For 70 years the red flag with the hammer and sickle has flown over the Kremlin. On special occasions huge portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin—and, until the mid-1950s, Stalin—are displayed. Marxism-Leninism is taught in all primary schools, high schools and universities, and is the ideology of all members of the party and the party’s youth organizations.

The leaders in the Kremlin always claim that the Soviet period has been marked by historical and ideological continuity; that the ideology has not changed since Lenin but has merely been subject to "creative development." In truth, although certain principles of Soviet ideology do exhibit continuity, there have been significant changes. This essay illustrates when and how these changes took place, focusing on five periods: the revolutionary era under Lenin (1917-24), Stalin’s totalitarian period (1924-53), the contradictory phase of de-Stalinization under Nikita Khrushchev (1953-64), the period of bureaucratic restoration and increasing lethargy and decline under Leonid Brezhnev (1964-82) and, finally, the current period and its significance for the future of Soviet ideology.


The Bolsheviks came to power as a small, revolutionary party in an economically backward country of some 140 million inhabitants, over 80 percent of whom were peasants and over 70 percent of whom were illiterate. Russia was a country in which industrial workers made up only a tiny part of the population, whose economy had been wrecked by the First World War, in which famine, misery and need were widespread. The Bolsheviks in 1917 were revolutionary Marxists who had adopted fundamental Marxist concepts with Leninist modifications. In particular they were motivated by a belief in class struggle and violent revolution, by confidence that the victory of socialism was inevitable because it was dictated by historical laws, and by revolutionary internationalism.

The Bolsheviks maintained that the proletarian revolution would break out, not in the country in which capitalism was most developed, but in the "weakest link in the chain" of imperialism. This would occur during a "revolutionary situation" characterized by crisis among the upper classes and an increase in social contradictions. The Bolsheviks maintained that this situation existed in Russia in October and November of 1917. Finally the time had come for the "last, decisive fight," as it is called in the Internationale. Unlike the "reformists" and "opportunists" who dreamed of nonviolent reforms (for which they were opposed most bitterly by Lenin’s group), the Bolsheviks were convinced of the inevitability of violent revolution, since every revolution—and a socialist one in particular—was inconceivable without civil war. The Bolsheviks further believed that their revolution in Russia would be the start of a worldwide uprising of the proletariat, since only a global revolution could overthrow what they characterized as international imperialism.

The revolution, the Bolsheviks held, could be guaranteed only by the establishment of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" that would overthrow the bourgeoisie and crush its attempts at counterrevolution. According to Lenin, the dictatorship of the proletariat would establish democracy for the masses but at the same time limit the liberty of the oppressors, exploiters and capitalists. This dictatorship of the proletariat was to be under the guidance of the party and was seen as only a temporary stage, "a period of struggle between dying capitalism and nascent communism." The victorious struggle during this period would culminate in the ultimate goal: a classless society, in which famine, misery, exploitation and oppression would be overcome; in which social contradictions would belong to the past; in which the state would wither away and the human being achieve the highest development of his personality.

But the Bolsheviks were soon forced to recognize that they were not supported by a majority of the population, not even a majority of the working class: in the elections to the Constituent Assembly shortly after the revolution they received only one-quarter of the votes, while the Social Revolutionaries, a moderate socialist peasant party, achieved an overwhelming majority. When the Constituent Assembly, whose election the Bolsheviks had always demanded, refused to approve the measures already taken by the government it was forcibly dissolved by a detachment of Red Guards. Moreover, the newly established Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle Against Counterrevolution, Speculation and Sabotage (the "Cheka" or secret police) directed its activity not only against the declared opponents of the revolution, but also against members of other socialist parties. Democratic freedoms were abrogated and political dissidents were prosecuted.

During the civil war (1918-21) the dictatorial element of Bolshevism grew stronger. In order to win the war the Bolsheviks centralized economic, political and military power, banned the elected "workers’ control committees" and militarized public life. The long years of struggle, famine and privations caused revolutionary enthusiasm to fade. The military-dictatorial methods employed during the civil war became an integral part of party life, and an apparatus of officials detached from the rank and file of party membership emerged.

