Post-Bernie Socialism: Reform or Revolution?

bernie_sanders_284954058943229Earlier this week, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden in Biden’s campaign for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the presidential election last this year. This was a pretty remarkable development, not just because in 2016 Sanders only grudgingly supported Hillary Rodham Clinton for the same nomination after a long, acrimonious primary battle that continued all the way to the Democratic convention and the fight over the content of the Democratic platform. In endorsing Biden, Sanders beat other progressive Democrats like U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Sanders even endorsed Biden before former President Barack Obama, Biden’s former running mate, did.

It seems outlandish given his well-established antagonism toward the Democratic establishment, but Sanders has a close friendship with Biden, which was on display during the video conference announcing the endorsement. Biden has been a U.S. Senator from Delaware since 1973, served as chair of the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees, and of course was Vice President of the U.S. from 2009 to 2017. He is as much part of the Democratic ruling class as Clinton, and like her, helped pass the 1994 Crime Bill (responsible for the mass incarceration in U.S. prisons, especially of people of color) and voted for the Iraq War in 2002. Also like Clinton, he has been more friend than foe to Wall Street, billionaire donors, and other private interests. Yet when Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and Sanders supporter, penned an op-ed calling out Biden for his “big corruption problem,” Sanders condemned the piece and apologized to Biden, saying it was not his opinion “that Joe is corrupt in any way.”

334px-joe_biden_-_world_economic_forum_annual_meeting_davos_2005_portraitIt was a bizarre statement to make, especially since Biden is well-known for championing a 2005 bankruptcy bill, legislation that made it much more difficult for debtors to file for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy that would wipe out most of their debts. Thanks in large part to Biden, the bill made bankruptcy too expensive for most ordinary people, with the average out-of-pocket cost increasing from $600 to $2,500. Why did Biden side with lenders over borrowers? It is no coincidence that Biden’s state, Delaware, has a history of courting banks and credit card companies with low corporate taxes and uncapped annual interest and late fees. Hence, Biden has been responsible for building, as journalist Tim Murphy put it, “a financial system that’s great for Delaware banks and terrible for the rest of us.”

Given the discrepancy in self-described “socialist” Bernie Sanders backing Joe Biden, whose fingerprints are all over the embattled status quo that is failing so many, it is unsurprising that many Sanders supporters are indicating they will not support a Biden candidacy. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a long-time left-wing pressure group that surged with new members after Sanders’ 2016 insurgent campaign, has said it will not endorse Biden, as have many rank-and-file DSA chapters and members. It seems hardly remarkable that an organization explicitly dedicated to promoting anti-capitalist policies would decline to throw in behind in the capitalist, pro-business Biden.

320px-traditional_workers_may_day_rally_and_march_chicago_illinois_5-1-18_1290_282699088805729Sanders caught the public mood in 2016, tapping into a raft of popular grievances over rising economic inequality, the existential crisis posed by climate change, government gridlock and venality, and a general mistrust of major U.S. institutions. But while the Republican Party hooked its star to Donald Trump and his brand of bellicose right-wing populism, the Democratic establishment has largely resisted any major shifts to the left. Even now in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis that has revealed how fragile and broken the U.S. and its principal systems and processes really are, discussion of student loan forgiveness and more accessible higher education include conditionalities and caveats, such as means-testing—and that is before the inevitable compromise and amendments that will come when/if such legislation is hashed out in Congress, with a far-right Republican Party that will surely oppose any attempts to increase social spending. If history is any guide, the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill will spark bipartisan calls for “deficit reduction,” i.e. austerity. The stimulus bill passed to address the financial crisis of 2007-08 led to the Obama administration creating the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which called for huge spending cuts (including slashing Medicare and Medicaid plus raising the Social Security age). Biden, incidentally, backed the commission, appointing GOP deficit hawk Alan Simpson to it, as well as his own chief of staff, Bruce Reed. Reed wrote the 1996 welfare reform law, which made it more difficult for people in poverty to get the assistance they need.

Given all this, the DSA membership and other anti-capitalists devoted to overturning the status quo have every right to be skeptical of Biden and the Democratic elite he represents. This begs the question, however, of how U.S. socialism should proceed: continuing to work with the Democratic Party to somehow oversee a gradual, lawful transition to socialism, or to adopt the traditional violent, insurrectionist approach ultimately leading to substituting the bourgeois state with a dictatorship of the proletariat. The chief difficulty with the latter strategy is its unpopularity, especially given the “bourgeois-democratic and parliamentary prejudices” of the “backward masses,” as Lenin once put it. For obvious reasons, people are reluctant to engage in violence against the state, especially in situations where state power is strong and still widely seen as legitimate. In the advanced capitalist West particularly, where the standard of living is relatively high even for the working poor, scraping by in a daily struggle is preferable to being imprisoned or killed. There is also the historical context: communist revolution in Western countries was eminently more likely in the direct aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the inspiring establishment of the first ever socialist state, much more so than now, given the “victory” of neoliberal capitalism over the Soviet Union. While the Bolshevik example roused a revolutionary wave across Europe from 1917 to 1923, these proletarian insurgencies failed, prompting the Stalinist regime to adopt “socialism in one country,” i.e. focusing on domestic development over exporting revolution. By the 1930s, most European communist parties had adopted a strategy of forming “popular fronts” with non-communist parties against fascism. Spanish communists took part the Popular Front government elected in 1936. In 1951, with the blessing of Stalin, the Communist Party of Great Britain published The British Road to Socialism, a program arguing for implementing socialism through popular democratic alliances rather than revolution. The French Communist Party was the leading left-wing party in French national elections from 1945 to 1960 and entered into coalition governments three times between 1944 and 1997. Outside Europe, the pattern was much the same. Chilean communists participated in the Popular Unity political confederation that helped elect Salvador Allende in the 1970 presidential election.

s.allende_7_dias_ilustradosIn all these cases, communist parties had two things in common. The first is that they embraced the reformist attitude of attaining socialism by piecemeal, peaceful reform. The second thing they share is that they all failed. Spain fell into a bloody civil war in 1936 when right-wing forces launched a coup, leading to the widespread massacre of communists and their allies, something the country still struggles to acknowledge. The Communist Party of Great Britain lost much of its influence after the 1956 protests in Poznan, Poland, and the anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary. The French Communist Party never recovered after denouncing the civil unrest of May 1968, which involved student occupations and general strikes, an instance where communists sided with the state against popular revolt. In Chile, the military overthrew the elected Allende government and brutally repressed all left-wing dissidents, with the approval and assistance of the Nixon administration in the U.S. In recent decades, many Western countries, notably the United Kingdom and the U.S., have seen surges in electoral socialism (manifested by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, respectively), but these surges failed to overcome opposition by centrists and private interests unwilling to loosen their grip on power. These defeats beg the question: is socialism via constitutional reformism even possible?

Aerial view Beaumaris Castle (CD34) Anglesey North Castles Historic SitesThe answer is that it is not, for one simple reason: the power of the capitalist ruling class does not exist outside civil society, purely in the political and economic domains. Power in capitalist societies should not be represented as a central tower to be slowly besieged by an organized, agitated mass movement; it is instead a concentric castle with inner and outer wards, defenses within defenses. Even assuming there was a socialist majority in Congress with a sympathetic executive and Supreme Court, abolishing capitalism would be impossible by merely passing a law. Granted, it would be possible to increase the rate of corporate tax and taxes on wealth, to pass laws raising the minimum wage or breaking up monopolies (such as in the tech industry), and by extension weaken the fundamental mechanisms of capitalism. As history shows, however, the capitalist class does not take this sitting down; their responses are layoffs, cutting of benefits (particularly harsh in a system where health care is a “job perk,” not a human right), reduced wages, accelerated inflation, and so on. Like falling dominoes, economic destabilization leads to the fraying of social life, with spikes in homelessness, malnutrition, drug abuse, riots, etc. The capitalist relations of production are not a Jenga tower to be gently altered piece-by-piece; it must be dismantled in its entirety in one go, in a chaotic period of not just political upheaval but also turbulent socioeconomic crisis.

Lenin described these moments of crisis as “revolutionary situations,” and identified them according to their “three major symptoms,” which are as follows:

 

(1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes,” a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time,” but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.

Reformism actually stultifies the creation of revolutionary situations by affording the status quo the very legitimacy it must lose for a revolution to occur. The strategy of influencing the Democratic Party to adopt socialist policies, for example, is only possible with the belief that it is, as advertised, a vehicle of popular demand. “Mass politics” becomes canvassing for candidates and “getting out the vote” instead of “independent historical action,” the overthrow of one ruling class for another. Certainly in populist times such as the present, it is true that the “lower classes do not want to” live in the old way, but as long as existing dominant institutions are treated as valid, it remains true that the “upper class” continues to live in the old way. The COVID-19 pandemic is clearly adding to the “suffering and want” that already existed for most ordinary people around the world before the crisis began, but even as misery is multiplied, there can no revolutionary situation if the majority work within the system instead of outside it.

If socialism is to remain at all relevant in our politics, there must be a reckoning with this basic paradox of Western socialism: the common aversion to any strategy that is not reformist, and the futility of effectively carrying out any strategy that is. It is important to remember that it is not violence that most people disfavor (indeed, history shows us the opposite is true) so much as the hard work of building a new society, a messy class struggle across all parts of life. Without a willingness to engage in that struggle, to take that leap of faith that a better world will follow the destruction of the old one, that new world cannot be born. It is also important to remember that Lenin directed the seizure of power in April 1917 in the aptly named April Theses, and yet the revolution did not happen until Red October, and of course was followed by several years of gruesome civil war. It is no surprise that class war is more appealing in theory than in practice.

Simultaneously, however, we must confront the absence of any alternative, as well as the likelihood of the crisis deepening the longer the old discredited order persists past its time. There is also the risk of revolution of the right-wing variety; right-wing militias are ubiquitous in the U.S., and the military, despite its traditional respect for civilian government, is one of the most powerful, well-funded pillars of U.S. empire. The collapse of the old order will not wait on us, and were it to happen tomorrow, it is the forces of reaction that are poised to exploit its arrival. Whether that arrival is imminent remains to be seen; in the meantime, it is up to the radical left to resolve that age-old question that has followed Western socialists for centuries: reform or revolution?

Bolivia: Anatomy of a Coup

192px-morales_20060113_02To understand recent events in Bolivia, it is necessary to have historical context. No event occurs in isolation from the past. With such information we can interpret the present, especially when we should be critical of the representation of events featured in Western media. Armed with the history, we see the coup against Evo Morales not as a spontaneous revolt brought on by constitutional zeal, but the latest intervention against a socialist leader in the form of a U.S.-endorsed coup, with control over natural resources and geopolitics at the center of it all. Just as indigenous rebels were suppressed in the colonial past to guarantee the smooth flow of treasure from Latin America, so too has Morales and his supporters been toppled so gas and lithium could move cheaply into factories owned by Western multinational corporations. The mainstream political left has been slow to admit it, but even presidential candidates are calling it a coup.

180px-potosi_mines_287162578429From the 16th to the 19th centuries the Spanish Empire controlled most of the New World, with the wealth of Latin America enriching the monarchy in Madrid. Silver was one of the continent’s top exports, especially a huge deposit at Potosí in modern Bolivia. In a little over a century and a half, the silver stolen by Spain from Latin America totaled three times the total European reserves. Ultimately, most of the loot went to the empire’s creditors, the patrician moneylenders of the era. Today, Bolivia still has the resources, but none of the wealth. According to the 2018 Human Development Index, an annual report by the United Nations Development Programme, ranks Bolivia with Vietnam and Palestine in terms of life expectancy, education, and quality of life. Eduardo Galeano, in his seminal work Open Veins of Latin America, quotes an old lady from Potosí: “The city which has given most to the world and has the least.”

To those who study development and underdevelopment, the idea of “rich countries with poor people” is nothing new. Hundreds of billions of dollars leave Sub-Saharan Africa every year, either through the repatriated profits of multinationals or illegal deposits in offshore tax havens and Swiss bank accounts, and yet the continent contains some of worst poverty and weakest institutions in the world. So too does Latin America. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the proportion of Latin Americans living in extreme poverty increased from 9.9 percent in 2016 to 10.2 percent (62 million people) in 2017. Fundamental social protections and fair wealth distributions remain as elusive today as they did in the colonial period.

