Moshe Lewin - What should be known about USSR?

Moshe Lewin
*2009oc31:Le Monde diplomatique| “WHY THE WORLD NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT THE SOVIET PAST”|

SAC editor has Americanized the spelling and entered bold-face and hypertext links
to emphasize and explicate points of greatest relevance to our course

The history of the Russian future

The Soviet system created in 1917 finally collapsed a decade ago with Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation, and was replaced by the Russian Federation. But we still do not understand what the Soviet system was like. What was the relationship between Stalinism and Tsarism? How did conservatism and bureaucracy defeat the need for reform? Russia now is divided between nostalgia and rejection of its past.

We need to correct two mistakes in contemporary thought about the Soviet Union: the confusion of anti-communism with real analysis of the USSR and the belief that the entire history of the Soviet Union was Stalinism, or one long gulag.

Anti-communism is an ideology that pretends to be scientific. Under cover of a commitment to democracy, it ignores reality and promotes conservatism by exploiting the dictatorial nature of a hostile regime. German intellectuals who emphasized Stalin’s atrocities to whitewash Hitler did this. McCarthyism in the United States was based on the fear of communism. The West, in defending human rights, has been indulgent to some and castigated others, but has contributed little to a proper understanding of the Soviet system.

We cannot easily classify the Soviet system because — except during the civil war period [LOOP], when it was little more than a military camp — there were several different Soviet systems. Russian history is a laboratory in which we can study the development of different authoritarian systems — and their crises — down to the present day. Socialism has been understood as a deepening, rather than a rejection, of political democracy. Its tenets are socialization of the economy and democratization of the political regime. But in the USSR, there was only statification [ID] of the economy and bureaucratization of politics. We cannot describe the Soviet system after the death of Stalin in 1953 as socialism, since a prerequisite of socialism is that economic assets are owned by society as a whole, not by a bureaucracy.

The Soviet system has been discussed for too long in the wrong, "socialist" terms: the confusion arose because the USSR was not a capitalist economy — its economic assets were owned by the state and entrusted to top-level bureaucrats. So the Soviet system belongs in the same category as traditional regimes where the ownership of vast estates conferred power over the state. The pre-Soviet-Revolutionary Muscovy autocracy maintained an influential bureaucracy, even though the sovereign held absolute power. The bureaucracy also became all-powerful in the Soviet Union, and the resulting "bureaucratic absolutism" was a modern version of Tsarist rule.

Although the bureaucratic Soviet state recruited its personnel from among the lower classes, it inherited Tsarist institutions and used Tsarist methods. Even Lenin complained that whole sections of the Tsarist administration remained in place after the revolution — unavoidably, since the new regime had much to learn, and had to rely on the experience of government departments, which operated by the old methods. A new state was created, but its civil servants were ancien regime.

Lenin’s problem was improving efficiency. Whenever a new government department was needed, a special commission was appointed to supervise its establishment. The usual practice was to ask a historian of government administration or an experienced civil servant to study the functioning of a similar department under the Tsarist regime. When there was no Tsarist precedent, Western models were used.

Stalin went even further, taking the Tsarist state based on the absolute power of a bureaucratic hierarchy as his quasi-official model. Maintaining that model was essential to the Soviet system. Even the apparently new office of general secretary kept Tsarist features. The imposing ceremonies of both the Tsarist and Soviet regimes derived from a common culture, in which the emphasis on icons, and on images of strength and invincibility, disguised internal fragility.

In the last decades of the Soviet era, the favorite name for the strong state the construction of which began in the late 1920s, was derzhava (great power), a term borrowed from the Tsarist vocabulary, and particularly popular in conservative circles. In Lenin’s day derzhavnik (an advocate of derzhava) was a derogatory term for supporters of ruthless nationalism. Its later popularity came from an association with samoderzhets (autocrat) — the official term for the power of the Tsar. The hammer and sickle replaced the Tsarist golden globe and cross, but they became empty relics of a revolutionary past.

State ownership of all land, entrusted to an absolute monarch, had been the distinguishing feature of several pre-revolutionary regimes in central and eastern Europe. In the name of socialism in the USSR, state ownership was extended to the entire economy and other sectors. This system, despite its more modern appearance, was essentially a continuation and strengthening of the earlier model of state ownership of land, which had been the main economic resource.

The state as developer

Although the Soviet state belonged in the same category as earlier land-owning autocracies, it fulfilled a specifically 20th century purpose — that of the state as developer. There was a historical need for a state capable of directing economic development. The state played — and continues to play — this role in Eastern and Middle Eastern countries, including the old rural empires of China, India and Iran. The emergence of the Stalinist state was partly determined by this need, even if Stalinism was a dangerous distortion of it. And the elimination of Stalinism, like the elimination of Maoism in China, proves that a transition to dictatorship can be reversed.

