understand the objective laws of social development, the better we are able to change society, by liberating ourselves from the enslavement to which the social being holds our conscience.
This claim explains a lot. The "objective laws of social development" were indeed "discovered" by Marx, therefore, if we ignore him, we cannot enter the "kingdom of freedom." Everyone, of course, is not fit to penetrate this mysterious place, and it is of no use for everyone to venture down this path. For example, the proletarian will enter this paradise by virtue of historical necessity, which they neither can, nor should they, necessarily be conscious of, which is why it is not particularly important that they should fully understand the ultimate objective of their struggle. Their guides and torchbearers will be men liberated by their knowledge of the "objective laws," some of those "bourgeois ideologues" who, as Marx writes in his Manifesto, have taken the side of the proletariat and have reached the theoretical understanding of the historical movement.
Should we be surprised by the unwavering popularity of Marxism among intellectuals? It is their religion, their chance to be among the chosen ones, to atone for original sin by serving the proletariat. But it is also a barely concealed promise of power over an aphasic mass, power guaranteed by the Word. A power destined to lead to universal bliss, to the kingdom of reason and eternal harmony, that is to say, death. And here we have Faust’s contract with the Devil!
This is how Marx resolves the contradiction between determinism and freedom, which allows him, he believes, to abolish dialectics and leap right into socialism. The transition from scientific fatalism to revolutionary fanaticism takes place through teaching: being, finally, does not determine any old consciousness, but only non-initiated consciousnesses, while initiated consciousness determines being. Once dialectics have been studied, one is no longer enslaved to them, and they can be used for one’s own purposes. Determinism counts for the braindead masses, while those that are conscious of necessity can do whatever they want.
A disciple by the name of Lenin
To claim, after all that, that Lenin distorted Marxism is utterly inane. He split with Kautsky because the German party, giddy with electoral success, invented the "parliamentary path to socialism" that Marx clearly had not planned. Here he recognised a tendency to move away from Marxism and he was right: the German social-democrats gave up Marxism and it is only then that they came to power electorally. It goes without saying that once in power they did nothing of what Marx had prescribed, they did not establish socialism and, as an aside, they did not stay in power.
Even earlier, in 1914, it became obvious that European social-democracy was preaching Marxism in words only and had given up on it in practice. This is how the first serious challenge – the start of the First World War - led to the schism of the International, because the parties it was made up of preferred to support their respective countries’ military efforts. Lenin was clearly right to say that a party that put the interests of the nation ahead of class interests was in no way Marxist: Marx had after all invited the proletarians to unite in the struggle against the class enemy, and not to kill each other defending the interests of those who exploited them. The proletarians, let us remind ourselves, have "no country." Therefore, we can accuse the reformists of having betrayed Marxism, rather than Lenin. According to Marx, class struggle must escalate and, on reaching its peak, resolve itself with the annihilation of capitalism, and not through a reconciliation of classes by way of compromise and reform. However, neither the former nor the latter question the necessity of guiding the proletariat, and their interpretation of the "inevitable advent of socialism" assimilates this necessity to a "historical probability." The "reformists" accuse the "revolutionaries" of underestimating the "spontaneity" of the proletariat and the "revolutionaries" accuse the "reformists" of neglecting the role of the "consciousness" of the leaders. These are quarrels about nuance, not principle. One would think that if socialism were as inevitable as a solar eclipse, there would be no reason for such a fuss. The "reformists" should be as unable to hamper it as the revolutionaries to accelerate it. The necessity in any case could not be disfigured. But if we speak in terms of probability, Lenin was certainly right. Engels too wrote in 1874, when Marx was still alive and apparently with his approval:
"It is the specific duty of the leaders to gain an ever clearer understanding of the theoretical problems, to free themselves more and more from the influence of traditional phrases inherited from the old conception of the world, and constantly to keep in mind that Socialism, having become a science, demands the same treatment as every other science — it must be studied. The task of the leaders will be to bring understanding, thus acquired and clarified, to the working masses, to spread it with increased enthusiasm, to close the ranks of the party organisations and of the labour unions with ever greater energy. […] If the German workers proceed in this way, they may not march exactly at the head of the movement — it is not in the interest of the movement that the workers of one country should march at the head of it -- but they will occupy an honourable place on the battle line, and they will stand armed for battle when other unexpected grave trials or momentous events will demand heightened courage, heightened determination, and the will to act.' (F. Engels, The Peasant War in Germany, transl. Moissaye J. Olgin, International Publishers: New York, 1966, p. 12).