160px-pongo_0436bThis is especially true for the indigenous people of Latin America, who also have historically been excluded from political power since colonialism. As in the United States, social conflict exists along racial as well as class lines. The “indios” of Latin America are associated not just with poverty but also witchcraft, anathema to right-wing Latin Catholicism. Bolivia is unique among Latin American states in having around three dozen indigenous groups totaling around half the country’s population. White Bolivians make up just 14 percent of the population, centered in the commercial city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, which produces approximately 35 percent of Bolivia’s gross domestic product. In the 1960s, the famous communist revolutionary Che Guevara felt inspired to fight in the mountains of Bolivia against the government of Rene Barrientos, a right-wing general who had seized power with CIA backing in 1964. By then, tin had supplanted silver as Bolivia’s prized export. Notably, Bolivia did not smelt the minerals it produced; this was done in the industrial heartlands of the Midwestern U.S. and northern England. By blatantly thieving the resources of poorer nations, the capitalist powers fueled their own post-war economic boom, with the surplus wealth shared with the U.S. or British worker. For the Bolivian working class and the indigenous population, there was no investment in social services or poverty reduction, just human suffering. The so-called “Golden Age of Capitalism” for the West came at the expense of the continued exploitation of Latin resources and the repression of Latin peoples.

4531933336_6f38b13f24_bIt was not until 1982 that Bolivia knew something other than military dictatorships and coups, with civilian rule finally being restored. Bolivians, however, did not control their own economy; hyperinflation had reached elevated levels, scaring off foreign investors. As it so often did in the region, the World Bank stepped in, attaching preconditions to its economic assistance. Following a program of structural adjustment, Bolivia privatized its hydrocarbon industry, its telecommunications system, its railways, and its national airlines. In late 1999, riots broke out in the city of Cochabamba over the privatization of the water system. A consortium who took control of the system began charging $20 a month for access to water, ignorant that most Bolivians only earned around $100 a month. The “Cochabamba Water War” led to the privatization being reversed.

In 2003 similar protests over the privatization of hydrocarbons led to the fall of the pro-neoliberal government and, in 2005, the historic election of Evo Morales, the first indigenous president in Latin American history. Morales was a former cocalero, a grower of the coca leaf, who entered political organization just as indigenous movements across the Andes were demanding greater representation. Ironically, it was the U.S. itself that fueled these movements with the forcible expansion of its “War on Drugs” into South America and the resulting criminalization of the coca plant. Elsewhere, in Peru, the right-wing, anti-communist Alberto Fujimori government oversaw the forced sterilization of around 300,000 poor, indigenous women, one of the largest such operations since the days of Nazi Germany. While rarely mentioned in the West, such a human tragedy provides a timely reminder how exclusion can so easily lead into ethnic cleansing and even systemic genocide of marginalized populations.

With mines closing and coca farming banned, indigenous Bolivians developed powerful grassroot networks for improved social and political inclusion. The Movement for Socialism in Bolivia was one such network, and Morales used its popular strength to launch a series of reforms based around (1) taking natural resources into public ownership and (2) using the wealth to invest in education, health care, and other social programs. Indeed, whatever else one thinks of Morales, it is undisputed under his administration poverty was significantly reduced for the majority of Bolivians. Morales lowered poverty by 42 percent and extreme poverty by 60 percent between 2006 and 2019, according to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

320px-evo_morales_chapareMorales was part of a “pink tide” sweeping through Latin America in the early 21st century. Hugo Chavez, a self-proclaimed socialist like Morales, had also come to power via the ballot box in 1998 with a similar anti-U.S., anti-neoliberal agenda. Like Chavez, Morales was a charismatic figure with an anti-imperialist message who had to instantly contend with U.S.-backed reactionary elites. Unlike Chavez, Morales did not take the profits of the 2000s commodities boom and spend it lavishly, running budget deficits as Venezuela did. Instead, Bolivia had a budget surplus every year between 2006 and 2014. Morales embraced a “socialism lite” that saw much more gradual nationalizations and more market-friendly policies. Earlier in 2019, Nicolas Maduro barely hung onto power as another U.S.-backed coup attempt sparked and fizzled. Meanwhile, Evo Morales went into a presidential election to serve a fourth term as president of Bolivia.

Morales had won his two previous elections with majorities around 60 percent, but in 2019 the vote was much closer. Morales had tried and failed to get a referendum passed that would have enabled him to circumvent a constitutional term limit (written and ratified under Morales himself) but had decided to run again anyway. When opposition members disputed results that gave Morales the victory, the Organization of American States stepped in to investigate the integrity of the election. The O.A.S., under U.S. direction since the Cold War, had been a staunch critic of Castro’s Cuba and Chavez’s Venezuela, albeit muted on the human rights abuses of pro-U.S. dictatorships. Now it added Morales’ Bolivia to its list of rogue Latin states. The message advanced by the opposition and repeated in the Western press was that Morales’ violation of the constitutional term limits had sparked a national revolution against tyranny.

juventud-sczIt seems a tall tale to think that ordinary Bolivians would care so much about term limits that they would send their country into anarchy and possible civil war. If there was such public indignation, it was not represented by the close result of the earlier referendum vote. What was actually represented during the post-election crisis was the anti-indigenous racism and class antagonism of the wealthy Santa Cruz elites. Luis Fernando Camacho, a leader of the Santa Cruz autonomy group, has ties to a far-right paramilitary group with a history of targeting indigenous Bolivians. These are not the masses, but the local commercial bourgeoisie, the white descendants of white colonizers. They would gladly foment civil war, as their Venezuelan counterparts have tried to do, if it would mean the chance to enhance their fortunes with the blessing of Washington behind them. The rich whites of Bolivia live the anxiety of rich whites in the U.S.: exploited non-whites organizing and agitating for immense political, social, and economic reform.

It is worth remembering to those who would paint Morales’ eventual resignation as an organic act of democratization that this only happened after the military intervened. Given the long record of military coups supported by the U.S. in Latin American against left-leaning governments (Paraguay 1954, Brazil 1964, Chile 1973, Argentina 1976, etc.), it seems absurd that anyone would believe what happened in Bolivia was not a coup. More than that, it seems naïve in the extreme to believe that it was not a coup with support from the U.S. government with the goal of forcibly dismantling socialism.

320px-20170809_bolivia_1505_crop_uyuni_srgb_283798006393129Before the coup, Morales was in the process of industrializing lithium production in Bolivia. The country contains the world’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni, believed to have 50 to 70 percent of the world’s known lithium reserves. Lithium has become a valuable commodity with the development of lithium ion batteries and a greater global turn to renewable energy sources. Typically, valuable minerals like lithium are extracted in their crudest raw forms from underdeveloped countries to be processed in the developed Western hegemons, just as silver and tin ore was smelted in Pittsburgh and Liverpool. To prevent this, Morales began investing heavily in creating all the necessary industrial capacity within Bolivia to process lithium. Assuming Morales eventually brought the lithium industry into public ownership (which would be consistent with his socialist principles, plus the social movement that produced him), Bolivia would no longer be dependent on Western countries to sell lithium ion batteries (and other lithium products) directly in the international marketplace. With the money obtained from that, the country could further invest in other domestic industries, building them up to compete with the very same Western-based corporations that once looted them. Bolivia was trying to gain independence from the U.S.-dominated world economy and having more luck than Venezuela. The consequence was yet another coup in a part of the world where they occur all too commonly. To this day, there has not been a full reckoning with how the U.S. has and continues to actively hinder democratization in Latin America as well as benefits from and contributes to its underdevelopment.

So far, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders has stood alone among Democratic candidates in not only addressing the situation in Bolivia but also for identifying Morales’ downfall as a coup. While we should have no illusions that we will see a truly anti-imperialist foreign policy resulting from this election or any near-future election, we should nevertheless embrace the opportunity to support a candidate who recognizes the anti-democratic character of recent events in Bolivia. Furthermore, we should pause and consider the likely many indigenous Bolivians who will suffer due to reprisals and further political violence once the far-right opposition consolidates its hold on power. We are already seeing signs that the current de facto government is drawing up lists of political enemies and courting Catholic extremists rather than extending the olive branch to trade unions and indigenous political groups. This is not a turn toward pluralism at all, but the restoration of a white Latin aristocracy whose anger is fully directed at native Bolivians.

May the Best Social Democrat Win

320px-youth_voice_presidential_forum_284878162773329In a recent interview with ABC News, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders highlighted this distinction between him and rival Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren: “Elizabeth, I think, as you know, has said that she is a capitalist through her bones. I’m not.” Sanders claims Warren would just tinker at the margins of the existing economic system, whereas he would seek to replace capitalism itself. In terms of tactics, the candidates are virtually identical, as both are using left-wing populist messages to sell their campaigns as crusades to change the status quo. While Warren has emphasized her “plans,” in substance their policy proposals are remarkably similar. They are also alike in status: U.S. senators who caucus with Democrats with similar left-wing voting records. So, are they really all that different?

320px-elizabeth_warren_visits_roosevelt_high_school_284893857431129The most concrete difference between Sanders and Warren is not so much ideological as chronological. Several of Warren’s colleagues have recounted her past as an ardently free market-supporting Republican. Sanders, by contrast, has been staunchly on the left his entire political career, and therefore is more appealing to left-wing diehards. Warren’s conversion to the Democratic Party, however, may say more about the two-party system in the U.S. than anything about Warren. Since the late 20th century, the Republican and Democratic parties have been more alike than different, sharing a loyalty to a constellation of established interests. Of the two, the GOP has been the more dynamic, evolving from the evangelicals and economists to conspiracy theorists and nativists. The Democrats, instead, have held onto the mantle of inoffensive centrism firmly in place since the 1980s. It is only recently that taking a more left-wing posture has won support among Democratic leaders, and even by that metric Warren was a relatively early convert to government regulation and a fairer economy. After all, she made her political career by pushing for a more powerful Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which had its opponents within the Obama White House. Friends of Wall Street, like then-Vice President Joe Biden, wanted the CFPB to be toothless. Warren, however, vocalized her belief that the disaster of the 2008 financial crisis demanded a stronger, more centralized oversight over U.S. financial practices.

240px-36_vikingo.svg_If Warren was never that radically right, Sanders has never been that radically left. When asked for a concrete model the U.S. should adopt, he has pointed to Scandinavian states such as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. In 2013 The Ecomomist (hardly an anti-capitalist publication) sung the praises of “the next supermodel,” the so-called “Nordic model” of free market capitalism coupled with large states with large budgets. The magazine notes that Denmark and Norway permit privately-owned corporations to run public hospitals, while Sweden has a universal system of school vouchers. This “enhanced Thatcherism” is offset by high spending on social services funded by high taxes, which The Economist maligns: “Too many people—especially immigrants—live off benefits.” For the free market advocate, the Nordic countries “waste” too much on generous welfare states. Nevertheless, there is still clearly a class system, one in which impoverished non-Nordic people have to subsist on government assistance. In the end, Sanders’ example of countries to emulate are the capitalist countries of Europe, where labor movements and social democratic parties established Keynesian mixed economy welfare states. Such states existed across Western Europe after WWII thanks to powerful labor movements as well as a litany of social democratic politicians.

Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” but he is more accurately a social democrat. The similarity of those terms invites confusion and requires some historical context. In 1848, Europe was hit with several liberal revolutions demanding the distribution of political rights (such as voting for all men without concern for property or income). It was these uprisings that most directly inspired Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to make their communist call to action. What they advocated, however, was not democracy, but class domination of another sort: the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat that would seize the means of production and destroy the bourgeoisie before abolishing class entirely, along with the state. Communism is inherently anti-democratic because it presumes a stateless as well as classless society. Social democrats, therefore, have departed from the revolutionary aspects of Marxism and have embraced parliamentary politics and legislative reform. These methods have invited sacrificing ideological purity for courting public support, as best demonstrated by the rush of many social democratic parties to support the wars of 1914—1918 across Europe, many of them entering into coalitions with centrist and even conservative political parties.

sozialdemokratische_partei_deutschlands2c_logo_um_1930Everything changed with the foundation of the first socialist state, the Soviet Union, in October 1917. The bullet had showed itself more effective than the ballot box. Violent revolution threatened not just the pro-capitalist politicians but the social democratic ones as well, and out of self-interest they gravitated to anti-communist policies. This was most historically evident in the case of the German Social Democratic Party, who used the police to crack down on the German communists and their paramilitary street-fighting squads. There was also the “threat” of Soviet diplomacy and the institution representing global communism under Soviet guidance, the Communist International. In a world order of competing superpowers, many governments felt pressure to align with one state or the other, for economic if not security reasons. The wealthier, most industrialized countries tended to be capitalist democracies, and to be accepted into that bloc required opposition to Moscow. After the 1980s paradigmatic shift to neoliberalism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the capitalist democracy became the norm, the “end of history,” as Fukuyama called it. If the crisis of 2008 meant the beginning of the end for neoliberalism we know it, then the future is looking less like unchartered territory and more like a return to the social democratic models of post-war Europe.

