Forum Post: Rise, and Fall, of Soviet Communism - A Primer
Posted 11 years ago on Oct. 16, 2011, 6:15 p.m. EST by UnemployedLaw
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THE RISE: HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Russia is one of the most important countries in the world for many and varied reasons. Russia experienced the breakdown of the Tsarist regime and triumph of the Bolsheviks; Lenin's New Economic Policy (NEP); Stalin's consolidation of power; the terror of collectivization and party purges of the 1930s; bloody horrors of the war in the 1940s; and the death of Stalin finally in 1953. Then of course you have Khrushchev's efforts at de-Stalinization and Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost in the 1980s.
If you want to understand Russian thinking, you need to study Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. Prior to communism, Russia was this vast empire ruled by a divine-right emperor, Tsar Nicholas II. Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra were these traditional, conservative---"let them eat cake" if you would---rulers. More terrifying perhaps, Tsar Nicholas II adopted his rule on the model of Tsars Ivan IV (The Dread) and Alexi Mikhailvoich (The Most Gentle). He was a total autocrat. If you offended him, you were in breach of religious and civil offenses. Political crimes were capital offenses and you were subjected to the death penalty. Speaking of which, capital punishment was used much more by Lenin and Stalin than Tsar Nicholas II.
From Peter the Great onward, Russia was a multinational state. It was massive, huge, diverse. The majority of the population were Slavic. The core of this empire were Russians, a minority. Obviously, this fostered economic and ethnic tensions that led to violent confrontations. Severe discrimination against Jews occurred with progroms.
Hostility toward capitalism emerged because of the market forces creating both (a) risk and (b) opportunity. The gulf between the wealthy merchant elite and an impoverished laboring population grew substantially during the industrial revolution. The government promoted rapid capitalist development while suppressing the social disaffects, which created an unstable society.
The liberal and revolutionary opposition to the conservative, divine-right rule of Nicholas II was inevitable, I would argue. Violent clashes between the authorities and labor-movement demonstrators occurred ("Bloody Sunday"). The government took some steps to address concerns, but political parties were coming into being; split factions; coalitions; and the extinction of some other groups. The parties represented a wide spectrum of political outlooks. Some of the issues espoused by these political parties would at first seem bewildering. However, they were trying to find solutions to very real economic, social, and foreign-affairs problems facing Russia.
One party, the Ultra-Nationalists, were promonarchist, anti-constitution, anti-Semitic, AND anti-capitalist. It was a major force in Russian politics and defended the interests of the landowners and clergy.
The Constitutionalist parties defend constitutional monarchy, private party, and a market economy; it was really the merchants and landed elites but saw itself as the future of Russia. The Constitutional Democrats were a hybrid of a less radical wing of pro-British constitutional monarchy and representative democracy.
The Agragrian revolutions included the Socialist Revolutions who sought to build Russian socialism on the model of the peasant commune. They called for the elimination of the nobility and market capitalism. The factions included minimalists and maximalists. The maximalists engaged in notorious terrorist activities.
The Social Democrats were internationalists and anti-capitalist. They really tried to exploit anti-capitalist sentiment, but they were also hostile to the monarchy and had contempt for the propertied elites (nobility, merchants, etc.).
Thought: The traditionalist approach of Tsar Nicholas II combined with the extremes sought by the political parties---and the fractiousness of the political parties---prevented solutions from developing.
WORLD WAR I
WWI was a total disaster for Russia. It revealed the bankruptcy of the Tsarist regime. Russia was victim to interlinking alliances that turned small Balkian incidents into a Great War. By entangling Russia to Slavic interests, and Russia's low military preparedness compared with countries such as Germany, resulted in a series of defeats. Russia was in retreat on the central front, and the use of "scorched earth" reminiscent of the Napoleonic invasion created even more hardships.
The assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo precipitated a flurry of diplomatic activity and military mobilization across all of Europe. Russia wavered between limited and general mobilization. After Russia pursued full mobilization, France and Germany followed suit and a peaceful resolution was useless.
The Russian people were divided: the countryside did not support mobilization, but the people in the large cities generally did. Leading political parties (not the Bolsheviks) supported the war. At first, the intelligentsia supported the war. These supportive groups thought that the war would be - short. The Russian-French plan failed to achieve a quick victory, and by 1915 Russia abandoned its forward line of fortresses and arsenals and shortages of ammunition occurred.
