Mary Baldwin College, Staunton VA 24401
by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
Protected by the copyright laws of the United States. Exclusively for use in studying PolS 111 and PolS 216 under the supervision of Prof. Bowen by enrolled students of Mary Baldwin College. Not for citation, quotation or any other use without written permission of the author. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Owing to the narrow, urban base of support for the Bolshevik seizure of power, the party could not readily create the socialist revolution it for years had promised. First, they needed to broaden the portion of the Russian public which accepted their authority. A first step was to make criticism of Bolshevik rule illegitimate. This can fairly readily be accomplished in any political setting: all non-Bolshevik newspaper presses in the capital city simply were seized. Strict pro-Bolshevik censorship was imposed on those media outlets which were allowed eventually to reopen.
The Election of 1917: Much of the Russian public retained some doubt about these new rulers, despite the Bolshevik's swift monopolization of the means of public criticism. A first challenge came just weeks later in the form of the election that the (by then deposed) Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky had scheduled to select delegates for a constitution-writing body, or Constituent Assembly. Uncertain of public reaction if they were to cancel the vote (as the Party slogan of summer 1917, "all power to the Soviets," had implied), the Bolsheviks allowed for the vote to be held as scheduled, in late November. This was the first, and until 1989 would be the only, multi-party, free election held in Russia or the Soviet Union -- and its campaign was no model of free expression for non-Bolshevik political parties. Nevertheless, the election of November 25, 1917, generated some interesting results:
Bolsheviks: 24 per cent
Left Social Revolutionaries or S.R.s (pro-Bolshevik): 5 per cent
S.R.s and other socialists: 58 per cent
Kadets and other conservatives: 12 per cent
Together, the Bolsheviks (175 deputies) and the "left" SRs (40) had a considerable bloc of 195; but the rural-based S.R. party had won many more, 370 seats, and with fellow anti-Bolshevik Mensheviks (15 seats) had 385, or nearly 200 more seats than their Bolshevik rivals. To deflect public attention away from this rebuke by the electorate, Bolshevik appointees began house-to-house searches and inventory taking during the month of December. A fair panic developed among those who had any personal property that they cared about. On January 18, 1918, the Constituent Assembly finally met, once. From the resolutions passed by the deputies, it should be clear that a socialist Russia was the objective of a large majority. Resolutions included:
1. an immediate peace with Germany.
2. a declaration that all land seizures by peasants were legal.
3. a formal end to the monarchy.
4. a formal declaration of Russia as a republic.
5. a call for a meeting of socialists from around the world to come to Russia to discuss how to bring about the further socialist revolution elsewhere.
In other words, even from a socialist's point of view, this was hardly a "reactionary," backward looking assembly. Nevertheless, the Bolsheviks shut down the meeting by turning out the lights and by having Red Guards shoot rifles into the ceiling. Lenin had foreshadowed as much a month earlier when he wrote: "Naturally, the interests of this revolution stand higher than the formal rights of the Constituent Assembly..." (in "Theses on the Constituent Assembly," reprinted in Tucker: 421). So came to an end the brief and only experiment with democratic socialism in Russia. After the Constituent Assembly's only meeting, Lenin referred to these events thusly: "To hand power to the constituent assembly would be capitulation to the malignant forces of the bourgeoisie."
This hardly was the case. But few could challenge his interpretation: the Bolsheviks by then controlled the entire available press. Secret police (or Cheka) agents soon began rounding up these non-Bolshevik socialists so that, even by word-of-mouth, few ordinary Russians could learn the straight facts about how democracy had been snuffed out by armed Red Guards. Even before the Czar's (Romanov) family met their machine gunners, some of these independent-minded socialists met their new master and died, splattered against his wall.
The Policy of "War Communism"
As discussed in "Russian Revolutionary Theory," Lenin's approach included a profound intolerance of dissenters within the revolutionary socialist movement. While this trait was not unknown in Russia, Lenin's embrace of terrorism was at substantial odds with turn-of-the-century Western European socialist movements. These habits continued to develop, continuing to drive a wedge between Lenin's Russia and the West.