Sanders and Warren are both presenting visions for reform that would extend democracy into the economic life of U.S. citizens (such as by strengthening labor unions and granting employees partial corporate ownership), but would fundamentally preserve strong private companies, including the increasingly narrow of multinationals who dominate most trade and industries. A large state with generous social services is not socialism; in fact, having such a large state with extensive influence over society and the economy is considered a feature of fascism. This why the Soviet Union condemned the social democratic parties of 1920s Europe as “social fascists,” or as “the moderate wing of fascism.” Sanders and Warren would probably both like to create a neo-corporatist framework of tripartial coordination between employers, unions, and state entities, not unlike those that emerged in post-World War II Europe, including in Scandinavia. This would be preferable to the depletion of social welfare programs in the U.S. to fund the ever-growing military-industrial complex, but it would not be a means to socialism. It would be the enlargement of the state, when an aim of socialism is to abolish it. A dictatorship of the proletariat, by contrast, would have a purpose other than existing for itself in the provision of needs and services. Its function would be to realize the ambition of abolishing property and ending exploitation. Neither Sanders nor Warren present a path for getting to that goal because that is not their goal; the aim is merely to alleviate the worst abuses of capitalism than abolish capitalism itself.

In the case of the U.S., it would mean that Washington and New York would continue to go on as the hegemons of the world politically and economically, funding highly profitable industries through the exploitation of peripheral underdeveloped countries. A portion of that wealth would be redirected into programs starved off resources or into creating innovative programs considered reasonable and moderate by European standards. Undoubtedly, a great deal of money will still be funneled into arms production (via the Pentagon) and corporate welfare. It would mean a considerable increase in the actual standard of living for many people in the U.S., certainly, and for many U.S. citizens, it would mean the best chance of reforming a corrupt, dysfunctional system whose contradictions and failures become more apparent and outrageous.

As a socialist myself, I recognize that the conditions for revolution do not exist in the United States. Electing a social democrat like Sanders or Warren would be an absolute good when the alternative is the persistence of a status quo that has produced the U.S. as an invader, human rights abuser, and the site of the economic malpractice behind the 2008 global financial crisis. The election of Donald Trump and the public surge of white supremacy accompanying it are just symptoms of societal breakdown as communities feel neglected and oppressed by uncaring elites. Rather than “socialism or barbarism,” we are facing “social democracy or barbarism,” by which social democracy still wins in a landslide. Obviously, the best way to accomplish this is to opt for unity rather than division in face of needing to defeat not only Trump but centrist champion Biden.

At the same time, calls like that by the L.A. Times for Sanders to drop out (before a single Democratic primary vote has been cast) and endorse Warren are absurd. Sanders and Warren must both play to win. While close on policy, their approaches are indeed different, with Warren taking the path of the conventional bridge-builder and hand-shaker (this time it’s selfies) as Sanders maintains his firebrand bravura. Warren’s recent rise in Democratic polls likely draws from moderate voters preferring her to Sanders, especially as questions arise about Joe Biden’s health and his son, Hunter, unethically gaining status in foreign oil and gas companies based on his familial connections. Hunter Biden’s “qualification” was his connection to his father. This sort of “legal corruption” embodies what the aggrieved masses despise: the ruling class enriching itself at the trough of unashamed nepotism and blatant horse-trading.

Assuming Biden continues to struggle in the polls, the race will indeed become increasingly about what separates them. Warren will probably continue to be the more successful candidate, precisely because the Democratic nominee must navigate a process that is still dominated by special interest groups, policy institutes, and political action committees. While Bernie Sanders and his campaigns have been instrumental in mobilizing people on the left like no other political candidate in recent memory (especially working class people), that same grassroots movement has failed to penetrate the institutions who decide who the nominee will be. That nominee will have to work with those institutions if elected, along with a hostile Republican opposition in the Senate and Supreme Court, to pass social democratic reforms that will be dubbed “socialist.” There is already evidence that the Republican Party is liberally using the “socialist” label when attacking Democrats ahead of 2020, citing the policies of Warren and Sanders along with Reps. Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Sanders and Warren represent a real shot at progress in the U.S., at least on economic issues. On important social questions like racial justice, and especially on U.S. foreign policy, there is still a lot of work to be done to pressure them to expand the parameters of what is possible in U.S. politics. We should have no illusions about the need to maintain pressure not only on hostile groups but candidates themselves who claim to be representing the political left. Voters are important during elections, but once the election is over, voters must continue to organize and petition decision-makers to be instruments of popular will.  One of the classic criticisms of social democracy is the “iron law of bureaucracy,” which holds that bureaucratic organizations inevitably give rise to powerful but largely self-serving layers of officials. Electing a social democratic candidate will not be sufficient, even though that itself will be difficult; that will need to be followed by even more energy from the left to oppose right-wing reaction and pearl-clutching by the centrist chattering class. There is still a lot of time left in the primary, however, and not a single vote has been cast. May the best social democrat win.

What is Communist Internationalism?

marx_and_engelsCentral to communism is a sense of solidarity, a kinship based on humanity that knows no class distinctions. It is a radical form of the “fraternity” enshrined in the French Revolution’s “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Writing in 1845, Friedrich Engels cast doubt on the ability of the bourgeoisie to form an international movement, given the bourgeoisie of any particular country would be too beholden to their own unique special interests. The masses who sell their labor, however, “have one and the same interest, one and the same enemy, and one and the same struggle” and therefore only they “can destroy nationality” and “bring about fraternization between the different nations” (The Festival of Nations in London). In the 1848 Communist Manifesto, Engels and Karl Marx distinguish the communists in part by their emphasis on “the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality” (Chapter 2). Nevertheless, they noted that “the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie” (Chapter 1). Both supported the independence movements in Poland and Ireland at the time, believing autonomy essential for true solidarity.

198px-d092.d098.d09bd0b5d0bdd0b8d0bd._d09fd0b5d182d180d0bed0b3d180d0b0d0b42c_d18fd0bdd0b2d0b0d180d18c_1918_d0b3d0bed0b4d0b0Marx and Engels did not conceive of the First International as a means of promoting international communism, believing that “the simple feeling of solidarity based on the understanding of the identity of class position suffices to create and to hold together one and the same great party of the proletariat among the workers of all countries and tongues” (Engels 1885, On The History of the Communist League). The Second International collapsed into irrelevance in 1916 with the outbreak of World War I, as socialist parties tended to follow the nationalist groundswells in their respective countries. It was not until 1919, with the formation of the Third International—better known as the Communist International (Comintern)—by Vladimir Lenin. Lenin argued passionately for independence movements in the Russian Empire because the “fusion of nations” on a “truly democratic, truly internationalist basis” was impossible without the right to secede (1915, The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination). At the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, he called for a “union between revolutionary proletarians of the capitalist, advanced countries, and the revolutionary masses of those countries where there is no or hardly any proletariat, i.e., the oppressed masses of colonial, Eastern countries.” He observed that European imperialism had placed millions of people into bondage, exploiting them and their resources. He judged correct a modified slogan issued by the Communist International: “Workers of all countries and all oppressed peoples, unite!” (1920, Speech Delivered at a Meeting of Activists of The Moscow Organization of the RCP(B)).

The high-water mark of international socialist solidarity occurred during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. This included not only Soviet military aid but a large number of foreign volunteers in the International Brigades, organized by the Communist International to help the democratically-elected Popular Front resist the nationalist, fascist rebellion assisted by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. In the 1970s as well, the Soviet Union and Cuba intervened in Angola, providing critical support to a revolutionary government that had just won a war of independence against Portugal and faced opposition from apartheid South Africa and its ally, the United States. Other Soviet military interventions—such as in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, against anti-government protests—put into question the claim articulated by Rosa Luxemburg in 1915 that “socialism gives to every people the right of independence and the freedom of independent control of its own destinies” (The Junius Pamphlet, Chapter 7). In addition to the usual reactionary chaos of voices, ready to repudiate communism as much for its successes as its failures, prominent left-wings critics within and without communist countries have sought to maintain a moral commitment against tyranny. All would agree, presuming their honesty, that the lives taken and resources plundered by the few communist states in history pale in contrast to the casualties and loot the advanced capitalist countries, in their respective imperial stages, can call claim to.

320px-occupy_may_day_2015_281712896148729Today the communist countries have either collapsed, retreated into isolationism, or liberalized economically and/or politically enough to smooth operation within the capitalist global economy. The idea of a global communist movement fell into torpor in the 1990s. With the gradual elimination of any state prone to development outside Western hegemony through a progress of regime change wars, it would be reasonable to assume any contemporary communist government is living on borrowed time. Yet, something remarkable is happening: for the first time since the dawn of the 20th century, the ideas of Marx and Engels are finding welcome audiences within the advanced capitalist countries. Deepening class stratification, stagnant wages, and vanishing job security have provoked class consciousness and an upsurge in social democratic politics once deemed too “radical.” It is dubious that such politics will be able to challenge the constellation of organized interests in the very heart of Western imperialism, especially in the absence of grassroots movements centered around labor issues, civil rights, and so on. Consequently, the populist clamor for change will turn more radical. Whether such energies are sufficiently marshaled into a relevant political force remains to be seen. The point is that the potential exists for radical left-wing movements to grow and overthrow the capitalist, white supremacist status quo.

But what happens the day after the revolution? Will the left-wing radicals of the core countries be satisfied with a sort of nationalist socialism, an egalitarian ideology qualified on patriotic fervor and identity? Nothing would be more cancerous to any attempt at building communism. Nationalism, after all, was the adhesive that held together the rotting, reactionary monarchies of Europe in World War I. It is the foundation for the infamous U.S. military-industrial complex predicated on a foreign policy of waging war instead of pursuing peace. It is the natural territory of the far-right, the means by Nazis as well as U.S. Republicans have directed working class people to go against their interests. It is nationalism that is inspiring disaffected, bitter white men to sublimate their insecurity and prejudices into bloody massacres. Any meaningful communist movement must take as one of its starting points and cardinal directions the elimination of distinctions based on race, ethnicity, or nationality in addition to class.

The National Question, Revisited

In Spain, Catalonian nationalists advocating separation from Spain are likely to go ahead320px-20set_barcelona_14 with a symbolic referendum on independence. Madrid has threatened it will seize control of polling booths if the vote proceeds on October 1. These events come on the heels of a landslide referendum victory in Iraqi Kurdistan, where allegedly 93 percent of over three million voters expressed support for independence. This is indicative of a global trend of unrest often described as populist, but which is also commonly nationalist. Throughout Western Europe, these upstart parties and politicians have tended to be of the right-wing variety, arguing for policies of exclusion and discrimination against immigrants, especially followers of Islam. These two referendums, however, involve communities are seeking the creation of two states, not the preservation of traditional polities. Catalan separatism is rooted in Castilian supremacy in Spain, starkly characteristic of the 1936-1975 Franco dictatorship. Upon the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey and its former Arab possessions divided up Kurdish territory and subsequently suppressed nationalist agitators (ironically, it was the 2003 U.S. war on Iraq and the following destabilization of the region that sowed the seeds for an autonomous Kurdish government and any possible state it forms).

An independent Catalonia or Kurdistan would indubitably frustrate the hegemony of the U.S. and its Western allies, showing once again their inability to maintain the status quo. The weakening of imperialism is clearly anti-imperialist, but is it left-wing? The standard answer is that any nationalism is inherently anti-Marxist, as The Communist Manifesto explicitly states: “The Communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality. The working men have no country.” In isolation, the second sentence could mean that workers have no stake in the bourgeois state, but the preceding one makes it clear that communists seek to eliminate nationality as an identifier. This makes logical sense, if one accepts that communism stems from a belief in the unity of humanity; it would do little good to obliterate distinctions of class and state power while retaining ethnic division, a keystone of discrimination through every epoch. The Marxist theorist who married Irish nationalism with socialism, James Connolly, put it so: “If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.” Or, as paraphrased in, Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley: national liberation not based on left-wing principles will change only “the accents of the powerful and the color of the flag.”

There are also contextual factors that guided the thinking of Marx and Engels. Both men came from Germany, a country borne from the confederation of smaller states, the opposite of nations seeking to separate from unwanted unions. Moreover, their version of socialism was scientific and anti-utopian. Nationalism is inherently emotional, a moral conception not easily operationalized. Of course, Marx considered issues of nationalism in the Poland and Czech cases, for example, but through what Rosa Luxemburg called a “sober realism, alien to all sentimentalism” fixated on individual cases, rather than some vague, generalized idea of the metaphysical “rights of nations.”

Marx and Engels became more sensitive to issues of imperialism due to the 1857 Indian320px-the_sepoy_revolt_at_meerut Rebellion, wherein Indians revolted against the British Empire over issues of taxation, land annexation, abuse, and general exploitation. Marx wrote that: “However infamous the conduct of the Sepoys (Indian soldiers), it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last ten years of a long-settled rule. To characterize that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed all organic institution of its financial policy. There is something in human history like retribution: and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself” (emphasis mine). This dialectical viewpoint reflects the notion that capitalism is the author of its own destruction; its contradictions cause its own collapse. He observed that the violence inherent in imperialism breeds violent uprisings in response. Neither Marx nor Engels may have had little time for patriotic fervor, but they understood anti-imperialist movements as forces for positive social progress.