In a word, if Lenin can be faulted in any way, it is rather for his dogmatism, his servile loyalty to Marx. And it is, in fact, important not to dish out these accusations too quickly, for we must remember that at the time Marxism was indeed considered a science, the only doctrine of scientific socialism. And you do not mess around with science. The engineer building a bridge cannot interpret the laws of gravity in a "non-dogmatic" manner or question the accuracy of formulae concerning the resistance of materials. The difference lies in the fact that Lenin, a man completely shorn of a sense of humour, really believed in this "science," whereas his adversaries, rather more normal people, took it with a touch of scepticism which they of course avoided showing.
Indeed, if we believe that only the exact knowledge of the laws of social development will liberate us to change society, we cannot tolerate the slightest infraction of these laws. The engineer has to follow the formulae of science exactly, and workers must blindly follow the engineer’s instructions. Consequently, the Marxist party -- that teacher and guide of the blind force of the proletariat -- must be disciplined and centralised to the extreme to reduce to a minimum the chance of errors from those carrying out orders. If the problem is presented in such a way, then there can be no question of a "parliamentary route" that necessarily implies compromise, arrangement and an attempt to attract the majority of voters. To establish Marxist society in this way is as impossible as solving an equation with a vote by secret ballot.
With such an objective in mind one, of course, needs an instrument that in no way resembles traditional political parties. What is important here is quality and not quantity: what is needed here are not sympathetic travel companions, but inflexible fighters, agitators and professional organisers, entirely dedicated to the cause of socialism. It is not so much a party as an officer corps for the future army specially trained to wage class war. The troops, let us remember, cannot grasp the ultimate objectives of the campaign, but the officers must be seasoned and understand military science down to a tee.
Here is how Lenin formulated his practical programme by paraphrasing Archimedes’ famous maxim: "Give me an organisation of professional revolutionaries and we will overturn Russia."
"We said that there could not yet be Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. This consciousness could only be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness, i.e., it may itself realise the necessity for consolidating in unions, to fight against the employers and to strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc." (V. I. Lenin, What is to be done?, Martin Lawrence, Ltd., London, 1930, p. 32-33).
"The workers’ organisations must in the first place be trade organisations; […] on the other hand, the organisations of revolutionists must be comprised first and foremost of people whose profession is that of revolutionists […] As this is the common feature of the members of such an organisation, all distinctions as between workers and intellectuals, and certainly the distinction of trade and profession, must be dropped. Such an organisation must of necessity be not too extensive and as secret as possible." (Ibid, p. 104-105).
"A workingman who is at all talented and "promising," must not be left to work eleven hours a day in a factory. We must arrange that he be maintained by the party, that he may in due time go underground, that he change the place of his activity, otherwise he will not enlarge his experience, he will not widen his outlook, and will not be able to stay in the fight against the gendarmes for several years. As the spontaneous rise of the labouring masses becomes wider and deeper, it not only promotes from it ranks an increasing number of talented agitators, but also of talented organisers, propagandists, and "practical workers" in the best sense of the term (of whom there are so few among our intelligentsia). In the majority of cases, the latter are somewhat careless and sluggish in their habits (so characteristic of Russians). When we shall have detachments of specially trained working-class revolutionaries who have gone through long years of preparation (and, of course, revolutionaries "of all arms") no political police in the world would be able to contend against them, for these detachments will consist of men absolutely devoted and loyal to the revolution, and will themselves enjoy the absolute confidence and devotion of the broad masses of the workers." (Ibid, p. 124).
Only this militia of bearers of socialist consciousness united by a collective, exempted from capitalist production relations (cleared, as a result, of the "birthmarks" of capitalism) can carry out the "dialectic leap" predicted by Marx. In fact, they are the prefiguration of the men of the communist future, these ideal beings that will populate the ideal society. They are the avant-garde of the proletariat, the creators of history, the only free men in the kingdom of necessity. Liberated from the moral limitations of common mortals by their "class" consciousness and from all other considerations both by their consciousness of the "historical necessity" of their victory and by the greatness of their final objective, they represent a unique instrument of political combat, as yet unknown to humanity.