The discontent that grew among workers and peasants at the end of the civil war—resulting in strikes, peasant revolts and a mutiny of the sailors at Kronstadt—endangered the Soviet system. Lenin reacted by proclaiming the "New Economic Policy" (NEP) at the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921. Peasants obtained the right to sell their products on the free market, the odious fixed quotas were replaced by a graduated tax in kind, and small and medium-sized private enterprises were allowed to operate. Lenin stressed the importance of material incentives and asked that every important branch of the economy be structured upon the principle of personal incentive. He criticized excessive centralization and advocated economic autonomy on a regional and local basis. He also sought to create a cooperative system instead of a centrally planned state economy.

This NEP, which is once again a focus of general interest in the Soviet Union, was unfortunately not linked to similar changes in the political sphere. The Tenth Party Congress in 1921 approved a resolution proposed by Lenin concerning the unity of the party and restrictions on the free exchange of opinion within it. Lenin called upon party members to close ranks, warning that anyone engaging in any form of criticism should take account of "the position of the party, surrounded as it is by enemies."

Lenin was aware that the party apparatus was becoming increasingly bureaucratic. Shortly before his death he wrote quite pessimistically that the Soviet administrative system was in fact the old "Russian apparatus" which the Bolsheviks "took over from tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil." Lenin was also worried about the growth of Russian nationalism: "There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and Sovietized workers will drown in that tide of chauvinist Great Russian riffraff like a fly in milk."

Lenin died on January 21, 1924. His last urgent proposal, that Stalin be deposed as general secretary, was not implemented. Lenin could hardly have imagined that his warnings about bureaucracy and Russian nationalism would prove so true.


Comrades! We Communists are people of a special mold. We are made of special stuff. We are those who form the army of the great proletarian strategist, the army of Comrade Lenin. . . . There is nothing higher than the title of member of the party whose founder and leader was Comrade Lenin.

Those words were spoken by Stalin on January 26, 1924, in his "oath" at Lenin’s graveside. This oath contains, in embryonic form, a good deal of what was to become typical of Stalinism: the comparison of the party with an army; the glorification of the leading role of the party, whose members were of a "special type" and molded "of special stuff"; and the glorification of one person (at this point still Lenin) as the leader.

Lenin’s death provided Stalin with the opportunity to introduce a cult of Leninism. Whereas Lenin had rejected glorification of his person, there were now bombastic declarations of loyalty to his memory. Lenin’s body was embalmed in a mausoleum, and on Stalin’s order the "Lenin enrollment" was launched. Within a few months hundreds of thousands of new members joined the party—mostly people who had not taken part in the illicit revolutionary struggle under tsarism or the revolution itself and who were therefore loyal to Stalin’s party apparatus. The old Bolsheviks of the years of the revolution became a minority in the party.

This process was linked with Stalin’s new doctrine of the party as an elite organization, in which subordination and discipline were emphasized both in practice and in doctrine. The Communist Party, according to Stalin, was the "advanced detachment within the Soviet state" and the "commanding corps of the working class." The Bolshevik Party, it was announced, was "a sort of order of knights of the sword within the Soviet state," characterized by "unity of will" and "complete and absolute unity of action." The party, it was said, should be strengthened "by purging itself of opportunist elements."

Just a few months after Lenin’s death, Stalin proclaimed his new doctrine of "socialism in one country." As I have mentioned, it had been an article of faith for all communists that the establishment of socialism in the Soviet Union would be possible only after successful revolutions in the Western industrial countries. In December 1924, however, Stalin announced that "the victory of socialism in one country is quite possible and probable," even if capitalism remained in other countries. In June 1925 he declared that the Soviet Union had long possessed all that was needed to build a complete socialist society. In February 1926 Stalin added that "we are capable of completely building a socialist society by our own efforts and without the victory of the revolution in the West."

These statements marked the abandonment of Lenin’s revolutionary internationalism. Stalin’s new doctrine of "socialism in one country" was diametrically opposed to everything that had been theorized by Marx, Engels and Lenin; nevertheless it was entirely in keeping with the views of the practical party functionaries who supported Stalin. They now had one task: to "build socialism." Lenin’s doctrine of a social revolution was now replaced by the doctrine of industrialization to increase the power of one country. Construction of new factories and power stations, even of the Moscow subway, were praised as victories for the construction of socialism. Stalin announced the emergence of "new commanders for the work of building the new economy and the new culture . . . and the new society." He even compared socialist society to an army: just as an army could not be created without new commanders, so the classless society could not be built without them—an idea that would certainly have astonished Marx and Engels.