In 1909, Luxemburg wrote The National Question, in which she sought to bring nationality “from the clouds of abstraction to the firm ground of concrete conditions.” She acknowledged that states should be able to choose their own paths, while asking:

“[W]ho is that ‘nation’ and who has the authority and the ‘right’ to speak for the ‘nation’ and express its will? How can we find out what the ‘nation’ actually wants? Does there exist even one political party which would not claim that it alone, among all others, truly expresses the will of the ‘nation,’ whereas all other parties give only perverted and false expressions of the national will? All the bourgeois, liberal parties consider themselves the incarnation of the will of the people and claim the exclusive monopoly to represent the ‘nation.’ But conservative and reactionary parties refer no less to the will and interests of the nation, and within certain limits, have no less of a right to do so.” To her, the pursuit of some ideal nationalist state is a farce and distraction of workers everywhere, while the capitalist empires benefit from their wasted efforts.

Lenin, writing a direct rejoinder in 1916 to Luxemburg, defended self-determination, which had become increasingly mainstream around World War I. He rejects Luxemburg’s claim that seeking statehood comes from moral rather than material motives, as separation from foreign control is required for the realization of conditions favorable to capitalism: common language and communal bonds lubricate all forms of commerce. They do this not to attain true sovereignty, as Luxembourg argues, which Lenin agrees is impossible; true economic independence is unobtainable in the capitalist world system. Nevertheless, some basic degree of autonomy is a prerequisite for any sort of fundamental economic development. Lenin argues against bourgeois arguments for national exclusiveness, advocating “the unity of the proletarian struggle” and the “international association” of all proletarian organizations, but remains firm in arguing that all states should enjoy an equality of rights, including the right of secession.

In a way, Lenin highlights the difference between hegemonic nationalism – embodied by 154px-bundesarchiv_bild_183-71043-00032c_wladimir_iljitsch_leninthe Great Russian nationalism of his time, which the House of Romanov had used for generations to justify its Imperial regime – and the emancipatory nationalism of dominated nations, be they the repressed states of the old Russian Empire or later colonial liberation movements. Lenin was acutely aware of the nationalist movements that had emerged in the declining Russian Empire as well as the draconian “Russification” policies pursued by the Romanovs to preserve their crumbling hold over the nations in the Baltics, the Caucasus, and elsewhere. Unlike Polish nationalism, which sought to overturn the status quo, Russian patriotism threatened change and revolution, and thus Lenin and the other Bolsheviks were hostile to it after taking state power in 1917. In the 1920s, the Soviet Union followed a policy of korenization or “nativization,” using traditional indigenous symbols and alphabets and promoting local cadres within governments and the Communist Party. In the 1940s, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union led to nationalism becoming resurgent, as the state extolled its soldiers to defend the “Motherland.” While this is often portrayed as a unilateral decision by Stalin, in truth it reflected conditions beyond his control: Hitler had framed the German invasion as a showdown between Western Europe and the Slavs, while the liberals of Europe had insured Soviet internationalism had bred no other socialist states in the image of the Soviet Union, save Mongolia. The Spanish Civil War in the 1930s showed that capitalist powers reacted better to nationalism than internationalism.

Lenin believed strongly in national self-determination, and in many ways the Russian Communist Party he established in 1918 was the first national communist party. This was reinforced after Josef Stalin adopted the “socialism in one country” policy. Yet this was not a policy of isolationism. The Soviet Union engaged in interventions suiting its own interests (such as in 1956 in Hungary and in 1968 in Czechoslovakia), but it also supported colonial liberation movements in Africa, especially in southern Sub-Saharan Africa and its long-standing white-ruled governments in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. In Latin America, Moscow aligned with the Castro regime, and in the 1970s, both Soviet and Cuban support was critical to the victory of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola. Today, as the U.S. and its allies rush to place any number of new sanctions on nations deemed “rogue states,” there was much resistance even into the 1980s by that same West to sanction Rhodesia and South Africa. Virginia Senator Harry Byrd, a staunch conservative, introduced an amendment in 1971 that permitted the U.S. government to circumvent its own embargo of Rhodesia; trade necessary to defeat communism was more important than defeating racist regimes. Even the People’s Republic of China, before business interests replaced its ideological drive, financed African wars of national liberation. Robert Mugabe and his ZANU party, it is now forgotten, once claimed Beijing as benefactors and followed Maoist dogma.

Marxist-Leninists are entirely justified in supporting the Catalonian and Kurdish pursuits of self-determination, because it is a matter of materialist reality. These nations do not advance nationalism as a panacea, but as a necessary condition for pursuing a sort of national sublimation. In the words of the Indian communist M.N. Roy: “We want freedom, not to save the world, but to save ourselves.” Nationalism is not held up as an end, but a means to an end. States that act according to socialist principles will transcend nationalism, as the Soviet Union and early PRC did. It remains to be seen whether socialist governments would or will emerge in independent Catalonia or Kurdistan, but that is of course a question for the peoples of those nations.

Oppression shackles the aggressor as well as the victim. As Lenin said, “Can a nation be kur2017rrrfree if it oppresses other nations? It cannot.” The U.S., along with its allies, refer to the Catalonian and Kurdish independence movements as “internal matters.” Just as in the 1970s and 1980s, when anti-communism trumped anti-racism, partnerships in Europe and the Middle East surpass a right to self-determination. The Catalonians are no stranger to this; Francoist Spain, which actively repressed Catalonian identity, received support precisely for its anti-communist credentials. The Kurds, meanwhile, need only look to occupied Palestine for any guidance on the limits of Western moral authority.

The violence on display in Spain shows the high cost if states seek to squash popular movements; unfortunately, the tacit approval granted by the Western community that more concrete consequences do not accompany such abstract loss of legitimacy. It behooves followers of Marx and Lenin to denounce such tyranny and our own governments’ passive acceptance of it. Only after those nations are free can we amplify and ally with the movements within them promoting class struggle.

The Bolsheviks in Power: The 1920s

Upon coming to power at the end of 1917, the Bolsheviks immediately implemented sweeping reforms. On social issues, 8womendaythey separated church and state, the Orthodox Church having long been a pillar of support for the old tsarist order. They abolished the church hierarchy and nationalized its property. Those who wanted a place to worship had to petition their local council, and those churches allowed to operate had to depend on donations. The state ceased its recognition of religious holidays and instated secular holidays such as May Day and the anniversary of Red October. The government even switched to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian calendar, joining most of the Western world despite the preferences of the Church. The Bolsheviks also secularized marriages, with spouses being able to pursue divorce through civil means (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 147). This meant that women no longer needed the permission of their husbands to end their marriages. The Bolsheviks appointed Aleksandra Kollontai as People’s Commissar for Social Welfare, and she founded a communist women’s section (the “Zhenotdel”) in 1919 dedicated to bettering conditions for women, increasing their educational opportunities and informing them about the Bolsheviks’ social reforms (Von Geldern 2014). The state also decriminalized homosexuality, although this remained in effect in Russia; most of the soviet republics in Transcaucasia and Central Asia banned homosexuality in the 1920s (Healey 2001, p. 258). In the 1930s, the Soviet Union would reverse several of these developments, eliminating women’s departments as redundant and abolishing legal abortion in the hopes of reinvigorating a falling birth rate. Nevertheless, at the time, the Bolsheviks succeeded in enacting the most socially progressive policies yet seen in history.

Seeking allies on the world stage, the Bolsheviks established the Third or Communist International (the Comintern) in 1919 to organize parties modeled after the Bolshevik structure and to spread proletarian revolution. The first president of the Comintern Executive Committee, Grigory Zinoviev, issued 21 conditions for membership in the group, including ideological consistency with the Bolsheviks and opposition to non-revolutionary left-wing parties. When hopes of repeated revolutions soon dimmed, however, the Comintern muted its militancy, especially between 1920 and 1921, when the Bolsheviks signed border treaties with many of its European and Asian neighbors and even concluded a trade agreement with Great Britian (Kort 2006, pp. 158-159). The failure of other European countries to replicate the Bolshevik revolution dampened dreams of a grand union of socialist nations led by Moscow. Gradually, the Comintern endorsed member parties forming restricted alliances with other socialist groups in their countries, including political parties and trade unions, so long as they did not fully embrace “Centrist ideology” (Siegelbaum 2014a). Moscow would later take this validation of left-wing unison farther in response to the rise of fascism in Europe in the coming decades, with calls for “popular fronts” against the fascists.

More than any aspect of domestic or foreign politics, the Bolsheviks were concerned with the economy. In December 1917, Russland, Bäuerinnen bei der Erntethey set up the Supreme Council of the National Economy (VSNKh), and straightaway began to mobilize state resources for the civil war in what became known as “War Communism.” This was more a set of military measures meant to provide the Bolsheviks with the means to win the war than anything else; after all, the Bolsheviks did not control much territory beyond central European Russia at this point. However temporary it might have been, the actions taken under “War Communism” were by no means minor. The Bolsheviks nationalized the major industries and instituted mandatory labor for all males over sixteen years, issuing labor books to track employment and work behavior. The devastation wrought by the civil war and the intense discipline imposed by “War Communism” led to industrial strife and despair. The number of industrial workers in Moscow dropped from around 190,000 in 1917 to around 81,000 in 1921 (Wade 2001, p. 71). When the civil war finally ended in 1920, around 7 million people had died from fighting, starvation or disease, and in the following years, famine claimed around 5 million more victims. Accusing the “rural bourgeoisie” of hoarding grain, the Bolsheviks tasked “committees of poor peasants” with waging class war in the countryside.

The peasantry remained complacent during the civil war, perhaps in the knowledge that, as bad as Bolshevik grain requisitions were, the Whites would have been worse had they triumphed, most likely kicking the peasants off the land they had seized and reducing them once more to total servitude (Hosking 1985, p. 76). Most peasants probably reasoned that it was better to tolerate the socialists who had permitted land seizures than the tsarist officers who spoke openly of restoring traditional serfdom. When the Whites were defeated, peasant rebellions broke out across Russia, primarily in the southwest as well as in Siberia. Perhaps the best known of these, the Tambov Rebellion, persisted for a year before it was put down through a mixture of repression and concessions, with military force supplemented by the ending of the appropriation of grain in the province (ibid., pp. 78-79). For the most part, the Tambov revolt and others like it were not coordinated political movements so much as visceral reactions intended as expressions of opposition to specific agricultural policies.

In the cities, the much-diminished ranks of the workers also demonstrated their dissatisfaction with the “iron discipline” associated with the Bolsheviks’ wartime policies. In February 1921, some workers went on strike in Petrograd and the RedKronstadt_attack Army put down the demonstrations by force. A month later, at the nearby Kronstadt naval base, the sailors stationed there declared their defiance to the state and set up their own Provisional Revolutionary Committee. They called for increased political freedoms for non-Bolshevik socialist parties as well as free and fair elections to the workers’ councils. After five days of negotiations, the sailors refused to compromise and the Bolsheviks decided to use force once again, before the coming spring could melt the ice around the base and leave it isolated. A memorandum written by an organization of anti-Bolshevik exiles also shows the Krondstadt uprising had the potential to become a rallying point for White émigrés still hoping to bring down socialism (Avrich 1970). After storming the fortress, the Red Army took the base, with thousands killed on both sides. Those rebels who survived faced either execution or sentences in concentration camps (Kort 2006, pp. 143-144). With the suppression of the Krondstadt rebellion came an end to the major challenges to Bolshevik rule.

For decades, the Krondstadt rebellion has served as the defining moment for many on the left and right as to when the Bolsheviks fully betrayed the principles of the 1917 revolutions, choosing state power over people power. Such critics argue that the sailors’ proposals called for democratic practices and a multiparty regime, and a demand for libertarian socialism embodied by the early revolutionary councils and even articulated by Lenin himself in his 1917 work, The State and Revolution. The fact that Krondstadt itself had also long been a Bolshevik stronghold and supporter of the revolution only seemed to underline the fact the Bolsheviks had turned their back on popular empowerment and chosen to become bloody autocrats as harsh as the tsarist state.

These criticisms are somewhat inaccurate. Many of the Kronstadt sailors who participated in the 1920 revolt were, veterans and recruits alike, from rural areas that, as we have seen, suffered greatly during the civil war years. One of the leaders of the rebellion, Stepan Petrichenko, came from a family of Ukrainian peasants. He had witnessed the austere conditions of “War Communism” firsthand when visiting his home in 1920 (Lincoln 1989, p. 495). Yet, this does not deny that the Kronstadt rebels had sincere grievances. There seems little reason to believe that the rebellion was anything other than a genuine grassroots insurrection by left-wingers disillusioned with the Bolsheviks. After escaping the Red Army reprisals, Petrichenko fled to Finland where he remained a left-wing politician and even supported the socialists there, prompting the Finnish government to arrest him in 1945 and turn him over to the Soviet Union, which unsurprisingly imprisoned him before his death mere years later.