"We have arrived at an extremely important principle of all party organization and party activity. In regard to ideological and practical direction, the movement and the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat need the greatest possible centralization, but in regard to keeping the center informed about the movement and about the party as a whole, in regard to responsibility before the party, we need the greatest possible decentralization. The movement must be led by the smallest possible number of the most homogeneous groups of trained and experienced revolutionaries. But the largest possible number of the most varied and heterogeneous groups drawn from the most diverse layers of the proletariat (and of other classes) should take part in the movement. And in regard to each such group, the center of the party must have always before it not only exact data on their activities, but all the fullest knowledge of their composition." (Lenin cited in Bertram Wolfe, Lenin and the Twentieth Century, Hoover Institution Press, 1984, p. 25).
This new principle of organisation, given the name of "democratic centralism" by Lenin, established an unconditional subordination of the "inferior" elements of the party to the "superior" elements.
"The main principle of democratic centralism is that of the higher cell being elected by the lower cell, the absolute binding force of all directives of a higher cell on a cell subordinate to it, and the existence of a commanding party center [the authority of which] is unchallengeable, for all its leaders in party life, from one congress to the next." (Ibid).
It is obvious that such a rigid form of organisation was not forced upon Lenin by the scheming of the tsarist Okhrana (the political police under Tsarism), as he had originally claimed. This Okhrana was paltry in terms of numbers and inefficient compared to the police of even democratic countries. The same organisational principle was maintained by Lenin after 1917, after the disappearance of the secret police, just as the case had been between 1907 and 1914 when the Bolsheviks published their newspapers entirely legally and nominated their own members to the Duma. It is simply because the realisation of a totalitarian idea required a totalitarian organisation.
He was without doubt a man possessed by the idea of a revolution, who had been once and for all consumed by the vision he had acquired of rebuilding the world and who was, therefore, cruel without constraint. His end justified any and all means. "We have never rejected terror on principle," he writes in the May 1901 issue of Iskra (an organ of the Russian social-democrat party), addressing his followers, but he recommends mass terror within a common struggle and not individual terror in the manner of socialist-revolutionaries. Detachments of professional revolutionaries are essential to lead a wild crowd and channel its destructive energy in the desired direction.
"In the life of a people, the big questions are decided only by force. Once such a situation arises, once the bayonet is on the frontline of political action […] constitutional illusions and the scholastic exercises of parliamentarianism become nothing but a front hiding the bourgeois betrayal of the revolution. […] The authentically revolutionary class must then hold up the mantra of dictatorship." (Lenin, What is to be done?).
Upon learning of the events of 1905 in Russia while in Geneva, he rages:
"Revolution is war. Of all the wars known to history, this is the only lawful, just, righteous, truly great war […] Each one by himself will strain all his force to get himself a gun, or at least a revolver…" (Bertram Wolfe, p. 48).
"The bomb has ceased to be the weapon of the solitary bomb-thrower. It has become a necessary part of the equipment for arming the people […] Preparation of bombs is possible everywhere and in all places […] No force can oppose detachments of a revolutionary army which arms itself with bombs."
He is horrified to find out that his dear children, those groups of "professional revolutionaries," are continuing to natter away in Saint-Petersburg instead of throwing bombs. (Ibid, p. 51).
"With consternation, by God with consternation, I see that there has been talk of bombs for more than half a year, and not a single bomb has yet been made." (Ibid).
And he writes this as the armed groups of other organisations are already storming prisons, killing policemen, as the tsar is about to grant a constitution, which will re-establish order! Despairing, he sends instructions upon resolutions, demanding that his groups "arm themselves the best they can (guns, revolvers, bombs, knives, brass knuckles, cudgels, rags with kerosene to start fires, rope or rope ladders, spades for building barricades, barbed wire, tacks against cavalry, etc. and so forth). In no case wait for help from above, from outside, but procure everything themselves." (Ibid).
For the elderly, the women and the children, appropriate tasks will be found: after all they can at least, Lenin reckons, spy on the enemy, pour boiling water or acid from rooftops or scatter nails under the hooves of the mounted police!
What is most remarkable is that, while he was pushing women and children to sacrifice their lives, he did not even believe in the triumph of this revolution, which he saw merely as a convenient opportunity to teach the masses, by means of practical tasks, "the art of civil war."