Late in December 1917, Lenin-the-ruler embraced terror as a principal governing method for the revolutionary regime. This was made abundantly clear by the Bolshevik's actions, but the sour flavor of this new policy of state terrorism came through even in his surprisingly candid writings. In his essay "Fright at the Fall of the Old and the Fight for the New," Lenin stated, "We have always known, said and emphasized that socialism cannot be 'introduced,' that it takes shape in the course of the most intense, the most acute class struggle-- which reaches heights of frenzy and desperation-- and civil war; we have always said that a long period of 'birth-pangs' lies between capitalism and socialism; that violence is always the midwife of the old society; that a special state (that is, a special system of organized coercion of a definite class) corresponds to the transitional period between the bourgeois and the socialist society; namely, the dictatorship of the proletariat... Resistance must really be broken, and it will be broken, ... by systematic application of coercion to an entire class (the bourgeoisie) and its accomplices" (quoted in Tucker: 424-5; online version available here).
The initial Bolshevik program was called "War Communism." Whether we take its measure in its troubling ethical and moral dimensions, or if we simply chart its more mundane economic effects, it was an unmitigated disaster. All private industry was abolished. All labor unions were declared unnecessary, hence were abolished. Resisters to these property confiscations and truncations of unionists' independence summarily were executed. For the general public, rationing was put in place as the method of social allocation of scarce goods --and nearly everything soon was very scarce. Peasants were required to surrender to the Party their surplus food: armed communist requisitioners from the cities were allowed to determine what exactly was "surplus." The patina of legality washed over this bloody break with the past. A decree of the Council of People's Commissars, signed by Lenin on July 22, 1918, stated that "those guilty of selling, or buying up, or keeping for sale in the way of business, food products which have been placed under the monopoly of the Republic... [shall face] imprisonment for not less than 10 years, combined with the most severe forced labor and confiscation of all their property" (quoted in Solzhenitsyn: 33). Just contemplate: ten years for the "crime" of unauthorized possession of bread!
Soviet declassified documents from the period verify that Lenin personally set not just the harsh tone: he was directly responsible for brutal acts as well. One November 1918 document demanded his subordinates deal with peasant resistance in the following way "Comrades! The revolt by the five kulak volost's must be suppressed without mercy. The interest of the entire revolution demands ... We need to set an example. ...You need to hang (hang without fail, so that the public sees) at least 100 notorious kulaks, the rich, and the bloodsuckers. This needs to be accomplished in such a way, that people for hundreds of miles around will see, tremble, know and scream out: let's choke and strangle those blood-sucking kulaks... Yours, Lenin" (V.I. Lenin, "Lenin Memo of November 18, 1918 to To Comrades Kuraev, Bosh, Minkin and other Penza communists").
With the clear embrace of top leaders for methods such as these, an absolute license to terrorize was assumed by lower level party functionaries. Clearly, political consolidation appears to have been more important to the new rulers than was winning over the "hearts and minds" of the rural people. An iron fist, rather than an olive branch of conciliation, well could symbolize this era: in 1918-1919, 8300 summary executions (i.e., without trial) took place. This was simply not the ordinary Russian way: from 1826 to 1906 only 3419 had been executed. Even in the worst period of reaction, after the 1905 revolt, only 1310 legally were executed. Nor were "class enemies" the only targets of the Red Terror: Menshevik and S.R. leaders who did not escape from Russia earlier were hunted down and shot, by the hundreds. Independent socialists came to have more to fear from the Bolsheviks than ever they had had to fear from the Czar.
Political consolidation did, however, involve delivering on some elements of the pre-revolutionary Bolshevik program. Peace with Germany, for example, did arrive. The cost was heavy: in the March 1918 treaty signed with Germany (Treaty of Brest-Litovsk), one third of the land area of Russia, an area containing half of its heavy industry and fully a fourth of the nation's population, was given up to Germany. For this costly "peace," all natural defenses against invasion from the West were conceded and all buffer zones (e.g., Poland) between Russia and Germany were surrendered.
Ironically, Germany would hold these lands only for a little while. Soon, Germany herself sued the remaining allies for a peace (November 1918) which, in a short time produced the Versailles Treaty (1919) that formally ended World War I. This treaty removed all of formerly Russian land areas from German control but did not return any to the Soviet Union. This was to become one of the first grievances the Bolsheviks harbored against the Western former allies of Imperial Russia (i.e., Britain and France). Thereafter, a kernel of truth could be found in the Soviet claim that the allies favored the "principle" of national self-determination only for Russia's lost empire in Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland, Bessarabia, Ruthenia, etc. After all, at Versailles, the victorious Western powers had refused even to discuss national self-determination for their own colonies, like the Philippines (USA), or Nigeria (Britain), or Indochina (France). Soviet relations with the West further were embittered by the arrival of British, French, Japanese, American and other troops onto the soil of Russia proper, 1918-1920, in the Allied Intervention.