Leon Trotsky, as the head of the Red Army in 1921, spent much of his later life defending Bolshevik policy at Kronstadt, 19210321-lenin_voroshilov_trotsky_and_participants_liquidation_kronstadt_uprising_in_moscowprimarily against anti-Bolshevik anarchists like Emma Goldman, who were irate that left-wing revolutionaries would use state power to execute other radical leftists. In Stalinism and Bolshevism (1937), Trotsky argued that anarchists are incorrect to use Kronstadt as evidence of Bolshevism intrinsically leading to an oppressive centralized state, since the Bolsheviks shared the anarchist wish of abolishing the state through creating the necessary conditions for communism, when the state would wither away. Until those conditions were realized, however, the Bolsheviks had to use the power of the state to defend the revolution. He also claims that he and Lenin were not inherently hostile to anarchists and anarchism, and even discussed plans to permit some revolutionary anarchists to experiment with a stateless society, but the realities of the civil war and existential threats to the Bolsheviks prevented such projects. Hostility to Bolshevism foreign and domestic necessitated the quelling of rebellions, right-wing and left-wing, as well as the prohibition of non-Bolshevik parties. It was a matter of accident, not design, that these measures meant to preserve the revolutionary program ended up facilitating (in Trotsky’s view) the rise of Stalin and the transformation of the Soviet Union into an authoritarian state.

Whatever the later legacy of the Krondstadt rebellion, it made clear that the Bolsheviks needed to change their approaches to governance. By the end of 1921, they had replaced the austere and punitive policies of “War Communism” with the New Economic Policy (NEP). Originally intended as a means to motivate greater agricultural production, the NEP evolved into the permission of private ownership in the production of consumer goods. The government remained responsible for the “commanding heights” – the major industries, transportation and foreign trade – but in other areas, private buying and selling thrived. As planned, the agricultural sector recovered, but the economy struggled due to the “scissors crisis” of 1922-1923,Graph_illustrating_the_Scissors_Crisis
 so-called because of the sharp divergence between grain prices and the cost of manufactured products. Essentially, the state bought abundant grain at low prices, but because the factories had yet to recover from recent wars, the farmers could not afford to buy consumer goods. In response, the government terminated the employment of staff at state-owned industries, increased the number of consumer cooperatives and forced company trusts to sell off their warehoused stocks (Siegelbaum 2014b). Also in the industrial sector, the state retained control over economic planning through Gosplan, the State Planning Commission, and state-run firms employed over 80% of workers. The state did permit the operation of small businesses, however, as long as they employed 20 employees or less and produced non-essential goods and services such as handicrafts. By 1925, overall economic production had reached close to pre-war levels (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 160). The Bolsheviks had created a system that was neither socialist nor capitalist, but a prototype of the “mixed economy” seen all around the world today, with a combination of public and private ownership.

If the NEP represented a strategic retreat by the Bolsheviks on economic matters, in the political sphere they continued to take a hard line. In 1921, they passed two resolutions. The first effectively brought trade unions under the control of the Bolsheviks and ostracized the Workers’ Opposition, a movement within the party that had called for greater trade union autonomy and union control over the industries. The second resolution banned all “factions” among the Bolsheviks entirely, limiting dissent to sanctioned periods of decision-making conducted by the party leadership. A majority vote of the Bolshevik Central Committee could expel anyone found guilty of spreading “factionalism.” The Bolsheviks also started to purge their ranks, cutting their membership ostensibly to remove those merely seeking status and power. Outside the party, those Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries who had somehow managed to survive the civil war found their parties proscribed (Kort 2006, p. 148). As in other episodes from the revolution, the anti-democratic nature of these moves seems less sinister when one recollects that the Bolsheviks never purported to be a democratic organization. Their concern remained seeing through the revolution, and considering how unpopular “War Communism” and the subdual of popular rebellions had made them, they had some cause to be fearful that sharing power would mean losing it. It is important to note that several Bolsheviks later critical of the centralization of power in the Soviet Union, such as Trotsky and Karl Radek, supported the clampdown on dissent, as the revolution was considered too important to be left to the public mood. In addition, despite his enshrinement of party unity, Lenin himself to the very end generally permitted debate within the party, preferring to persuade his opponents than to imprison or kill them.

Indeed, well into the 1920s, the Bolsheviks actively debated the issues of industrialization and the collectivization of Russian_1_May_Poster_1920agriculture. The Right, so-named because of their favoring the status quo, wanted to maintain the balance between industrial and agricultural prices set by the NEP and claimed socialism could be achieved slowly and organically. Proponents, including Nikolai Bukharin and Alexei Rykov, argued that increased farming production would stimulate demand for more industrial goods, resulting in higher industrial production and thus lower industrial prices, until the town and country were equal (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 160). The Left Opposition, including Trotsky and the economist Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, railed against what they perceived as the “bureaucratization” of the revolution, with policies guided by technocrats and specialists rather than by revolutionaries. In their view, industrialization would only occur through the vigorous appropriation of agricultural surpluses via taxation and price controls. The Bolsheviks had to pursue “super-industrialization” in order to catch up with the industrialized countries of the West, which of course had industrialized over centuries (Siegelbaum 2014c). The Bolshevik leadership deemed these proposals too excessive and too risky and the status quo prevailed. Rather than bypassing capitalist development and attempting a socialist economy from the start, the Bolsheviks came to accept limited capitalism as a way to construct communism with bourgeois hands.

Lenin especially came to view the NEP as more than a fleeting change in policy. Like many other Bolsheviks, he worried that a flourishing of private trade, especially after years of war and shortages, would allow capitalism to re-establish itself. For the most part, however, he remained convinced that as long as the state steered the economy and encouraged democratic consumer cooperatives, socialism would eventually come to Russia (Figes 1996, p. 770). He also became increasingly concerned with the problem of “bureaucratization” and the growing lack of transparency and accountability of the government to the people. He realized that the Bolsheviks, having been devoted to overthrowing the state, had to learn how to rule, but he still detested the dearth of efficiency and civility on the part of government officials. He bemoaned that many Bolsheviks lacked “humaneness and feeling in dealing with people” (Ulam 1998, pp. 531-532). In 1919, he created an office of inspector general, the Rabkrin, with oversight powers over government agencies as well as “control commissions” to fight misconduct within the newly formed Communist Party. The first head of the Rabkrin was Joseph Stalin, a Bolshevik noted for his industriousness.

As People’s Commissar for Nationalities Stalin had been heavily involved in the 1921 Red Army invasion of Georgia, his native land, and in 1922, he had become General Secretary of the Communist Party due to his support for Lenin’s crusadeJoseph_Stalin_(Dzhugashvili) against “factionalism.” Lenin praised Stalin for his willingness to take on responsibilities and protect the party, but a rift grew between them over the 1922 Georgian Affair. Stalin and another Georgian Bolshevik, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, wanted to subordinate Georgia to Moscow and jettison any nationalist feelings by creating a Transcaucasian soviet republic including Georgia along with Armenia and Azerbaijan. The local moderates disputed this and appealed to Lenin, who agreed that the soviet republics should be politically equal. Lenin suffered a pair of strokes in 1922 and 1923, however, and due to his poor health, could no longer mount an effective opposition against Stalin. In March 1923, Lenin and Stalin had a personal falling out. The past December, Lenin had dictated a letter to his wife and fellow Bolshevik, Nadezhda Krupskaya. When Stalin learned of this, he verbally abused Krupskaya for placing undue strain on Lenin while he was recovering. Lenin perceived the incident as a personal insult whereas Stalin considered Krupskaya just another “comrade” and thus undeserving of special treatment (Figes 1996, pp. 800-801). Lenin suffered his third and final stroke a few days later, leaving him an invalid unable to speak more than a few monosyllabic words. His faculties had not endured long enough for him to satisfactorily address his concerns about party operations or government bureaucracy, but he had led his cadre of revolutionaries to victory and to the establishment of the first socialist state.

In December 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was founded, consisting of the Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republics. Contrary to the Georgian Affair, the early Soviet Union devolved great cultural autonomy to its member republics, especially compared to the previous tsarist regime and its policies of “Russification.” Non-Russians could use their own native tongues and practice their own cultural traditions freely, and the government even played a role in creating written languages for some of the illiterate peoples in the eastern provinces (Kort 2006, p. 155). The state also passed laws against anti-Semitism, although it suppressed the teaching of Hebrew due to its religious connotations, encouraging Soviet Jews to use Yiddish instead. In Central Asia, the Soviets developed a Latin and later Cyrillic script to replace the Arabic alphabet in order to downplay connections with other Muslim peoples. In terms of actual administration, the Soviet Union devolved some portfolios wholly to the soviet republics, including education, health and social services. Other matters, such as foreign relations, foreign trade and the military remained with the central government. The central and republic governments shared jurisdiction over domestic economic issues like employment and industry. A constitution would be formed and formally approved in 1924.

In January 1924, Lenin died at the age of 53. Against the wishes of himself and his family, the state embalmed his body and put it on display in a mausoleum in Red Square. Petrograd, the city where the 1917 revolutions had played out, becameLenin-last-photo Leningrad. Stalin may have initiated the “Lenin cult” from his understanding of religious symbolism learned in his early seminary education. The notion of “God-building” – that is, creating a divine aura around the “new man” formed under socialism – also influenced the transformation of Lenin from the leading Bolshevik theoretician to a Christ-like figure in the Soviet psyche (Hosking 1985, pp. 132-133). Whatever propaganda may have come later, at the time an estimated half a million people attended Lenin’s funeral to pay their respects, as wreaths and somber eulogies poured into Moscow from across the Soviet Union. This grief was genuine and predated any Soviet hagiographies. While some Western historians have sought to portray Lenin as a cruel dictator or a monstrous murder from the outset, coming to power via a coup and supported only his key followers among the Bolsheviks, the truth is that he had become the face and the driving force of the revolutions. It would be erroneous to assert that he created the Soviet Union on his own or that he was anything close to an infallible, omnipotent individual, but it also cannot be denied that his great contributions to forging a new socialist society were widely recognized in 1924.

Of all the events and incidents concerning the Bolsheviks, none is more commonly misunderstood as Lenin’s succession and Stalin’s rise to power. The typical narrative repeated by historians is that Lenin wrote a “testament” before his death, deriding Stalin and naming Trotsky his successor. Stalin suppressed or destroyed this testament (depending on what version you hear). As part of a triumvirate with Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, Stalin isolated and then exiled Trotsky, before then turning on his partners and then executed them as counterrevolutionaries. In this account, Trotsky is the benevolent and mild-mannered hero, undone by a conspiracy of his jealous rivals, including the crude and underhanded Stalin. Obviously, Trotsky’s followers favor this story, but it is also common to hear it repeated by left-wing libertarians and even right-wingers as evidence of the dangers of too much centralized authority and proof that “the revolution eats its children.” Thanks to recent scholarship and access to new documents like Stalin’s personal correspondence, a different reality emerges.

First, Lenin did not pen a “testament” so much as a series of notes he took while recovering from one of his strokes. At the time, the prevailing view was that Lenin would return to politics, and Lenin apparently believed this himself. As already 1919-Trotsky_Lenin_Kamenev-Party-Congressmentioned, Lenin was especially concerned with the bureaucratization of the government and the party, and he drafted a number of proposals, such as increasing the size of the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee to 50 to 100 members, and giving the committee oversight over the powers of the Politburo, the Soviet Union’s chief policymaking body. He also reviewed the main personalities in the party besides himself, and while he did take Stalin to task for being “too rude” and amassing a worrying amount of power, he had recriminations for them all. Kamenev and Zinoviev had opposed Lenin’s calls for an armed uprising in late 1917, even leaking Lenin’s plans to the press. The primary proponent of the NEP, Nikolai Bukharin, was popular, but his devotion to limited capitalism made his allegiance to Marxism suspect. Trotsky, meanwhile, suffered from “excessive self-assurance” and spent too much time on administrative matters and not enough on party business (Figes 1996, pp. 800). In fact, even though he held a position in the Politburo, Trotsky did not hold a party post and rarely attended party meetings. With all these criticisms taken together, Lenin seemed less interested in anointing an heir than with making the point that no one man should rule over the party, and that instead the Bolsheviks should look at ways to check institutional power and get rank-and-file members more involved.

To return to Trotsky, his “excessive self-assurance” had been a known problem when it came to his relations with the other Trotsky_ProfileBolsheviks. In 1903, at the Second Congress of the Social Democrats, he had been “irrepressible,” speaking on behalf of the Jewish proletariat (he was middle class) and addressing others with condescension (he referred to an older man as “young comrade”) (Ulam 1998, pg. 189). During the civil war, he alienated others by traveling from battlefield to battlefield in a furnished train, equipped with its own private restaurant. He made sure his political commissars were always dressed in immaculate uniforms. He also dealt with those Bolsheviks who criticized his use of tsarist officers and a strict chain of command in harsh terms. He was not noted for his tact and even he himself admitted he was disliked for his “aristocratism” (Figes 1996, pp. 593-594). This, after all, had been the man who popularized the phrase “the dustbin of history” when referring to the ultimate destination of the Mensheviks when they walked out on the Bolshevik-controlled Second Congress of Soviets in 1917. This was despite the fact he had been more closely aligned with the Mensheviks initially, joining the Bolsheviks only on the outset of the 1917 revolutions. He was a relative newcomver to Bolshevism, and to the regular party membership, he was seen purely as “a specialist on military and economic problems” (Ulam 1998, pg. 575). He had his admirers, but he was not generally beloved.