By the 1980s the Soviet Union had reached a high level of economic and social development, but the system was entrenched. The reforms envisaged by Yuri Andropov [LOOP] could have given the country what it needed desperately — a reformed, active state still capable of directing economic development, but while gradually freed from its obsolete authoritarianism and keeping pace with social and political change.

Instead, recourse to the tired symbolism of derzhava, reflecting the interests of the groups in power, showed that the state had run out of steam. Political power was used for personal ends. This prevented the state from acting as developer. Rather than setting the computer beside the hammer and sickle, Soviet leaders took refuge in a conservatism at odds with the aspirations of the people, who were living in the 20th not the 18th century. A gap opened between state and citizens.

The Soviet system is best described as "bureaucratic absolutism", a term borrowed from studies of the 18th-century Prussian monarchy [LOOP]. [?But should we not also say "harmonious with certain general-European and global trends" (ID)?] The Prussian monarch, though titular head of the bureaucracy, was dependent on it. Party leaders in the USSR, supposed monarchs of the state, lost all power over their bureaucrats. The memoirs of former Soviet ministers reveal nostalgia for the Soviet super-state. They fail to understand that infatuation with great-power status was at its height just as the state ceased to fulfill its earlier functions. Derzhava was the last form of a system about to share the fate of other outmoded regimes with which it had many features in common.

The Soviet period was typical of Russian history because of the importance of the international environment. Russia’s history has been a series of upheavals largely determined by relations with its neighbors. Russian sovereigns were forced to develop such relations through all possible channels, including ideology: whether they borrowed their ideas from abroad or opposed foreign ideas with home-thought concepts, they had to keep a constant watch on the outside world.

International developments also had a major influence on the history of the Soviet Union. The first world war decided the course of Leninism and Soviet Russia in the 1920s, while Stalinism was conditioned by the depression of the 1930s and by the second world war. At the height of its power in the 1930s, the Stalinist regime enjoyed considerable prestige in the West despite the persecution of Soviet citizens; this was mostly the result of the West’s negative self-image, caused by the depression. Russia seemed to have impressive industrial impetus and many believed its poverty would soon be ended by industrial growth. At the time of victory over Germany in 1945, Stalinism also looked good, although the Soviet Union was suffering from extreme poverty that could not be explained just by the war.

The cold war ended this positive image of the Soviet regime. According to Stalin’s interpreter, Valentin Berezhkov, it really began with Stalin’s annoyance at the US delay in landing in Normandy and opening a second front [LOOP]. Stalin was convinced that Roosevelt was maneuvering to keep the US out of the war in Europe until the two major belligerents, Germany and the USSR, were exhausted. From Moscow, the atomic bombs dropped on Japan seemed to confirm that the US intended to assert a new relationship with the USSR and the rest of the world [ID]. Whether that was the intention, the effect was to impose the role of superpower on the Soviet Union, beginning an arms race that perpetuated the most conservative features of its state system and undermined its ability to reform them.

At the same time, the US replaced the old powers of Britain, France and Germany as a model for Soviet leaders, and became the secret measure for all Soviet performance. As a result, some Soviet leaders realized that their country was increasingly lagging behind. Others refused to accept reality. After the Soviet defeat in the race to the moon, the country’s inability to carry through a computer revolution spread helplessness in some ruling circles, while conservatives continued to bury their heads in the sand. The infatuation with everything American led many former members of the nomenklatura to court favor with the US when they took control of the Kremlin under Boris Yeltsin [LOOP].

Welfare paradise or disaster?

It is natural that those researching Russia in the 1990s should make comparisons with the last years of the Soviet system, although it is strange that sociologists who wrote books highly critical of the Soviet system should now depict that as a welfare paradise: the standard of living of the Russians has fallen constantly since the early 1990s. Not just social welfare benefits have been eroded. Attendance at theatres, concerts and circuses is in steep decline. People use libraries far less and newspaper subscriptions have fallen dramatically. There was much more time for cultural activities in the last years of the Soviet Union, when leisure hours were increasing. Now longer working hours are the rule, and many Russians also work on their smallholdings or allotments to supplement their incomes or just to survive.

New rights and freedoms, like the expensive services now offered, have benefited only the richer, better-qualified and more entrepreneurial Russians. Outside Moscow, access to culture has been considerably reduced. Now that television has become the main recreation, sociologists are critical of the dismal quality of Russian TV. There has been a even more significant decline in scientific research, student enrolment, and medical and social services — and a fall in demographic vitality, suggesting the survival of the nation is at stake.