According to Stalin, the construction of socialism was taking place while the Soviet Union was encircled by capitalism. As long as this "capitalist encirclement" existed, Stalin declared, "the organs of suppression, the army and other organizations" would be indispensable, since "without these organs constructive work by the dictatorship with any degree of security would be impossible."

The specter of capitalist encirclement was designed to give the populace the impression of living in a beleaguered fortress and to justify the growth of suppression. Marx’s important doctrine of the "withering away of the state" during the course of the socialist revolution was now replaced by Stalin’s announcement that the Bolsheviks "stand for the strengthening of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is the mightiest and strongest state power that has ever existed."

The period of industrialization and the forced collectivization of millions of small peasant farms (1928-1934) laid the foundation for the economic power of the Soviet Union. However, the growth of heavy industry was accompanied by the increasing power of the new elite and by the growth of suppression. The revolutionary internationalism of Lenin’s era was increasingly supplanted by Soviet patriotism, which was gradually fused with Russian nationalism. As early as 1928 Stalin spoke of the Soviet Union as the "motherland of the world proletariat." From 1934 on the term "Soviet patriotism" was emphasized. Love of the motherland, her honor, her glory and her power, was propagated.

On November 25, 1936, I witnessed a memorable evening as a young man in the Soviet Union. The radio was turned on in all factories, collective and state farms, schools and universities, offices and clubs. The entire populace of the Soviet Union had been informed weeks in advance of the time and importance of this speech. Now they were enjoined to listen to Stalin’s speech to the Eighth Extraordinary Congress of Soviets in Moscow.

Stalin solemnly announced: "Our Soviet society has already in the main succeeded in achieving socialism. It has created a socialist system; that is, it has brought about what Marxists in other words call the first, or lower, phase of communism. Hence we have already achieved the first phase of communism, socialism." Therefore, Stalin declared, the "exploitation of man by man has been abolished." The Soviet Union, he said, was distinguished by "moral and political unity," so that "only one party can exist, the Communist Party."

When this proclamation was made, Stalin’s great purge had already begun; during its course, seven million people were arrested, including the flower of the Soviet intelligentsia and over 70 percent of the senior party, state and economic officials and the officer corps. Especially hard hit were Lenin’s former comrades-in-arms, who were now defamed as "agents," "murderers" and "mad dogs." They were sentenced on trumped-up charges and shot. The great purge of 1936-38 was justified by Stalin as part of the intensification of the class struggle due to the development of socialism. The greater the successes of socialism, Stalin argued, the greater would be the fury of the remnants of the exploiting classes, which would resort to desperate means. In March 1937, just four months after his proclamation of the "victory of socialism" and his declaration that the exploitation of man by man had been abolished in the Soviet Union, Stalin announced the intensification of the class struggle.

At the time when the great purge was coming to an end, in the autumn of 1938, a new textbook, the History of the CPSU (Bolsheviks), A Short Course, was published. All of Lenin’s closest comrades-in-arms—above all Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Nikolai Bukharin—were labeled enemies, renegades and spies. Stalin was praised as the sole legitimate heir to Lenin and the single glorious leader. At the same time, the party Central Committee passed a resolution condemning the separation of Marxism and Leninism and introduced the obligatory term "Marxism-Leninism"—although this Marxism-Leninism was in fact a mere recital of Stalin’s interpretations, proclaimed as universal doctrine.

During the late 1930s a decline in the influence of ideology was evident. Presumably Stalin also observed this, and his increasing emphasis on Soviet patriotism and Russian nationalism may in part be explained as a substitute for ideology. The slogan, "for our homeland, for communism," which became a central theme from 1938 on, was an attempt to unite patriotism with Stalinist communism. In November 1941, after the German invasion, Stalin referred to "the Great Russian nation" without mentioning the other nationalities, and the exemplars of patriotism he cited were all Russians, including the tsarist generals Suvorov and Kutuzov. In the spring of 1943 Stalin ordered that the Internationale be abandoned as the Soviet national anthem and replaced by a patriotic hymn in which Russia was placed at the fore. In a victory toast on May 24, 1945, Stalin described the Russian people as "the most outstanding nation of all nations forming the Soviet Union" and "as the leading force of the Soviet Union among all the people of our country."