It would be remiss if we did not also factor in feelings of anti-Semitism. The Whites, Poles and Allies explicitly displayed Trotsky’s Jewish heritage in their propaganda against him, and given the prevalent hostility against Jews in this period, it is reasonable to assume that more than a few Bolsheviks disdained Trotsky for being a Jew. Trotsky himself considered his ethnic identity an issue, turning down the post of Commissar of the Interior in 1917 and Deputy Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars in 1922 because a Jew in those posts would be too controversial (Figes 1996, pp. 803-804). If Trotsky did not already suffer from his tendencies for pomposity and vanity, in addition to being a late convert to Bolshevism, he also likely fell victim to racism and prejudice.

All of this coalesced into making Trotsky a less than likely successor to Lenin and led to the creation of an “underground Politburo” that consisted of all the Politburo members besides Trotsky. Contrary to popular perception, we know now that there was not so much a Stalin/Kamenev/Zinoviev troika after Lenin’s death as there was an elite executive of seven Bolsheviks: Stalin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Alexei Rykov and Mikhail Tomsky. These seven met before Politburo meetings and discussed which actions to take and which resolutions to approve before including Trotsky (Stalin, et al. 1995). Thus, there was not so much a Stalin versus Trotsky duel after Lenin’s death, and not even a conflict between Trotsky and the troika. Trotsky was already a marginalized figure in 1923, and Stalin consolidated his power not by removing Trotsky, who was not a threat, but instead by leading an anti-Trotsky campaign with other Bolsheviks.

Lenin’s “testament” was not destroyed or suppressed. Nadezhda Krupskaya brought it to the attention of the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee, which decided not to read it into the record at the 13th Congress of the Russian Communist Party in May 1923. Instead, it was read to each delegation privately, with Stalin offering his resignation as General Secretary, in response to Lenin’s suggestions. The party rejected his resignation. If Lenin had recovered from his strokes, perhaps he could have used his forceful personality and oratorical skills to force the issue, as he did so many times when the Bolsheviks resisted his wishes. As it stood, however, the scales were stacked against eliminating Stalin from the leadership and causing party upheaval, especially with the polarizing personage of Trotsky touted as a possible replacement. For his part, Trotsky must have realized that the chances of him succeeding Lenin were dubious at best.

In October 1923, Trotsky wrote an open letter to the party leadership criticizing them for marginalizing the involvement of the masses in the party. On the heels of Trotsky’s letter came the Declaration of the 46, a missive from 46 party members, largely agreeing with Trotsky and expressing worry that the promotion of “professional party functionaries” was “destroying the Trotskyist_Left_Opposition-1927independence of the party, replacing the party with a selected bureaucratic apparatus” (Fahlgren 2008). With these letters, the Left Opposition had added to their criticism of the NEP a complaint about intra-party democracy being sacrificed in the name of party unity. These stances were actually consistent, as the objection to the NEP was that it relied on bourgeois specialists from the tsarist economy, and therefore took economic matters out of the hands of the people and the party, much as the Politburo had reduced the input of the general party from political matters. Later that month, the party leadership accused Trotsky of “factionalism” and berated him with numerous personal attacks, mostly variations on his vanity and selfishness. Despite a speech from Trotsky implying that the charges were racially motivated, the Plenum of the Central Committee censured him for trying to split the party in a landslide vote.

It is crucial to note that at this time party members did not fear death for their dissent. The party had banned factions, yes, but among the Bolsheviks, there had been open debates over the NEP, intra-party democracy, industrialization and other issues. Whatever their disagreements, the partisans on any topic had no cause to believe they would be sentenced to a labor camp in Siberia or placed before a firing squad. Those outside the party could countenance the possibility of being investigated by the Cheka, now the State Political Directorate (GPU) of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), but party members were generally above such worries. The worst they could expect was to be removed from their posts, as Trotsky would be in the coming years. Perhaps believing that he had nothing more to fear domestically but cognizant of his sequestration on the Politburo, he decided to take his case abroad to foreign sympathizers.

In October 1924, Trotsky published Lessons of October, his reflections on the revolution of late 1917. In this work, he sought to pass on the experiences of the Bolsheviks to socialist revolutionaries in other countries. He also brought attention to how Kamenev and Zinoviev had resisted seizing power at Lenin’s insistence, as well as how, as editors of Pravda, Kamenev and Stalin had initially supported the Provisional Government rather than violent insurrection. As might be expected, Kamenev and Zinoviev were especially furious with Trotsky over this, and even proposed that he be expelled from the party; Stalin, however, refused this. Instead, in a series of speeches and publications, and supported by other Bolsheviks, he contrasted “Leninism” and “Trotskyism,” downplaying the significance of the disagreements among the Bolsheviks as well as Trotsky’s own role in the revolution as secondary to Lenin. He also explored polemics Lenin and Trotsky had written about one another between 1903 and 1917, when Trotsky was still more aligned with the Mensheviks than the Bolsheviks (Stalin 1924). The result of the “literary debate” was the further exaltation of Trotsky outside the Soviet Union, whereas within it the charges against him of dividing the party seemed all the more valid, and Stalin all the more credible as party leader.

The Eastman Affair the following year solidified this perception. Max Eastman, an American socialist and journalist, published Lenin_and_stalin_cropSince Lenin Died in 1925, revealing the existence of Lenin’s “testament” and portraying it as Lenin naming Trotsky as his devoted and loyal successor. Encouraged by Trotsky and his supporters, Eastman advanced the misleading interpretation of the document, juxtaposing Trotsky, the “saintly” revolutionary, with the other leading Bolsheviks, who are all corrupt careerists disregarding the wishes of the late leader. Even if the other members of the Politburo had not already been against Trotsky, this inaccurate assessment lauding Trotsky while harshly condemning them would surely have served to dishonor him in their eyes. In the aftermath of the publication, Trotsky remained silent, so Stalin wrote a memorandum listing the errors of Eastman’s account and demanding Trotsky disavow it. Trotsky did so, noting that Lenin did not leave a “testament” but instead a letter of “an internal party character.” While some Trotskyites have construed this as Stalin forcing Trotsky to lie to save his skin, we know from Stalin’s letters that Stalin felt that Trotsky “saved himself” by denouncing Eastman and wanted to publish his memorandum to make it clear that Trotsky only did so under pressure from the Politburo (Stalin, et al. 1995, pp. 21-22). Unemployed and completely discredited in the eyes of the party, Trotsky seemed destined for a downfall.

Yet, in 1926, two of his enemies in the Politburo, Kamenev and Zinoviev, joined with him against Stalin, giving him new political life. Still, Trotsky proved as difficult an ally as ever, and for their own parts, Kamenev and Zinoviev soon lost their bases of support in the Leningrad and Moscow party branches. From the outset, the United Opposition did not possess the institutional or mass support needed to make a true challenge for power (Hosking 1985, p. 145). Zinoviev was, however, the head of the Comintern, and we know from Stalin’s letters that he treated the United Opposition with more seriousness than he regarded the threat posed by Trotsky. Indeed, the Opposition took Stalin and the Politburo to task for their fruitless support of non-revolutionary movements outside the Soviet Union. For example, in 1926, there had been a general strike in the United Kingdom in support of coal miners, with Soviet support; not only did the strike fail, but also the miners had to accept longer hours and lower wages than before. Meanwhile, in China, the Soviet Union encouraged the communists there to collaborate with the nationalist Kuomintang in the hopes of forming a “revolutionary-democratic bloc.” By the summer of 1927, however, the KMT banned the Chinese Communist Party and persecuted its members. Stalin, however, refused to deviate from these policies. In the meantime, he made fresh allegations of factionalism against Kamenev and Zinoviev, using their actions in 1917 against them as well as a telegram allegedly sent by Kamenev that year expressing support not just for the Provisional Government but also for the brother of Tsar Nicholas, Mikhail, who had briefly been tsar following Nicholas’ abdication. Kamenev claimed to have never written the telegram, and numerous witnesses came forward to endorse this, but Stalin and the rest of the Politburo managed to prevent these defenses from being published in the party press. Forced underground, they attempted to operate in secret, but when the NKVD discovered one of their printing presses, the Politburo expelled the Opposition members from the party’s Central Committee and, in the case of Trotsky and Zinoviev, from the party itself. They would be readmitted only if they renounced their actions and admitted their errors in working against the party. Kamenev and Zinoviev did so, thus surrendering any legitimacy they may have had; Trotsky refused to repudiate his opposition and was exiled, but he had long ago been discredited.

As the 1920s ended, the NEP faced extinction. The Soviet Union had reached levels of prewar production, but grain remained scarce on the market. Government price controls prompted affluent peasants (the kulaks) to withhold their grain, Wladimir_Gawriilowitsch_Krikhatzkij_-_The_First_Tractorhoping for higher prices, leaving the state unable to feed its people or fund new industrial projects. Stalin, like Lenin, initially opposed the idea of forced collectivization of agriculture, preferring “example and persuasion” (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 197-198). He made a U-turn on the issue, however, embracing collectivization and by 1929 implementing it with the full force of his now monumental authority. Some historians have argued Stalin linked collectivization with increasing the grain “tribute” paid to the state to finance industrialization. In both public speeches and private correspondence, however, Stalin argued that the benefits of collectivization – increased state subsidies, less dependence on the kulak saboteurs, access to new equipment – would offset the damaged cause by collection of the tribute. From him, the procurement of grain was the main thing. We also know that his push for all-out collectivization was fueled by reports of remarkable success in Khoper county in the lower Volga region, where the collectivization of farms jumped from 2.2% in June to at least 30% in October (Davies 1980). By the end of the following month, a commission set up to review the Khoper case reported that the state should reduce the rate of collectivization. Stalin thus came to believe that there was no need to adopt a “wait and see” approach, and that all-out collectivization could be accompanied by the liquidation of the affluent peasants as a class (or “dekulakization”). According to Soviet records, the government deported around 400,000 peasant families (over 1.8 million people) to special settlements in eastern Russia or Central Asia between 1930 and 1931 (Kort 2006, p. 205). On the economic front as well, Stalin increasingly used the power of the state to enforce his plans. A letter from 1929 on improving grain procurement asks the Politburo to use the NKVD to put down petty speculators and truculent farmers preventing the state from obtaining its full resources, a suggestion adopted by the Politburo. Nevertheless, in another letter Stalin worries that the security forces will see through the directives unless they too are checked on (Stalin, et al. 1995, pp. 51-52). It at this point that we come to see both how much power Stalin has amassed in his hands but also his own style and outlook on governing.

According to Lars T. Lih, Stalin’s worldview was informed by what he terms the “antibureaucrat scenario.” This perspective stemmed from the long-running Bolshevik concern, expressed by Lenin and others, about the reliance of the new socialist state on “bourgeois specialists” who had not been a part of the revolution and may have even opposed it. To counteract counterrevolution, then, it was necessary to both present a united political front and to constantly monitor progress on the part of the bureaucrats. Whereas Lenin seemed to believe in using oversight and auditing to make this possible, Stalin favored a much more direct, hierarchical structure, wherein those deviating from the spirit of the revolution and party directives needed to be “cleansed” or “purged.” Stalin, in a sense, was in the late 1920s and 1930s drawing from Bolshevik political culture and an established identification and frustration of the problem of bureaucrats and opportunists working against the revolution. Yet, this does not absolve Stalin with how he chose to tackle this problem; he himself chose, for example, to use the Soviet secret police to administer his economic plans, and to judge and mete out punishments against those who, in his view, did not hold “correct” views.