The combined effects of three years of World War, two revolutions, this costly peace, and Bolshevik state terrorism yielded the conditions for Civil War, 1918-20. All that had diminished the nation, 1917-18 was highly unpopular with Russian nationalists; other national minorities (Georgians; Ukrainians) seized upon the chaos to declare their own separate, independent states. Class war loomed in many areas. In short, a fratricidal civil war simply ripped the teetering empire further apart. Nationalities rose up against Russians; peasants against outsiders; workers against the better off urban classes. In the two main urban centers, Bolshevik Red Guards clung to power, gradually radiating outward to engage burgeoning anti-Bolshevik forces, groups that came to be known as the anti-revolutionary White Armies. The confusing military course of this sad conflict need not closely concern the student of Soviet politics (for more, see Wolf; or Kennan) as much as we need appreciate its social impact: devastation and famine. Suffice it to say that among the most obvious effects of the Russian Civil War were that the population viewed its end, even with the Bolsheviks as victors, as a relief.
The Kronstadt Uprising. At the conclusion of the Civil War, some of the Bolsheviks' early supporters pressured the rulers for a respite, a relaxation. One group that made demands were the soldiers of the Kronstadt Garrison, men who had been instrumental to the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917. In March 1921, they called a strike to demand that (1) elections to the Soviets be conducted by secret ballot (rather than with Bolshevik thugs observing and punishing "incorrect" voters); (2) that all socialist political prisoners be freed (they, too, were silent about just ordinary political detainees); (3) that all communist terror squads that were seizing villagers' grain cease and desist; (4) that workers again have the right to form free trade unions; and (5) that the peasants be allowed to choose the use of the land that they farmed. The Bolshevik response would illustrate the degree to which dissent, even by those with impeccable "revolutionary credentials" would be tolerated in the USSR: the striking garrison was surrounded and shelled with artillery into submission. Hundreds died in the assault; 15,000 who surrendered then were summarily executed without trial (Diller: 40). Those few who did survive to surrender were sent to the Trubetskoi prison at the Peter and Paul fortress, never to be heard of again. In regard to the exclusive authority of the (formerly Bolshevik, then renamed) Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) no respite could be allowed: Cheka order #10 (January 1921) called for the party to "intensify the repression of the bourgeoisie."
Later in the year of 1921, students began being rounded up for critical comments that they had made outside of classes (e.g., to do-gooder schoolmates who then turned them in to authorities). Power alone would be the altar of the new state: young people were executed, for example, in 1920 for the crime of holding an unauthorized tea party! (Solzhenitsyn, pp 34-43)
The New Economic Policy, 1921-25
In March 1921, the party held its 10th Congress (or meeting) to assess the value of such a course to the socialist future. The failures of the policies of the immediate past were hardly acknowledged, but they nonetheless must have formed a stark backdrop against which new ideas were weighed. Industrial production in 1920, for example, was less that one fifth the level it had been in 1914. In key industries, conditions were still worse: oil, coal and metals production was less than 1/10th of its 1914 level. Agricultural production (1921-22) was only one-half that which it had been in 1914.
The Party, under Lenin's leadership, chose to declare an economic policy which relaxed the existing, feverish pursuit of socialism. These dimensions were significant, but the larger purpose seems in retrospect to have been to buy time for the maturing of the Party so that, later, complete political domination over economic life could be achieved. The economic aspects of the New Economic Policy (NEP) were several:
1. Agricultural Policy: Since the peasants still were armed and in many places had resisted Bolshevik forced requisition of supplies, prudence dictated that the party move slowly in rural areas. The policy of forced requisitions was ended. Peasants were given freedom of choice regarding what they would grow and how it would be marketed. Money was reintroduced as a medium of exchange. State projects to benefit peasants, especially rural electrification, were begun.
2. Industrial Policy: Small scale business commerce was allowed to reemerge. While large factories remained state properties (as many had been under the Czars, as well as under "War Communism"), small businesses were permitted. Small, semi-private co-operative banks were authorized, though large-scale banking was still under state ownership. International trade remained under State control, but the isolation of the USSR from western technology was ended and some western industrialists (e.g., Armond Hammer of Occidental Petroleum) began joint projects with the government.