"This does not mean, of course, that it is in order […] to neglect the systematic teaching of the truths of Marxism. No, but it is needful to remember that now an enormously greater significance is possessed by the preparation and teaching of military actions themselves, which will teach the unprepared precisely in our and completely in our direction. It is needful to remember that our "doctrinaire" belief in Marxism is strengthened now by the fact that the course of revolutionary events gives everywhere, and in everything, object lessons to the masses, and all these lessons confirm precisely our dogma. We are not speaking of renouncing dogmas… just the opposite. We are speaking of new methods of teaching the dogma. We are speaking of how important it is now to utilize the obvious lessons of the great revolutionary events to teach no longer little circles but the masses our old "dogmatic lessons," for example, the lesson that what is needed is the active fusion of the terror with uprising of the masses." (Bertram Wolfe, p. 50).
Later, making the most of these "lessons" and the weakness of the State exhausted by the world war, he will indeed end up founding the dictatorship of the proletariat on terror. At this point, his instructions are even more bloody, and he will be just as thorough in enumerating who should be killed and where, as he was in suggesting to children what liquid they should throw on this or that adversary.
"It is essential to practice merciless mass terror against the kulaks, the priesthood, and the white guards. Lock up suspects in a concentration camp outside town. Report on execution by telegram,” this is the message he had sent to Penza, on the 9th of August 1918. "Evidently, a white uprising is being prepared in Nizhny Novgorod. We must gather all forces, carry out mass terror immediately, execute and deport [sic] the hundreds of prostitutes who are getting the soldiers drunk, the following officers, etc." (On the same day). “The energy and massive scale of terror must be encouraged." (Petrograd, 26th of November). "Do everything you can to catch and shoot all the embezzlers and speculators of Astrakhan. This rabble needs to be dealt with in such a way that it will never forget it.” (12th of December). "Be ruthless towards the leftist SR (social-revolutionaries) and keep me informed more often." (To Stalin, in Tsaritsyn, July 1918).
"What could he have done?”, you will say to me. There was civil war at the time, the enemy was everywhere. But he dealt with his "own" people the same way, and after the end of the civil war too. "Begin at once a merciless campaign against negligence." (25th of May 1921). "If, as soon as a book has been published, it cannot be found in libraries, you and I need to know with absolute precision who to imprison." (17th of May 1921). "There is a series of decrees demanding shock work at the Hydroturb factory. Apparently they have been forgotten! It’s scandalous! Those responsible must be found and brought to trial." (10th of February 1922). "The commissions for hydroturbines were carried out slowly! Despite us having a tragic deficit! This is absolutely scandalous and shameless! Find me the culprits, so that this rabble can be made to rot in prison." (13th of September 1921).
I expect some outraged exclamations: "You see! This is no Marxism. Marx did not incite terror. It’s those Russian barbarians again, those Nechayevs, those Zaichnevskys, those Tkachovs. (Russian revolutionaries who supported terror). It’s because of their influence!" I don’t buy it.
"There is only one way of shortening the murderous death agonies of an old society and the bloody birth pangs of a new society, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror. We are without mercy, we demand no mercy from you. When our turn comes, we will spare no terror […] The workers must force the democrats to carry out their present terrorist phrases […] Far from opposing the so-called excesses, the examples of popular vengeance against hated individuals or public buildings […] we must not merely tolerate these examples but ourselves take over their leadership." (Marx cited in B. Wolfe, Lenin and the Twentieth Century, p. 44).
Of course, these are the words of the "young" Marx and, therefore, it seems, it does not count as Marx at all. The "mature" Marx, you see, believed that the nail would penetrate the wall by itself, as a result of historical necessity (or historical probability?). He does not teach toddlers to pour vitriol on the heads of policemen. In his work, you will not find rags soaked in kerosene, or brass knuckles, or knives, or any of those horrible things. Why then dirty one’s hands with practice when one can simply elaborate the "final solution" to all social problems theoretically? Once that’s done, the Devil of popular fury will be able to work out what needs to be poured on whom. What could poor old Marx possibly have to do with all that? He was just an economist!
But enough joking around: those youthful texts also carry responsibility. All the more so because in his mature works there is not a single honest disavowal of his earlier opinions. He did not write, in volume III of Capital: "Proletarians of all countries, forgive me, for the love of God! You have no reason to be in a hurry or to unite. Go back to work peacefully!" Neither did he address posterity to encourage it to abstain from any kind of terror. Of course not! As mature as one gets, he invents the illustrious "dictatorship of the proletariat." You don’t get more mature! In 1875. Eight years before his death.