Evidence of the latter can be found in the political demises of Bukharin and Rykov. Like Stalin, they had represented the Bolshevik “Right” against the “Left” Opposition of Trotsky. In the late 1920s, however, Stalin launched a crusade against them as part of a right-wing deviation from socialism. This round of in-fighting must be distinguished from the Trotsky and United Opposition instances, because there was no explicit challenge to Stalin; indeed, Bukharin protested through 1928 and 1929 that he had no political differences with Stalin. Stalin, meanwhile, claimed Bukharin was, at his core, a Kadet posing as a Bolshevik, “more at home in the left wing of a party of petit bourgeous socialists than in the Communist Party, where he is a decrepit, rotten defeatist” (Stalin, et al. 1995, pp. 54-55). Ironically, modern historians have latched on to the notion of a split between Stalin and Bukharin over the NEP (painting Bukharin as “right” and Stalin as “wrong”) while, at the time, Bukharin was vociferous that there was no such split and that their feud stemmed from personal disputes. Rykov, a preeminent Bolshevik on economic matters often overlooked by historians, in 1926 spoke out on the bureaucrat problem at a party conference, but offered a solution more nuanced than Stalin’s total war, calling on the party to separate the good specialists from the bad ones. We know from Stalin’s letters that he from that point considered Rykov to devoid of faith in revolution, a specialist simply showing sympathy with the Soviets (ibid., p. 56). By the end of 1930, Stalin had engineered the removal of Bukharin and Rykov from the Politburo, casting them into the political wilderness. They had met the same fate as Kamenev and Zinoviev despite not showing the same defiance as the United Opposition; it was primarily in Stalin’s own judgment that they had been branded traitors.

As we assess the Soviet Union going into the 1930s, it is tempting to speculate how things may have been different had Lenin recovered from his strokes or at least made some of his final proposals a reality. Stalin would have ceased to be the General Secretary of the party, certainly. There no doubt would have been some in-fighting over the issues of foreign policy and the economy, much as there had been intra-party debate in the past, although party members would likely have remained immune from expulsion save for instances where they clearly went against decided doctrine. It is doubtful we would have seen the sort of personal verdicts on ideological purity turned into official practice as witnessed on the part of Stalin. The “bureaucrat problem” would have remained an issue, but it is possible Rykov’s subtle solution of keeping the good and eliminating the bad could have prevailed. Likewise, although the NEP would likely not have provided the internal capital necessary to fuel industrialization due to its dependence on voluntary compliance on the part of peasants who had been hostile to the Bolsheviks since the days of “War Communism,” the shift to forced collectivization need not have proceeded at the breakneck speed that it did. It must be admitted, though, given the unresolved hostility between the Bolsheviks and the peasants, it is difficult to envision how the wide gulf between the state and the countryside could have been bridged to avoid any top-down coercion.

Conjecture and speculation aside, it is apparent that the Soviet Union by 1930 had changed in character dramatically from the conclusion of the civil war in 1920. The Bolsheviks held uncontested power, but such were the divisions within the party itself that much of the 1920s had been devoted to contests over power and between personalities. Small steps toward socialism through partial capitalism as represented by the NEP had been replaced by a bold economic offensive meant to bring the Soviet Union to a level of development equal to the industrialized nations. Abroad, those Bolsheviks dreaming of more revolutions and a long list of countries within the Communist International had come to temper their expectations, hoping instead that the global left could counter the rising tide of reactionaries and fascism. At the same time, the Soviet Union would devote much of its energy at home to repressing and purging its enemies, with both regular citizens and prominent Bolsheviks suspected of political crimes.

Works Cited

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18. Wade, Rex. 2001. The Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

The Russian Civil War: 1918-1920

In November 1917, the Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia, toppling the crumbling Provisional Government and replacing it with their own interim administration. They shared power with the left-wing breakaway faction of the Socialist Revolutionaries (the SRs), the party of the farmers, and thus claimed to represent both the industrial proletariat as well as the peasantry. Yet their place in government was not secure. Socialist moderates, including the Mensheviks and right-wing SRs, refused to recognize the Bolshevik regime, even though the Second Congress of the Soviets had sanctioned it. Moreover, the time for the long-promised Russian Constituent Assembly had come, and although the Bolsheviks dominated the soviets throughout Russia, they did not expect to win a majority in a national poll. The elections went ahead just three weeks after the Bolshevik seizure of power, with over 40 million votes cast under equal suffrage with secret ballots, the first of its kind in Russian history (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 145). As predicted, the SRs achieved a majority, with the Bolsheviks coming in second with a quarter of the votes. In the Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda, Lenin reacted by claiming that a soviet republic transcended a bourgeois assembly as a “higher form of democracy,” and in light of the ongoing class struggle unfolding from the revolutions, the candidates chosen to stand in the election did not truly represent the will of the people (1917a). The Constituent Assembly met for one day in January 1918, electing Chernov, the former SR minister of agriculture under Kerensky, as its president. The following day, the Bolsheviks dispersed the new legislature by force. In truth, indignation about the fate of the assembly limited itself to its moderate members. When moderate socialists later attempted to use the incident as a rallying cry in their civil war against the Bolsheviks, they found that most peasants knew nothing about it.

For anyone who paid attention to the pronouncements of the Bolsheviks, the rejection of electoral politics came as no great shock. Most considered themselves revolutionaries, not politicians, and their mission was to construct a socialist society, not compromise and accept half-measures with those who did not have the stomach to demolish the status quo. Like Robespierre and the Jacobins, they recognized that virtue without force behind it is powerless; they therefore needed to use force to pursue their aims and overcome the class enemies. They founded the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle with Counterrevolution and Sabotage, commonly shortened to Cheka, under the direction of the Polish Bolshevik Felix Dzerzhinsky. In his memoirs, the revolutionary Victor Serge (2012) criticized the creation of the Cheka, explaining that reactionary threats made the Bolsheviks “lose their heads” and that even Dzerzhinky considered the group “half-rotten” due to “psychological perversion.” Many of its members had been humiliated and tortured by the Imperial government, and thus were prone to paranoia and violence (p. 94). Initially a set of small squads tasked with internal security, the Cheka combated the looting and rioting that had understandably broken out during the revolution. Intended as an extension of popular power, its relative independence from other institutions contributed to its subsequent growth in power and autonomy, leading to the unchecked activities that would make the Cheka so feared during the civil war.

Before discussing the civil war, however, we should explore how the Bolsheviks ended Russian involvement in the world war started in part by the tsar. Shortly after taking power, the Bolsheviks issued the Decree on Peace, calling for immediate peace without annexations or reparations (Lenin 1917b). This of course did not appeal to Russia’s enemies, but politically it showed the Bolsheviks were serious about seeking the peace, unlike their predecessors. Following a preliminary armistice, Lenin later proposed a separate peace with Germany and the Central Powers, but met with stiff opposition from most of his party. Most still assumed that revolutions would erupt throughout Europe, having witnessed Bolshevik success, and that Russia could conclude peace with fellow socialist governments. When this did not transpire, some militant Bolsheviks like Bukharin called for a “partisan war” not involving opposing formal armies but instead with guerilla fighters waging a battle of attrition against the enemy governments (Hosking 1985, pp. 60-61). Lenin, however, claimed that the revolution needed temporary “breathing space.” Trotsky, heading the peace negotiations as commissar for foreign relations, remained true to his theory of permanent revolution, opposed Lenin and broke off the bargaining. As the Germans advanced on Petrograd, however, most Bolsheviks shifted to Lenin’s position, and in early 1918, negotiations resumed. The resulting Treaty of Brest-Livotsk saw Russia cede the Baltic territories and the entire Ukraine to German occupation. This proved too much for the Left SRs, who quit the Bolshevik government in protest. This left the Bolsheviks alone against their foes.

The Czechoslovak Legion was a small unit within the Imperial Russian Army composed of Czech and Slovak volunteers who hoped that their valor and sacrifice in World War I would earn their homeland its independence from the Austrian Empire. When they ended Russian participation in the war, the Bolsheviks permitted the Legion to join their compatriots fighting in France, as the Legion wanted to continue the war. Unfortunately, sending the Legion through Russo-German lines was not an option, so the Legion had to travel along the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok, Russia’s main Pacific port, where it would sail across the ocean to Western Europe via the United States. In May 1918, in a town just east of the Urals, an incident involving Legion soldiers and Austrian-Hungarian POWs led to the Legion taking control of a Russian city and firing on Bolshevik forces. Whether Britain and France pressured the Legion to take up arms against the Bolsheviks is unclear, as is whether the Bolsheviks faced similar pressure from the Central Powers to disarm the Legion. What is apparent is that once the Legion started the conflict, the Allies capitalized on the opportunity to re-open an Eastern Front with Germany and at the same time bring down the Bolsheviks in Russia (Mawdsley 1987, pp. 46-49). At any rate, the Legion used control of the telegraph system to obtain effective control over the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the main form of transportation in Siberia. After turning over most of their western territory to the Germans, the Bolsheviks now saw their enemies also controlled most of Russia east of the Ural Mountains.

Meanwhile, in southwestern Russia along the Don River, a hodgepodge of liberal democrats, disillusioned SRs and Imperial military officers rallied together, loosely united by their hostility toward the Bolsheviks. The “Whites” to the Bolshevik “Reds,” they formed a Volunteer Army under the leadership of General Mikhail Alekseyev, formerly the tsar’s chief of staff, as well as Lazr Kornilov, Anton Denikin, Sergey Markov, and other former high-ranking officers of the Imperial Army. Their experience made them a formidable fighting force, but their disparate ideologies and identities translated to a slow mobilization, and they initially only numbered several thousand strong. Bolshevik militias sent to crush them drove them south toward Kuban, and the Whites made an “ice march” over the frozen steppe. They attempted to take the city of Krasnodar, the capital of a new soviet republic in the north Caucasus, but failed, with Kornilov killed by artillery (ibid., pp. 20-21). Nevertheless, southwest Russia remained under the control of the Whites, leaving the Bolsheviks concentrated in the central region of European Russia. However, since this region was the most populous and the most industrialized, they retained important advantages in terms of recruitment and resources to supply their troops.

The Bolsheviks’ main fighting force, the Red Army, originally operated according to the model set by the Red Guards militia, with no ranks and officers chosen by elected committees. While suitable perhaps for guerilla war, this structure could not withstand the German offensives that had occurred between the Brest-Livotsk treaty negotiations (Hosking 1985, pp. 66-67). In early 1918, the Bolsheviks appointed Trotsky as the new head of the Red Army, qualified as he was from his time covering wars as a journalist and his experience as chair of the Petrograd Soviet’s military committee. Controversially, he reinstated several traditional military practices, such as conscription, the death penalty for desertion and the appointment of officers, including those from the former Imperial Army. He used political commissars to ensure these officers remained loyal to the revolution and to keep the regular soldiers passionate about their cause (Kort 2006, pp. 128-129). As one might assume, some of these tsarist officers defected to the Whites in the course of the civil war, but the majority remained faithful. Many historians highlight the practice of holding officers’ families hostage, but the Bolsheviks typically did not have to resort to violence. Most officers acted according to pragmatism, realizing that whatever their feelings about socialism, the Bolsheviks controlled the state, and the state supplied them with food, shelter and other needs (Mawdsley 1987, pp. 60-61). When the Reds gained the upper hand as the war progressed, what began as a dispassionate allegiance of convenience normalized with the absence of any real alternative. Trotsky of course faced no small amount of criticism from some of his fellow Bolsheviks for his changes, but he cited the centralism at the center of Leninist doctrine as justification, and mostly concerned himself with directly intervening on the front lines when needed. Traveling in an armored train, he would give speeches to demoralized or deserting troops, inspiring the Red Army to keep up the fight.

Fight they did, as events snowballed throughout 1918. Emboldened by the Czechoslovak rebellion, some Socialist Revolutionary politicians set up rival governments in western Siberia, in the cities of Samara and Omsk. They called for the re-establishment of the Constituent Assembly, but in many other ways, their policies were just as radical as the Bolsheviks. For most of 1917, they had cooperated with the Bolsheviks in government, and their political beliefs revolved around land redistribution and other programs popular with the peasants. This association drove a wedge between the SRs and the tsarist troops upon which they depended to conduct the civil war. By the fall, these tsarist officers and Cossacks led a coup that installed Admiral Alexander Kolchak as their “supreme ruler” with Allied support (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 151). The ousted SRs fled Russia, effectively ending their relevance in the revolution. The Whites had no time for socialists of any stripe, and in many cases, actively attempted to undo the land reforms implemented by socialist politicians and the peasantry. They also earned the enmity of various nationalists with their promises of restoring an absolute empire with political power and cultural control once more centered around Russia. Their close ties to the Allies provided them with valuable equipment and supplies, but it also gave credence to Bolshevik charges that the Whites were the puppets of imperial powers (Kort 2006, pp. 125-126). The Whites’ scattered dispersion along the Russian periphery and their relative scarcity compared to the Reds hindered them the most, but their total distaste for politics and neglect for the popular mood, even when they came the closest to possibly winning the war, certainly did not do them any favors.