3. Social policies: Under "War Communism" wage differentials among workers had been abolished. Not surprisingly, with little incentive to work hard, both the quantity and the quality of industrial goods had fallen. Discipline also had ebbed. To regain order in the factories and to spur production, wage differentials among workers were reintroduced as part of the N.E.P. program. This was a significant departure from the socialist ethics of the revolution: the concept used in the "War Communism" era had been borrowed from Marx's invocation "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." Contrarily, the NEP strategy became "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his work." Lenin also stated the USSR's new concept to guide government policy toward social welfare, a concept which seems the very opposite of the concept of contemporary Western welfare states: "He who does not work, neither shall he eat" (Tucker: 431). Not all N.E.P. policy carried a hard "survival of the fittest" edge and some concessions to the public were made: inheritances of up to 5000 rubles again were permitted.
Nevertheless, it is the political consolidation of control by the Party that conveys to us the deeper meaning of the period. Contrary to the Marxian expectation that after the Revolution we would see the "withering away of the State," in revolutionary Russia the State bureaucracy was greatly increased. While government civil servants were made subordinate to Party members in their midst, the State budget grew 900 per cent, 1921-29. It seems clear from subsequent events that the top Party leaders recognized that the NEP would one day come to an end and, at that future time, steel-hearted Party faithful again would be needed for the tasks that would then remain to be accomplished. Therefore, during the "relaxation" period of the NEP, within the Party, the principle of "democratic centralism" was used to drive dissidents out.
Under "democratic centralism" opinions of low levels of the Party are, in theory, solicited before the Central Committee makes policy. After the Party leaders have defined party "lines" (or policies), all communists are obliged to defend the line as their own, both within and outside the party. In practice, a subcommittee of the Central Committee, known at different times as the the Politburo and as the Presidium, makes nearly all party policy with little regard for lower level party members' opinions, let alone public opinion. In particular, both the onset and the end of the N.E.P. were decisions undertaken by the Politburo in the absence of even formal debate on the subject within the Party.
A major purge of CPSU membership rolls, from 115,000 in 1918 to 75,000 in 1923, was accomplished. While the hated Cheka (i.e., secret police) were disbanded, in 1922 a new unit, the OGPU secret police, were formed. "Show trials" of the S.R. party leaders were used to educate the people about the importance of following the CPSU. (Most Mensheviks still living, however, were allowed to emigrate abroad). Many former S.R. officials were executed.
It is not entirely clear whether the Party's economic agenda under Lenin would have continued in this relatively more pragmatic direction, or whether the economic, artistic and political tolerance some experienced during the NEP was simply a respite to buy time and to identify enemies of the revolution. What is clear is that the central defining characteristics of Bolshevism (i.e., one party rule, secret police terror) not only survived but grew stronger during the N.E.P. Lenin died in 1924, setting the stage for the full communization of Russian society under his successor, Josef Stalin. About this transition the able historian and political genius Winston Churchill stated: "Lenin: the Russian people['s] worst misfortune was his birth; their next worst: his death" (Churchill: 356).
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (NY: Harcourt Brace, 1951).
Winston Churchill edited by Richard Langworth, Churchill by himself (New York: Public Affairs Books, 2008).
Stephane Courtois, et.al., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge MA: Harvard U.P., 1999): 33-268.
Daniel Diller, ed., Russia and the Independent States (Washington D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1993)
The Terrorism Reader, ed. Walter Laqueur (NY: Meridian, 1977)
Louis Fischer, The Life of Lenin (NY: Harper, 1964).
George Kennan, Russia Leaves the War (1956); The Decision to Intervene (1958); Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin (1960): pp 9-170; and Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917-1941 (1960): 10-37.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (NY: Harper and Row, 1973)
Soviet Archives online at the Library of Congress (As of November 2009):
re: the anti-kulak order of 1918, V.I. Lenin, "Lenin Memo of November 18, 1918 to To Comrades Kuraev, Bosh, Minkin and other Penza communists" go here.
Michael Stohl and George Lopez, The State As Terrorist (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1984).
Robert C. Tucker, The Lenin Anthology (NY: Norton, 1975).
Robert Wesson, Lenin's Legacy (Stanford CA: Hoover Institution, 1978).
Eric Wolf, Peasant Wars of the 20th Century (NY: Harper, 1969).
Bertram Wolfe, Three Who Made a Revolution (NY: Delta, 1948, 1964).
Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism (NY: Collier Books, 1962).
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