During the last years of the Stalin era (1945-1953) a campaign was launched against "cosmopolitanism," accusing Soviet scientists of overestimating foreign theories and achievements. The conquests of non-Russian territories and peoples by tsarist Russia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were retroactively declared to be progressive events in Soviet history.

The growth of nationalism was accompanied by an expansion of the cult of Stalin, who was glorified as the "leader of progressive humanity," a "great genius of Marxism-Leninism," and a "coryphaeus of learning." Not a single important article was published in Pravda without at least one quotation from or reference to Stalin—regardless of the topic. There were Stalin’s five-year plans and the Stalin constitution; aviators were called "Stalin’s hawks." Stalin’s 70th birthday on December 21, 1949, was celebrated with indescribable pomp. Among other things a huge portrait of Stalin was carried aloft over Moscow by balloons and illuminated at night so that he looked down on the people from on high.

It is true that Stalinism was an outgrowth of Leninism and that Stalin could cite some of Lenin’s statements and ideas. Both believed in "historical laws," the struggle between capitalism and socialism, and the dictatorship of the proletariat as a transition to socialism. Both advocated the leading role of an elite party based on ideological principles. Both believed in depriving the exploiting classes of their power, in the relentless struggle against various groups labeled "enemies" and—finally—in the achievement of socialism as the first stage in the development of a classless communist society.

Yet Stalinism was a break from the decisive principles of Leninism. Leninism was a revolutionary doctrine aiming at a revolutionary transformation of society. The crucial tenets of Leninism were the dictatorship of the proletariat as a temporary period between declining capitalism and developing communism, international revolutionary solidarity and a successful world revolution. Stalinism, on the contrary, formed an ideology that focused on the strength, power and authority of the Soviet state, the development of "socialism in one country," the intensification of the class struggle, the notion of capitalist encirclement and the glorification of the one leader. Stalinism was a justification of the bureaucratic-dictatorial system of the U.S.S.R. and the dictatorship of the new elite that commanded and controlled the entire political, economic and intellectual life of the country in the name of Marxism-Leninism.

This was reflected also in Stalin’s style. The writings of Lenin were pervaded with lively (and often unjust) polemics. Stalin, on the other hand, pronounced his political theorems in dogmatically simple sentences, often in the form of a question he proceeded to answer, repetitiously. To elucidate political problems and processes, Stalin frequently used similes drawn from the military or technological spheres. Thus he compared the party to an army: the senior, medium and lower party functionaries to generals, officers and noncoms; political strategy to the conduct of war; political tactics to a battle. He likened Soviet society to a great machine, with the leaders sitting at the control levers, while the ordinary citizens were tiny cogs. Stalin transformed the party from a revolutionary association of comrades-in-arms into a pliant instrument of the bureaucratic-dictatorial apparatus, with its members intimidated by vigilance campaigns, purges, arrests and suspicion.


"The heart of Lenin’s comrade-in-arms and the inspired continuer of his work, the heart of the wise leader and teacher of the Communist Party and the Soviet people, Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin, has ceased to beat." On the morning of March 6, 1953, the death of Stalin was announced with a roll of drums and the playing of the Soviet national anthem. But the official mourning was limited to three days (in contrast to seven days on the occasion of Lenin’s death) and not one of the Soviet leaders published a commemorative article. Starting soon after his death, Stalin’s words were quoted less and less often in the Soviet press. On April 16, 1953, "collective leadership" was proclaimed as one of the fundamental principles of the party.

Thus the period of de-Stalinization began. It was to be distinguished by many contradictions and several setbacks. A campaign was launched against "dogmatism," aimed at justifying a departure from Stalin’s obsolete doctrines; "socialist legality" was proclaimed, implying measures to curtail the power of the secret police. Even in the labor camps conditions improved. The "special courts" introduced by Stalin were dissolved and leading officers of the secret police and commandants of labor camps were dismissed or arrested. A steadily growing number of prisoners was released from the camps. Cultural life was marked by a "thaw," and the "new course," proclaimed on August 8, 1953, implied that Stalin’s priority for heavy industry would be replaced in part by an emphasis on consumer goods.

During the process of de-Stalinization, Nikita Khrushchev played an important role. In his heart he remained a true Soviet communist, but his hope was to strengthen the political and economic situation of the Soviet Union and to free communism of Stalin’s heritage by reducing terror and introducing reforms.