The Tsar assumed the position as Commander in Chief of the armed forces. The Tsar was basically a failure, and political opposition began to rise against him. Palace conspiracies emerged and led to the murder of Rasputin, a monk who controlled Empress Alexandra (and by extension Tsar Nicholas II). Nicholas II and his family were arrested. The situation was totally unsable.
Revolution was imminent.
LENIN AND BOLSHEVISM
Most people want to know why the "Russian Revolution" became a "Communist Revolution." In order to do that, you need to understand the intellectual underpinings of Leninism. The great proletarian revolution occurred in Russia but not other industrialized Western countries.
The Russian intelligentsia was fascinated by Marx. The populists considered Marx a critic of capitalism who was able to identify the "crippling" effects of the division of labor. The idea that class antagonism propels history through successive stages (slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism) . . . each transition marked by revolution, was considered the "laws" of historical development. Russia must experience capitalism, that stage, in order for a socialist revolution to be possible. Premature revolution would result in disaster.
Lenin's road to capitalism was shaped by the arrest of his and hanging of his brother. Lenin hated liberalism. Lenin was really an elitist who believed in the power of intellectual to lead the masses. Lenin's central idea was the role of a proletarian vanguard to guide the revolution. If left to their own devises, workers are capable of only a "trade-union consciousness." Revolutionary consciousness was necessary.
Lenin saw the revolution as an international phenomenon. He wanted Russia to unite and transform the revolution against the Tsarist regime into a proletarian revolution. He demanded the transition to socialism and the destruction of the ruling elite, effectively creating a proletarian dictatorship. Banks would be seized and property nationalized. The money economy would also go and be replaced with a planned economy.
Lenin's program meant a civil war between hostile social classes was inevitable. Lenin did not foresee that destroying the market would be just about impossible, and he did not want a division of powers in a proletarian government. He also expected socialism to spread rapidly in Western countries.
LENIN IN POWER
Really, I think there were two revolutions: (1) the end of the autocratic, Tsarist rgime and (2) the rise of Lenin and Bolsheviks. Both revolutions were a respond to war, social tensions, and the disintegration of political and economic arrangements.
Strikes occurred due to the absence of bread. Within hours of textile strikes, the metallurgy workers started a strike. In a day, 75,000 workers were on strike. By the next morning, 200,000. Imperial control was lost due to resignations and the abdication of Nicholas II. After his abdication, he and his family were arrested.
No political party discussed above directed the revolution. Factions jockeyed for influence, illustrating a difference between conscious revolution and spontaneous revolution. Shadow administrations began to take shape. Within the military, control and authority of officers associated with the imperial regime were challenged.
A Provisional Government ascended, with the socialists having a marginal presence. Soon, however, it became an all-socialist government. Reforms were adopted: legal, laws against discrimination, universal suffrage for all adults (including women), etc.
The Provisional Government did not remove Russia from WWI, although Lenin always advocated for Russian removal from WWI. The Bolsheviks were driven underground and planned insurrection. Lenin's strategy of seizing power triumphed.
So, the Bolsheviks effectively seized power from the other parties in the Provisional Government. In spite of all odds against them---military opposition internal and external, nationalistic forces in Russian empire, foreign interventions---Lenin and Bolsheviks prevailed. Ruthless party discipline and a lack of coordination among the opposing forces---and good luck---is what enabled them to prevail.
The victory of the Bolsheviks led to party leaders appointed to executive positions in the Second Congress of Soviets. The Soviet established the Council of People's Commissars, under control of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet. Both bodies were dominated by the Bolsheviks. Real power was vested in the Bolshevik party Central Committee, not in the representative Soviet or government. Lenin was the chair of the Council of People's Commissars (but his power was from his authority in the party's Central Committee).
The Bolsheviks shut down the unfriendly press. Lenin then created a secret political police force---Checka---to conduct state terrorism against political enemies. Repression resulted in the emergence of concentration camps, and the Red Terror reached its height.
The Bolsheviks seized the banks and established control over money. Nationalization of the banks soon followed. Some crucial industries were nationalized, but most remained in private control for some time. Frankly, the Bolsheviks basically controlled the market system. Unions were permitted for some time because the Bolsheviks controlled most union boards. The Bolsheviks opposed unions not within their control. The Bolsheviks also encouraged peasant land seizures as a means of class warfare against the landed nobility and elites. Private ownership of land was ultimately abolished.