To divert attention from the decline, the new authorities have begun a big campaign vilifying the Soviet system, using all the tricks of the West. The Soviet Union is shown as a monstrosity from the original sin of 1917 through to the failed coup of August 1991, which began the new era of freedom. Modern Russia, already pathetically weakened, is abasing itself as well: not content with plundering the economy, the "reformers" are also attacking history, and from ignorance rather than through critical analysis.

They search frantically for other versions of the past to satisfy the national craving for a new identity. First came re-appropriation of anything Tsarist and pre-revolutionary, then rejection of the Soviet Union and all its works, followed by rehabilitation of the civil war Whites [EG]. This enthusiasm for anything that the Bolsheviks opposed is stupid. Many Russians have reacted by seeing the elite who grabbed power in 1991 as Tartar invaders, hostile to the interests of the nation. And many of Russia’s best minds now see no prospect for Russia other than a decline to the level of the third world.

Despite the adverse effects of obscurantism, there are some signs of recovery. At a well-attended conference of scholars in Moscow, the political philosopher Boris Mezhuev stressed that a country cannot exist without its history. Russian reformers, he said, whether communists, democrats, Slavophiles or Westernizers, all fail to establish a rational and morally justified continuity between Russia’s past and future. Some see the past as the only model; others deny it any validity. For the former, the future can only be a re-narration of old themes. For the latter, there is only a mechanical acceptance of an opposite that has no precedent in Russian history. Mezhuev argued that the future had to be seen primarily in its relation to the past, especially the past Russia was only just leaving behind.

A total loss?

He challenged free-market economist Andrei Illarionov’s view that the 20th century had been a total loss for Russia. According to Illarionov, the socialist revolution diverted Russia from the path to liberalism, turning it from giant to midget; he believes that the only hope is a return to the free market. Mezhuev argues that it is easy to be wise after the event, hard to analyze reality. To reproach Russia with not having become a free-market economy early in the 20th century was to be profoundly ignorant both of Russian history and liberal economics. Liberalism was the outcome of a long historical development through the Middle Ages, the Reformation and the Renaissance, often involving revolutions against absolute monarchies.

Mezhuev contends that it is wrong to focus on the Bolshevik revolution as the key to Russian history in the 20th century. There had been three revolutions in 12 years; the first, in 1905 [ID], was defeated; the second, in February 1917, saw the victory of moderate revolutionary forces [ID]. The October revolution, which brought the radicals to power, was simply the last phase [ID]. As an earlier philosopher, Nikolai Berdiaev [LOOP], correctly perceived, the Bolsheviks were the instruments of the revolution, not its makers and it was pointless to condemn the cruelty on moral grounds. All civil wars are cruel. Revolutions are not moral or judicial acts: they are acts of coercion. All have been bloody.

To condemn the Russian revolutions, Mezhuev continued, was to condemn the Russian intelligentsia [ID] and the course of Russian history, which had prepared the ground for them. Revolutions always disappoint expectations, but they open new historical chapters. The important thing was to understand the meaning of the chapter, and not to rely on the interpretations of victors and vanquished. The socialism of the Soviet Union had been "Russian capitalism" — capitalist in technological content and anti-capitalist in form.

Mezhuev argued that it was difficult for a country on the periphery of the West to combine modernization with democracy, since one must give way to the other for a time. Because the Bolsheviks understood this, they were victorious in the civil war and second world war. China also understood this, when it chose to combine accelerated modernization and a market economy with an undemocratic political system. No regime was wise to reject the past as empty. The past should be used to encourage new progress, and any real grandeur it had should be preserved.

With its nostalgia for the pre-revolutionary era, modern Russia is more distant from the West than the Bolsheviks were, Mezhuev observed. Russian liberals had nothing to boast of but the destruction of past achievements. But Russia had to build its future on the preservation and development of those achievements. It must maintain continuity while defining new tasks. The link with the past was broken, but it would be restored. He was not calling for a return to a pre- or post-revolutionary past. Russians had simply to ask themselves what in the past was dear to them, and what would help them face the future. The 20th century had been a time of great catastrophes, but those who sought to erase it from memory would then dismiss the greatness of Russia.

One may not always agree with Mezhuev, but he identifies the crux of the problem: Russia’s past is of vital concern for 20th-century European and world history, and that cannot be understood without impartial study of the Soviet system.

[SAC editor's take on Levin's and Mezhuev's theme]