The high point of the revision of Soviet policy and ideology was the 20th Party Congress (February 14-25, 1956). The Stalin era was characterized as having been dominated by "arbitrariness," the suppression of creative activity and an atmosphere of lawlessness. Stalin’s personality cult as well as the condition in which he left Soviet ideology were openly criticized. Mikhail Suslov complained that ordinary mortals had been permitted only to assimilate and popularize whatever Stalin had proclaimed. Anastas Mikoyan described books written during the Stalin era on the history of the party as "unimpeachable standard works in which facts are falsified, in which some people are arbitrarily praised, and others not mentioned at all." Prominent party leaders of the time were declared to have been "wantonly branded as enemies of the people." Such "historical scribbling," it was announced, had nothing in common with history. Khrushchev demanded a new textbook on the party’s history based on facts.

With the beginning of the atomic age, the rise of the national liberation movements in Asia and Africa, the emergence of the Soviet Union as a world power and the expansion of its international political activity, it was inevitable that outdated doctrines of foreign policy would be replaced by new concepts. The antiquated doctrine of the "decay of capitalism," for example, could no longer be maintained. In autumn of 1954—before the 20th Party Congress—Soviet periodicals warned against "oversimplified ideas" about capitalism. It was important, they warned, "to assess correctly the forces and potential of capitalism," not to be afraid "to allow controversial questions to be discussed" and "not to suppress" the achievements of capitalist countries that resulted from their development of production, science and technology. At the 20th Party Congress, Mikoyan even declared that the theory of "capitalist encirclement"—one of Stalin’s crucial doctrines—had nothing to do with reality; that there could be "no question of a capitalist encirclement."

Even more important was Khrushchev’s declaration that the hitherto sacrosanct belief in the "inevitability of wars" was outdated. From the publication of Lenin’s book Imperialism—The Highest Stage of Capitalism in 1916 until Stalin’s last article, "Economic Problems of Socialism," which appeared in October 1952, this had been propagated as one of the most crucial Marxist-Leninist doctrines. Now Khrushchev proclaimed a new doctrine: that war was not inevitable, and that coexistence was possible and necessary to prevent the unleashing of war. Countries with different social systems might not only coexist, but could also attempt to cooperate. Khrushchev declared this to be "the general line of our country’s foreign policy." Coexistence, however, was to be limited to the diplomatic sphere; in the ideological realm struggle would continue.

Doctrines were also needed to govern the changing relationships within the Soviet bloc: given the victory of revolutions in Yugoslavia and China and the desire of some East European allies for greater independence, it was incumbent upon the Soviet leadership to develop an ideology to meet the changed conditions. In June 1955, on the occasion of a visit to Yugoslavia, Khrushchev admitted that there could be different forms of socialism. At the 20th Party Congress in 1956, Khrushchev proclaimed that there were different roads to socialism in different countries. Under certain conditions the transition to socialism could be accomplished peacefully, he argued; it was by no means always linked with civil war as it had been in Russia. These new doctrines of foreign policy were long overdue if the U.S.S.R. were to assume a role as a world power, but at the same time they revealed the increasing difficulty the Soviet Union was experiencing within its own sphere of power.

The most far-reaching condemnation of Stalin was made on February 25, 1956, in Khrushchev’s report entitled "The Personality Cult and its Consequences," known as Khrushchev’s "secret speech." Khrushchev revealed the existence of Lenin’s "testament" of December 1922 and his urgent appeal that Stalin be deposed as general secretary. Khrushchev implied that Stalin was implicated in the murder, in December 1934, of the Leningrad party leader Sergei Kirov. He gave a detailed account of Stalin’s personal role in the great purge of 1936-38, and accused Stalin of having dismissed all warnings of a Nazi invasion; and, finally, he described Stalin’s military errors during World War II. Citing numerous examples, Khrushchev criticized Stalin’s methods of rule, his "crude abuse of power," his "despotic character," his "mania for greatness" and his self-adulation. Khrushchev mentioned Stalin’s guilt in the deportation of entire peoples at the end of World War II, and finally Stalin’s preparations for a great new purge in the early 1950s, including his order to obtain confessions with torture.