Poland, Finland, and the Ukraine left the Russian empire. Yet, much of the old Russian empire was reconfigured as a new Soviet Empire.
SOVIET "GOLDEN AGE"
The 1920s were portrayed as the "golden age" of Soviet communism: cultural vitality, utopian dreams, peace, and market socialism. During this time, Lenin imposed repressive measures to stamp out all opposition.
Numerous peasant protests emerge against food requisitioning and the presence of Soviet institution in the countryside. Around 40,000 peasants engaged in classic guerrilla warfare that the regular army was not able to suppress. Famine also occurred. So much for a golden age as far as I am concerned.
Anyway, the government responded with the New Economic Policy (NEP). It was to provide breathing space for the Bolsheviks. The goal was the elimination of food requisitioning and the production of grain with a limited market economy. The NEP allowed limited private economic activity in cities and service sectors. The NEP achieved its main objectives, but the cost was an ideological retreat from economic policy.
The NEP was accompanied by ideological controls to prohibit opposition within the Communist Party. Confrontation with the Orthodox Church emerges. Ironically, the famine was used as a pretext to attack the Church and place Patriarch Tikhon under house arrest and arrest bishops and priests and even execute them. Religious beliefs were ridiculed and church buildings were closed, confiscated, or destroyed. Communists also attacked the Jews as well.
Lenin suffered several strokes and ultimately lost the ability to speak. He died and was apotheosized. A power vacuum emerged, and Trotsky was the only leader with stature to rival Lenin's. Josef Stalin emerged as Lenin's successor: he was rude, crude, and ruthless. Stalin would eliminate his rivals and fully control the party.
This marked the start of the Stalin era of Russian history.
The government pursued a 5-Year Plan to build infrastructure. The government assigned half the budget to enormous projects: dams, railroads, factory cities, etc.
The rapid development was expected to make people . . . happy. The government began criminals trials for those that opposed the 5-Year Plan. Well, the 5-Year Plan resulted in long-term, central control of economic planning; it created economic chaos; it also created the falsification of output. The Soviet economy would be plagued until the end of the Soviet rule 60 years later.
The collectivization of agriculture resulted in rural collectives: labor was assigned to socialist planning and farming was mechanized to make farming more productive. Opposition was enormous, and so-called rich peasants were liquidated. Frankly, no one seemed to rural understand village social stratification or the demographic patterns of village life.
In fact, formal asset to collectivization was required; the rich peasants were removed; and Red Army units, security police, and worker detachments were required to enforce collectivization. Terror famine also emerged: malnutrition, starvation, and even cannibalism. The terror famine killed five million people.
So, collectivization really resulted in Soviet control of the countryside. It created a serfdom for the peasantry. It resulted in the deaths of a great deal many and reduction of agricultural production.
THE GREAT TERROR
Stalin is the party leader and imposes the 5-Year Plan and forced collectivization. Because of this, opposition emerged. To combat this opposition, Stalin responded with the "Great Terror."
Stalin purged the party and army of real or perceived enemies. Mass arrests followed show trials in which the accused were forced to confess their guilt. Most of these accused were executed or shipped off to concentration camps (See Alexander Slshenitzyn's "Gulag Archipelago").
During the Great Terror, as many as 1 million death sentences were handed down and up to 5.5 million people were arrested. Surprisingly, there was little resistance to these large-scale arrests. It seems that the people believed government propaganda. The other issue of course is that political organization was outlawed. So no real opposition would be able to emerge anyway.
State prisons and camp systems were brutal, efficient, and cruel. The camps were supposed to reeducate and rehabilitate prisoners, but they were in fact punitive. I also recommend Slzhenitzyn's, "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich."
Stalinism/Nazism: both destroyed the private sphere of life; both eliminate legal protections for citizens; both used power ruthlessly; both suppressed political opposition; and both used death camps.
As you can see, Soviet policies were being abandoned. Perestroika extended to foreign policy as well as internal and economic policies. Glasnost, or openness, emerged: more freedom for writers, artists, and citizens. The Communist Party was restructured. Stalinism was abandoned and "true" Leninism was pursued. New thinking emerged - about foreign policy and domestic affairs. Gorbachev wanted to reduced tensions with the U.S. and sought a reduction in the arms race (perhaps even its termination).
Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism were repudiated and discredited, ultimately. Many sought to accelrate reform. Economic reforms set the stage for Boris Yelstin's proposals. The dissolution of the Soviet Union occurred in 1991, rapidly. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Leningrad symbolically became St. Petersburg. The government rebuilt imperial monuments and the "Hammer and Sickle" flag was replaced with the hold Russian flag.
Yelstin is worth mentioning: war in Chechyna to quash independence; tanks against the Russian Parliament in 1993; creation fo the presidential security service.
Russia is a post-imperial empire. The Russian government grapples with a conversion to Western market-based economic system. The absence of a strong legal system empowers the mafia in Russia. Mafia "protection" is an unholy alliance among banks, private armies, and politicians taking advantage of economic confusion. The losers of this model include state works (unpaid) and pensioners (devastated by inflation) and other works who lost their homes and jobs. Winners engaged in conspicuous (contemptuous?) consumption.
Authoritarian habits, imperial thinking, and anti-market sentiments create a volatile political brew in Russia.
Frankly, National Socialism and Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism displayed many and varied similarities. Germany and Russia were long-standing enemies, having fought in WWI. Germany defeated Russian armies, and the Bolsheviks negotiated a peace treaty.
It was a struggle to see what system would dominate Europe. The Spanish Civil War was the preliminary round of a coming conflict.
The central axiom of Nazism was German racial superiority. An aside: National Socialism emerged in Southern Germany, around Munich, and many of those "Germans" were Catholic. More interesting, Slavic. These Germans, not aware they were Slavic, considered Slavs to be inferior to Germans. This axiom meant the eliminate of Jews in Europe. The Soviet Union had a substantial Jewish population. Worse, the Germans considered Russians fit only for slavery and extermination for the long term. These "people" (Nazis) were sick and insane.
Anyway, Nazis wanted "living room" in the East. The idea was to colonize Ukraine---people fit to support Germans---and Russia. In fact, in Mein Kampf, Hitler demands the Eastern territory (we cannot say we were not warned).
Soviet policy toward the Nazis was inconsistent. Soviets favored a pro-German policy ostensibly. The Soviets were opposed to German Social Democrats and instructed German Communists to work agaisnt them. Stalin's friendly policy toward Hitler was criticized. The Soviets and Germans would sign a nonaggression pact.
The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 was a ten-year nonaggression agreement and included secret protocols to provide for the partition of Poland and the division of Europe between Soviet and German spheres. It also meant that the Soviets approved of Germany's aggression in Europe against other countries.
When the Soviets invaded Poland, the Polish could not resist the Nazi blitzkrieg from the West. Soviets arrested the intellectuals, property owners, priests, and government officials. The Soviets wanted the Baltic states and treaties emerge. The Finns resisted the Soviets and a war resulted, in which the Soviets triumphed. All of these Soviet acquisitions were . . . foolish. The buffer between the Soviets and Nazis was eliminated, leading to conflict. The Soviets also ignored warnings from Churchill that the Nazis would invade Russia.
Operation Barbarossa was the massive German invasion against Russia in 1941. The Soviets were not prepared at all. The Germans captured hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops. Ultimately, the Russians paid dearly for their aggression into the Baltic states and Finland and for a false sense of security from the nonaggression pact with Nazis.
German forces were not able to capture the capital with the Soviet defensive line and counteroffensive tactics. The Germans altered their plan and surrendered at Stalingrad. The Soviets then assumed the offensive and made advances. The Red Army expelled German forces from the Soviet Union. The Soviets then prevailed in Poland. The Soviets advanced to Berlin in May 1945.
Something to keep in mind about Soviet losses: The Nazi siege of Leningrad resulted in more Soviet deaths than those of the British and U.S. combined for the total war. The war was also incredibly brutal: all of the prisoners from Stalingrad on the Nazi side . . . disappeared. The Nazis mistreated Soviet POWs: starvation diet, unsanitary conditions, high incidence of disease, and high casualties from battlefield wounds. Soviet POWs were later forced to hard labor.
Although after WWII, the Soviet Union emerged as a great power; it was an insecure "great power." The Soviet Union also foolishly decided to not participate in the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe on ideological grounds. The Soviet Union's pursuit of nuclear power did some to diminish its insecurity. The Soviet Union failed to provide the material, basic needs of its people, yet it was a superpower.