The very idea of "historical necessity," as we have said, looks rather more like a "historical probability." Marx treats a global phenomenon – system change – that naturally does not take place overnight. The transition from slavery to feudalism took centuries and happened at different speeds in different countries. We can only speak of the necessity of such changes in extremely abstract terms, and we must admit that various events, including the behaviour of important groups, can accelerate or hamper the development of the process.
"In developments of such magnitude twenty years are more than a day – though later on days may come again comprising twenty years." (Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, Progress Publishers: Moscow, p. 131).
In such a context, the suggestion to "shorten the murderous death agonies of old society" through terror, a suggestion which was never disavowed later on, seems rather inviting. The idea of historical necessity does not rule out this method whatsoever. This is how man became inevitably mortal, although he has the capacity to shorten or lengthen his existence. If indeed the next world is clearly preferable to earthly life, then it would be doing him a favour to kill him...
It is today widely held that Lenin got "a bit ahead of himself" because Russia was not ready for socialism, it was industrially too backward. But this opinion is in no way backed up by what Marx wrote. We remember that he discovered the spectre of communism in Europe in 1848, spectre that seemed so real to him that he immediately invited the proletarians to unite and got busy creating his International. But Russia in 1917 was more industrially developed than Europe seventy years prior.
Some will badger on about it being the young Marx. Nonetheless, he republished his Manifesto again in 1871, at the height of the Paris Commune, and in 1872, proving that the mature Marx had not given up on his enchanting vision. And Russia at the beginning of the 20th century was not dissimilar to Europe at the time of the Franco-Prussian war. Moreover, Marx at his most mature gave his blessing to the revolutionary action of Russian Marxists in a letter to Vera Zasulich in 1881. In any case, he acknowledged the possibility of a transition to socialism in Russia, thanks to some peculiarity or other of the rural community. Engels was to correspond with Russian Marxists almost until the end of his life and encouraged them in every possible way. (Refer to Leonard Shapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 1975).
The question, in other words, was left unanswered and was not essential to Lenin who, in any case, was not planning on establishing socialism only in Russia. Let us remember that for Marx a historic event on the scale of a change of social system should take place inevitably in countries that presented roughly the same degree of development. His conceptions of capitalism and socialism, of work and capital are international. He therefore envisaged a change of system in industrialised Europe, of which Russia, industrially, was obviously a part. The analysis of European tendencies in the second year of the First World War convinced Lenin that the universal crisis of capitalism, predicted by Marx and long-awaited, had finally arrived.
The largest countries of the industrial West were reaching the final stage – imperialism – characterised by the extreme concentration of capital, by the struggle for the sources of raw materials, by the fusion of financial and industrial capital and, as a result, by the division of the world into colonial empires.
And indeed this war, the craziest of all, had seriously shaken Europe. Millions of men, thrown into the trenches, had been torn from any productive activity, while the necessities of war were devouring resources. Furthermore, the very folly of this slaughter and the colossal losses of all the belligerents seemed to have once and for all destroyed faith in the values of the old pre-war world. Ideas like country, democracy, patriotism rang coarse, for they had been used to send men to the slaughter. The old seemed rotten, the new attractive and salutary. What was happening was so monstruous that human reason could not find a normal explanation for it and was thus more vulnerable to Marxist propaganda and its ideas of monopoly conspiracy and class struggle. The prestige of religion had slumped remarkably: almost all churches had given their blessing to this butchery. Men had grown used to blood, suffering and death and therefore became indifferent to violence, their cruelty was awakened, and human life became devalued. However, it was not Lenin who made this discovery: the leaders of European socialism had come to the same conclusion. Thus Rudolf Hilferding, the theoretician of German social-democracy, as early as 1910 attempted to establish that the final stage of capitalism had begun, in his book Finance Capital. In 1913, this opinion was widely held. By Rosa Luxemburg’s own admission:
"Though imperialism is the historical method for prolonging the career of capitalism, it is also a sure means of bringing it to a swift conclusion." (R. Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital, transssl. Agnes Schwarzschild, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., London, p. 446).
Capitalism, as we are made well aware, has been incredibly lucky: to think that its inevitable end was being predicted every ten years! Should we be surprised that the First World War, and the horrific devastation it wreaked, seemed like the end of an era? If Marx was right to declare it inevitable, could there ever be a more favourable moment for this event to take place?
Translated from French by Arthur Beard