Sunday, December 26, 2010
The Devil You Know: Russian Authoritarian Regimes on the Right and Left
“It is the nature of revolutions to end in disillusionment and disappointment.”(Fitzpatrick 9)
“Meet the New Boss. Same as the Old Boss.”(The Who, Who’s Next)
Russia is different. The quotation from Vladimir Putin highlights its unique tradition of strong and authoritative government. On one level the quotation seems frightening and intentionally provocative, an ostensible defense of autocratic, even totalitarian, rule and the necessity of maintaining power at any cost. Putin’s statement reflects a stubborn pride that is not so different from Stalin’s sense of a unique destiny for Russia: “Comrades, we Communists are people of a special cut. We have been cut out of peculiar stuff.” Both leaders are saying Russia is different from Western Europe; its history lacks the successful liberal quest for democratic structures and institutions, while its economic challenges were simultaneously the most severe of any European nation to modernize and improve agricultural production, along with industry. The relationship between power and poverty is inherent in the continuity of Russian history, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t other options for the nation. The economic example of Great Britain’s Industrial Revolution allowed for a constitutional monarchy to continue, with the effective government performed by Parliament; the ruling elites avoided a French style political revolution. France was an agrarian nation like Russia, but their historical legacy was one of progressive human emancipation, which violently eliminated the ruling monarchy and established representative government and expansion of suffrage and individual rights as the true purpose for government. While Britain’s industrial production was desired, Tsarist Russia deeply feared the political instability of France’s example. Neither model fits with Russian history as it happened; there was no effective transition from aristocracy to bourgeois capitalism and liberal government. At the end of the 19th century, all power was in the hands of a single individual in Tsar Nicholas II. Even when the Duma became a reality in the early 20th century, the influence of Rasputin was more significant than any parliamentary process. Though there is an ideological schizophrenia in linking the Tsars to Lenin and Stalin (and Putin himself), there remains a consistency in the pattern of authoritative leaders with a massive bureaucracy. All of these leaders were willing to use force and intimidation to insure order, and they were all determined not to yield any political power. This was the Russian political instinct, and it was never successfully overcome until Gorbachev. The reactionary rule of the Tsars and the continuing problem of guaranteeing a food supply made it likely that something big was going to happen in Russia. When the political revolution happened, finally, in Russia, it was far to the left. Even if Putin is unsurprised at the consistency from the Tsars to Stalin, an objective reading of history should not shake off the surprise too quickly. This consistency of government does not mean that it was inevitable. It was the result of choices. The authoritarian state of the Tsars was one of reactionary incompetence from the right, while active choices by Bolshevik revolutionaries compromised Marxist ideology in the acquisition and maintenance of power that became a totalitarian government from the left.
The incompetence of the Tsars and the subsequent event of World War I, which came at a significant point of political vulnerability in 1914, were both necessary for the revolution to occur. Both of these conditions reflected active choices by the Russian monarchy and the leaders of other nations; these choices were not inevitable. Long before World War I, the leadership of the Tsars in the 19th century was one of ineptitude and repression. The 1825 revolution provided both a model for revolution and how to crush it mercilessly; it also revealed how responding to real problems with repression creates bigger problems later on. Tsar Alexander knew that he had to liberate the Russian serfs, but liberal ideas were the more immediate threat to his power, even though these “radicals” in 1825 imagined democratic reforms that included the Tsar in a future Russia. The Decembrist revolution resulted in thirty years of repression, and Nicholas I was determined not to dilute political power as Alexander’s successor. If Lenin were to lead a revolution successfully, he could expect no accommodation or concession from the Tsar. Lenin had to be willing to go all the way; he would have to be ruthless—as merciless and unflinching as a reactionary monarch himself. That was the Russian way from either side of the political spectrum. After 1825, the question remained about how to lift Russia out of poverty, and it would continue for the rest of the century and the next one. In many respects, it continues to this day. But the economic problems were left to a growing but ineffective bureaucracy with its inconsistent land grants and broken promises to the peasants: “The real ruler of Russia was a gigantic bureaucracy-slow, clumsy, uncontrolled, and corrupt.”(Gilbert and Large 81) No revolution occurred in 1848 after the experience of 1825, and Populists in the second half of the nineteenth century were not willing to take the risks, and potentially face the same fate, as the Decembrists. The peasant revolution was never going to happen in Russia. The monarchy was more determined than ever not to yield any political power, and this determination continued with Nicholas II. Though the monarchy knew that it had to play economic catch-up with the rest of Europe, it had no intention of aping any other nation when it came to political reform. Russia was different and determined to remain so. Their example shows how extreme poverty centralizes political power: for fear of the instability that democratic reform might unleash. Sharing power was seen as something that would take Russia backward, not forward. This is the argument of dictators.
If 1825 were the distant past, the 1905 uprising, with its violent reprisals, was powerful evidence of the brutal intransigence of the monarchy. The Russo-Japanese War was also an embarrassment for the nation at the same time. At this point the political purpose of the monarchy is simply to survive the day. Nicholas II’s concession of the Duma was an insincere response to the political climate, one that could be taken away, and he resisted constitutional reform. The Duma would not be the place where political concessions and economic improvements would be crafted out through parliamentary processes: “But the old arbitrary habits of autocratic rule and the continued activity of the secret police undermined these concessions.”(Fitzpatrick 16) Different responses in 1825 or 1905 would have created different models for political leadership. It is hard to imagine that a more democratic configuration of government with constitutional reforms would have been less adept than the Tsar at addressing agricultural and economic problems, and the increasing social pressures. The Russian Revolution of 1917 could have been avoided with a different response in 1905. Choices were made: “The Revolution of 1905 did not seal the fate of Tsarism. It might be called a turning point that did not turn.”(Gilbert and Large 87) Autocracy survived the day, but it would soon face challenges and threats much more formidable than Father Gapon. There was enormous political opportunity for Lenin and the Bolsheviks, along with the Mensheviks and the Socialist Democratic Party. This said, it still took the circumstances of World War I to provide the needful atmosphere for a successful revolution, if that’s what this one can be called. The problem of overpopulation and underproduction had yet to be solved, and even conservatives were becoming critical of Tsar. Sheila Fitzpatrick characterizes the monarchy in 1916 as “a car steered along the edge of a precipice by a mad driver, who terrified passengers were debating taking the wheel. In 1917, the risk was taken…”(Fitzpatrick 16) The turning point that did not turn in 1905 became the Russian Revolution of 1917 with Lenin at the wheel. But it still took the war and the reactionary ineptitude of the incumbents to open the door for Lenin. Neither was inevitable.