In the beginning of 1919, Kolchak joined forces with Yevgeny Miller, a tsarist officer who had declared himself Governor-General of Northern Russia, based in the northwest city of Arkhangelsk. This offensive stalled, and by the end of the summer, an overextended Kolchak retreated to Siberia and Miller, abandoned by British troops sent to assist him, faced the Red Army alone. In the Baltic region, General Nikolai Yudenich, also with British aid, came close to taking Petrograd in the fall, but in the end could not overcome the city’s defenders. At the same time, Anton Denikin led the Volunteer Army up from the Caucasus, conquering much of southern Russia and the Ukraine, and came within two hundred miles of Moscow. He spread out his forces too much, however, and moved too fast, losing control over his advance. These factors helped contribute to his defeat by a largely improvised Bolshevik counterattack (Mawdsley 1987, pp. 202-207). As 1920 dawned, the Whites were defeated and in disarray. The Czechoslovak Legion, having missed the end of World War I, turned Admiral Kolchak over to the Bolsheviks and purchased passage out of Russia with what remained of Kulchak’s treasury. The Reds executed Kulchak, ending the White threat from Siberia. Yudenich’s subordinates arrested him after he was caught trying to embezzle military funds before escaping. His British benefactors arranged his release. Meanwhile, Denikin fled to Europe, living out the rest of his life as an émigré, a common fate for many other White survivors.

Despite the White downfall, war persisted into the next year. In the spring of 1920, Polish nationalists under Marshal Josef Pilsudski attacked the western Ukraine and seized Kiev in May. The invasion had both offensive and defensive aims: to expand “Greater Poland” along its eastern border and to prevent preemptively a reassertion of the Russian yoke over the Poles by creating a sort of “buffer zone.” The Red Army, under the ex-tsarist commander Mikhail Tukhachevsky, led a counterattack, securing victory after victory. Soon what had started as a reaction to Polish aggression transformed into a Bolshevik plan to bring the Poles socialism by force. This entailed beating the defeated Polish forces west in the hopes that the coming of the Red Army would spark a socialist revolution in Poland, causing the long-awaited domino effect of other such revolutions through Western Europe. However, this turned out to be a serious miscalculation. Much as the Whites had been driven too far too fast by their dreams of taking important Russian cities, the Red Army push to Warsaw stalled along the Vistula River and the Bolsheviks had to seek an unfavorable peace with Pilsudski in 1921 (ibid., pp. 257-260). In the meantime, Denikin’s successor, Pyotr Wrangel, briefly set up a White proto-government in the Crimea. Upon reaching peace with Poland, the Red Army crushed Wrangel’s forces, sending him and his followers scrambling across the Black Sea. The civil war was finally over.

Both the Reds and Whites engaged in political violence between 1918 and 1920. Unlike with the Bolsheviks, however, the Whites resorted to brutality out of instinct rather than from ideology. Kolchak himself wrote that many Whites had “no conscience, no sense of honor or duty, only a cynical spirit of competition and money-grabbing” (Hosking 1985, p. 66). With the exception of Wrangel, none of the White leaders showed any interest in administration, and even if they had, most did not hide their hatred for Russian intellectuals, the majority being socialists, thus ensuring the character of the White forces was all military and no ministers. The Whites fed themselves by looting, which itself was not remarkable given the country’s depletion from years of world war and then civil war. In the Ukraine, however, the Whites added a layer of anti-Semitism to their raiding, carrying out pogroms against the Jews there. White propaganda fueled this hatred, depicting Bolsheviks and Jews as synonymous, with special emphasis given to Trotsky’s Jewish heritage (Figes 1996, pp. 676-677). This echoed in many ways themes later witnessed in Nazi propaganda, when Hitler justified the persecution of the Jews as a response to Bolshevism and the “threat” of socialism. According to documents released from the Russian archives, over 150,000 Jews died due to the White pogroms, with the wounded bringing the number closer to 300,000 (ibid., p. 679).

Figes describes the cruelty:

In the town of Fastov the Cossacks hung their victims from the ceiling, releasing them just before they choked to death: if their relatives, who watched this in terror, could not pay up the money they had demanded, the Cossacks repeated the operation. The Cossacks cut off limbs and noses with their sabers and ripped out babies from their mothers’ wombs. They set light to Jewish houses and forced those who tried to escape to turn back into the fire. In some places, such as Chernobyl, the Jews were herded into the synagogue, which was then burned down with them inside. In others, such as Cherkass, they gang-raped hundreds of pre-teen girls. (p. 678)

Two arguments frequently arise to justify or at least excuse the “White Terror.” The first is that the generals did not directly order it, while the second argues that the historical moment required callousness. To the first point, research shows that under Denikin the death penalty was in effect not just for Bolshevik party members, but also for anyone who had participated in workers’ councils or collaborated in the 1917 revolution (Bortnevski 1993, p. 363). This could be interpreted to mean even regular Russians “guilty” of voting for delegates to represent them, or as we have seen from White propaganda, Jews with no actual connection to politics whatsoever. Additionally, even if the White officers had not commanded the Jewish pogroms, they also did not do much to prevent them from occurring, which they could have done easily, given the highly regimented and even authoritarian nature of the various White regimes. Documentation exists of White generals ordering pogroms, but none where those generals stepped in to stop the raping and murder. As to the second rationalization, individuals of all nationalities from all time periods have used “war is hell” to justify all assortments of war crimes, and if we reject this excuse in the present when it is employed to hand-wave the shooting of civilians or the desecration of corpses, why should we accept it in regards to White abuses?

The “Red Terror,” too, was neither mere indulgence nor a collective hardening of the heart to the civil war. In reality, it was an eruption from below by the those downtrodden and dispossessed by feudalism and early capitalism, a social leveling that drew upon the traditions of peasant communes and a enduring mistrust of the propertied classes. Those that argue that terror is a necessary ingredient of Bolshevism suggest that socialism created the mass terror from whole cloth, but it did not. The “Red Terror” had its origins in the social order that fell apart in 1917. In just the 20th century alone, the Russian state had starved the masses, driven them to exhaustion in the factories, and sent them east and west to die in wars that had to do more with imperial pride than national security. It did so while also denying them political inclusion on the basis they were too ignorant, too wild and too primal to make the “right” decisions. What is remarkable about the “Red Terror” is not that it happened, but that it was so long in coming, when one considers both the relative size and strength of the masses to their masters, as well as the great lengths the Russian state went to impose its will over the working classes. Granted, the Bolsheviks provided the people with the institutions of the “Terror” – the secret police, the people’s courts, the seizure of private property – but the terror itself came from tensions of inequality and repression as old Russia itself. Whereas the anti-Semites among the Whites tormented and slaughtered the Jews for imagined roles in fictional conspiracies, the punishments, however savage, meted out to the Russian upper class had its roots in genuine mistreatment and subjugation. Men and women, quite free of any communist coercion, named their daughters “Terrora” to celebrate what they viewed as an overdue reckoning (Figes 1996, pp. 522-525).

This is not to say that the Bolsheviks played no part in fomenting political violence; on the contrary, it had been a central component of their political program for many years. As Trotsky (1920) put it, the “Terror” was a “direct continuation” of the armed uprising of late 1917, the revolution removed from theoretical tracts and applied to the real world. Their isolation and extreme position on the political spectrum also left the Bolsheviks with an onus to prove themselves true to their words, not just to bolster their integrity, but also to discredit and destroy their rivals on the left as well as the right. They had been clear about their intentions from the beginning. Lenin, upon hearing in late 1917 that Kamenev had endorsed abolishing the death penalty, asked: “How can you make a revolution without firing squads? Do you expect to dispose of your enemies by disarming yourself?” (Figes 1996, p. 630). With the slogan, “Loot the looters!” he heartened the impoverished to take the property of the upper classes by force. Data from the Russian archives also supports the theory that the execution of the deposed tsar and the imperial family came from a direct order from Lenin rather than, as has been speculated, a spontaneous decision by local party members (ibid., pp. 635-639). Just as an “innocent tyrant” is an oxymoron, Lenin and most Bolsheviks believed that a class war without political violence was a contradiction in terms. For a new society to emerge, the old one had to die.

Of course, not all of the Bolshevik bloodletting came from politics; some of it was indeed about survival. In July 19, Left SR rebels showed their dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Brest-Livotsk by assassinating the German ambassador in a bid to restart the conflict. When the Cheka demanded the assassins turn themselves in, the Left SRs briefly took control of Moscow before being defeated, the ringleaders imprisoned. In the autumn of that year, a Socialist Revolutionary named Fania Kaplan attempted to assassinate Lenin outside a Moscow factory, seriously wounding him. On the same day, another anti-Bolshevik socialist killed the head of the Chekists in Petrograd (Mawdsley 1987, p. 80). These attacks came from the Bolsheviks’ erstwhile allies; one can only imagine what would have befallen them had the Whites been successful in capturing Petrograd or Moscow. Regardless, most of the political prisoners placed in monasteries-turned-concentration camps were not enemy combatants, but merely class enemies. Inmates in Cheka jails could be anyone, from politicians to professors, from priests to dissident peasants, even children. In some cases, they were Bolsheviks themselves, denounced in trivial quarrels by friends and strangers (Figes 1996, pp. 642-643). The “Terror” was not a systematic process operating with military precision for a military objective; it was, as is to be expected given its social origins and the anarchy of the civil war, often disordered and indiscriminate, driven by dogmatic goals as by the concerns of war.

The exact number of people killed in the “Red Terror” remains unknown. The Cheka officially claimed it executed 6,300 people across 20 provinces during the civil war (Mawdsley 1987, p. 83). Figes (1996) puts the figure at “several hundred thousand” if one includes those who died in the prisons along with those killed in anti-Bolshevik revolts (p. 649). Precise figures are impossible because for most of the “Terror” no one held the Cheka to account. In early 1919, it was brought under the Commissariat of Justice, but in reality, it remained answerable only to those on the Bolshevik central committee, where Lenin actively protected it. Some high-ranking Bolsheviks like Bukharin and Kamenev frequently criticized the Cheka for its unrestrained behavior, and the Russian writer Maxim Gorky was perhaps the most prolific and outspoken opponent of the “Terror.” To these censures and reproaches, Lenin remained adamant that the mistakes of the Cheka, whatever they might be, were worth it to preserve the welfare of the workers’ state. “What injustice,” Lenin wrote sarcastically. “A few days, or even weeks, in jail for intellectuals in order to prevent the massacre of tens of thousands of workers and peasants!” (ibid., pp. 678-679).

Understanding the “Red Terror” is easy; judging it is hard. Knowing even a little about what the poor and vulnerable endured through most of Russian history makes even the excesses against the elite plausible. Yet is it acceptable? To the modern liberal mind, it is generally not. The notion of believing in any political doctrine fully, even one based in scientific rigor as Marxism claims to be, is alien to the average 21st century mind. That one might use such a doctrine to justify killing political opponents or class enemies is even more inconceivable. From youth we learn to treat politics as being about concessions and rough calculations, so that “the perfect is not the enemy of the good.” For the Bolsheviks and their followers, they demanded nothing less than perfection, the establishment of the world’s first truly socialist society, with the prior edifice ripped away to its very foundation. They were so committed to the enterprise they not only took power by force, but also endeavored to use that power even when fenced in by their enemies with prospects of their survival dubious. They remained true to their intentions when other actors would likely have bent or even broken for the sake of saving their own skin. Mawdsley (1987) argues that the short-term stability brought by the “Terror” did not outweigh the long-term costs later used against the Bolsheviks, stating that the “Terror” played a large part in Western antagonism toward the Soviet Union. This is doubtful, given what we know about the opposition of the West to any anti-capitalist government, peaceful or otherwise, around the world. Moreover, this sort of pragmatic calculus adopts the modern perspective the Bolsheviks did not share. For them their long-term concern was not propriety or foreign relationships, but instead following through on the revolutionary activity that had seen them in and out of prisons and exile for most of their adult lives. They had endured beatings, torture and years away from loved ones in the name of an ideal, one they could only realize by tearing apart the very system that had persecuted them for so long and perpetuated injustice everywhere. Recent history proves that being kind and trusting to those who profit from plunder and state-sanctioned rule-breaking does not bode well; protecting the corrupt elites is arguably just as cruel to the masses as permitting the masses to exact bloody revenge on those same elites. Granted, in a truly faultless system, the elites would not repress the working classes, or vice versa. An important thing to note is that decision-makers behind the “Terror” believed such a world was possible and claimed to be working towards it, while the decision-makers of today say such a world is fantasy and that exploitation and alienation is the unpleasant but natural state of man under capitalism. There is no perfect world, liberals say, just one better than all the others. The Bolsheviks, for all their sins, believed otherwise.

Works Cited

1. Bortnevski, Viktor. 1993. “White Administration and White Terror (The Denikin Period).” Russian Review, 52(3), pp. 354-366.
2. Figes, Orlando. 1996. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
3. Hosking, Geoffrey. 1985. The First Social Society: A History of the Soviet Union From Within. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
4. Kort, Michael. 2006. The Soviet Colossus: History and Aftermath, Sixth Edition. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
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6. Lenin, Vladimir. 1917b. Report on Peace. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/oct/25-26/26b.htm
7. MacKenzie, David and Michael W. Curran. 1997. Russia and the USSR in the Twentieth Century, Third Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
8. Mawdsley, Evan. 1987. The Russian Civil War. Boston, MA: Allen & Unwin.
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