The question is then whether socialism would look different than its authoritarian predecessor. Would there be socialist democracy? How do you lift Russia out of poverty and maintain power at the same time? There was the continued problem of creating large scale agriculture through the kulaks, while giving incentives to peasants to produce a stable food supply. Industrial development was limited to just a few cities, and there was little common ground between farmers and the industrial proletariat. How would Lenin keep the Russian people behind him long enough to wait for economic progress? This was daunting enough for Lenin, but he also had to fight a war at the same time which exacerbated all of the social pressures with no food and no fuel. Russia had to print and borrow more money. The war created a need for full-blown aristocracy, first for the Tsar and then for Lenin. War Communism meant that democratic socialism was a casualty from the revolution, a pipe dream among intellectuals in the smoke-filled rooms of the past. The war both created the opportunity for Lenin but also made his job of governing that much more difficult. How could Lenin juggle all of these challenges? The first thing on his to do list each day was to stay in power. He certainly couldn’t do it that by sharing power with a Provisional Government. Lenin followed the example of the Tsars when it came to maintaining power; and then he improvised to the best of his ability to increase industrial production and collectivize the farms. The state directed economic development and encouraged the unlikely alliance of peasants and industrial workers. Industry was nationalized. The Russians waited for tangible results: grain for the workers and Red Army and consumer goods for the farmers. In this high stakes gamble of economic catch-up while fighting a World War I and a civil war, Lenin had to buy time to keep power. He did so through the honored traditions of fear and terror with purges and his own secret police, the Cheka. This was the new boss.
The modes of economic production did change under Lenin, and especially under Stalin. But authoritarian leadership eventually crossed the line into totalitarian rule. What happened to the dictatorship of the proletariat? The Bolsheviks were willing to do whatever it took to stay in power, even if that meant departing from Marxist ideology. They called audibles instead of following the playbook. Fitzpatrick presents the widespread historical position that the civil war “militarized” the Bolsheviks, producing an unwillingness to share power.(Fitzpatrick 71) Lenin governed by fiat, just like the Tsars. He never blinked when it came to using force and bloodshed. This style of government was not something that was invented during the civil war, but it was the baptism for the Bolsheviks, according to Fitzpatrick. If division is the curse of socialism, the Bolsheviks would just have to eliminate the opposition. Even before the revolution, the Bolsheviks were a small, disciplined party with a single leader. Party orthodoxy then became then one of personality, not ideology: “The Bolshevik tradition of centralized organization and strict party discipline led the new Soviet regime towards repressive authoritarianism and laid the foundations for Stalin’s totalitarianism dictatorship.”(Fitzpatrick 42) The dictatorship of the proletariat became merely a dictatorship: “Lenin had an oddly conservative streak when it came to institutions. He wanted a real government, not some kind of improvised directorate, just as he wanted a real army, real laws, and perhaps even, in the final analysis, a real Russian empire.”(Fitzpatrick, p. 89) The old bosses, the Tsars, would have been impressed.
Russia is different, Putin argues. Russia is still dramatically changing, but changing in its own way. It had more familiarity with an authoritarian state in Tsarist Russia; secret police, censorship, a vast bureaucracy, and a single leader were the norm, not the exception. In the regime of Joseph Stalin, the victory of improvisation over ideology was necessary for Stalin to move past the moderate vision of the National Economic Policy and truly change the modes of production. He did it, by any and all means necessary, violently pulling Russia up out of its backward ways and into the 20th century. New class privilege was used to meet Stalin’s five year plan. The economic growth was impressive, but so remains the enormous human cost. In many ways Stalin was able to do what no one had been able to do before. The economic plans and improvisation of Stalin used incentives and intimidation through a state of permanent purge. He created a new class system, and he created an autocracy far more malevolent than anything put into practice by the Tsars. The belief that autocracy was a gift of God (or something like it) reached its zenith under Stalin who acted as an all-seeing St. Paul to Lenin’s more humble Jesus. Government bureaucracy as the domain of the elite continued, and significantly increased, under Lenin and Stalin. Stalin was, in a significant way, non-ideological with his Socialism in One Country program. The orthodoxy became even more about personality, not Marxist ideology, as the means to permanently change the modes of production with national industry. Eventually the dictator would even be seen as the manifest symbol of what made Russia great and different. Putin remembers his history. In Putin, there remains a perverse sense of Russian pride in this complicated historical record: through its authoritarian state and political instinct to never dilute power. This is a conscious rejection of the West. It is a choice. It was a choice to avoid democratic factionalism or the small stakes Menshevik Revolution that never occurred, just like the liberal government that never happened in the 18th and 19th centuries. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a choice to be made. Nothing was inevitable for Russia.
Works Cited List
Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Russian Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Gilbert, Felix. The End of the European Era. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1970.
The Who, Who’s Next. London: Decca and MCA Records, 1971.