The purpose of Khrushchev’s "secret speech" was to dissociate himself from Stalin’s reign of terror, to break with the past and prepare the way for reforms in various fields. Khrushchev wanted to free Soviet ideology from the burden of Stalin’s outdated doctrines while maintaining the authority of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. So it was that Stalin’s rise to power, the emergence of Stalinism and the program of forced collectivization were not mentioned in Khrushchev’s speech. His criticism was limited almost exclusively to Stalin’s person and his methods of rule, without any analysis of the Stalinist system as such. His call to overcome the "former infringements" of socialist legality and to eliminate the influence of the "cult of personality" on philosophy and economics was undoubtedly important. However, it was confined to countering the excesses of Stalin’s system and not to overcoming Stalinism as such.

Even this degree of de-Stalinization met with strong opposition and could only proceed erratically. Khrushchev tried to surmount the growing difficulties with overly optimistic plans for the future. At the Extraordinary 21st Party Congress (January 30-February 5, 1959), Khrushchev announced that the Soviet Union had already entered upon the "period of the full-fledged construction of communism." At the end of June 1961 a draft of the new Soviet party program was published, in which the construction of communism was no longer formulated as an ultimate goal, but as an immediate task. By 1970 the Soviet Union was to have surpassed the United States in per-capita production and was to have the shortest working day in the world. The transition to the higher phase of communism would take place between 1970 and 1980. The party program promised that before 1980 education and medical care would be free of charge; that rents would be abolished; that water, gas, heating, electricity, public transportation and the main meal of the day would all be free as well.

With this program for the future, Khrushchev intended to give the Soviet populace new ground for hope and a motivation to work harder. The 22nd Party Congress (October 16-31, 1961) adopted the new party program, which was praised as the "Communist Manifesto of the twentieth century." This congress was marked by a new settling of accounts with Stalin which in part even surpassed that of 1956. Citing many details, Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders described the horrors of Stalin’s reign of terror. A resolution was passed to remove Stalin’s body from the Lenin mausoleum, and to rename the towns and villages—including Stalingrad—that bore his name.

The 22nd Party Congress revealed Khrushchev’s contradictory ideological and political aims: to free Soviet communism of the burden of Stalin’s heritage and to promulgate overly optimistic, even illusory, goals which had more to do with the wishful thinking of the party leader than with reality.

This new wave of de-Stalinization was soon blocked by bureaucratic and authoritarian forces. Thus, Khrushchev tried hasty campaigns and reorganizations to overcome the contradictions between his overly optimistic goals and reality. There was too much resistance to allow genuine reform.

The period of de-Stalinization ended with Khrushchev’s overthrow on October 14, 1964. His name disappeared from Soviet publications, and his death in 1971 was only mentioned in passing in the Soviet press. He is the only prominent Soviet leader who was not buried at the Kremlin wall on Red Square.

The 11 years of de-Stalinization had their influence also on ideology. During this period Marxism-Leninism was used to prepare and justify the continuously changing political course of the Kremlin leadership. Never before in the history of the Soviet Union were political concepts changed and replaced by new doctrines so often. Many of Stalin’s doctrines—including the intensification of class struggle and the inevitability of war—were eliminated and new concepts were propagated. Stalin’s History of the CPSU (Bolsheviks), A Short Course, the leading ideological work, was replaced by a new, more detailed history of the party, in which some of Stalin’s falsifications were omitted, while others remained.

Soviet citizens were presented with a variety of new ideological documents, such as the declarations of the 20th Party Congress in February 1956, a new textbook on Marxism-Leninism published in 1959 (the first concise version of the entire theory of ideology), the "Declaration of the World Conference of the Eighty-One Communist Parties" (December 1960) and the new Soviet party program (October 1961), not to mention special textbooks on dialectical materialism, historical materialism, political economy and political concepts. Meanwhile, Marxism-Leninism had become an obligatory subject at all colleges and universities.

Despite these efforts, ideological influence was deteriorating. For many people the criticism of Stalin had come as a shock. More and more Soviet citizens realized the contradiction between ideological theories and reality. Khrushchev’s visions of reaching the ultimate phase of communism by 1980 aroused increasing skepticism. Nevertheless, Khrushchev’s overthrow in October 1964 was a great disappointment for all who had set their hopes on his reforms and de-Stalinization programs.


In contrast to the optimistic but contradictory period of de-Stalinization under Khrushchev, the next 18 years under Leonid Brezhnev (October 1964-November 1982) were characterized by immobilism and a moral and political decline. De-Stalinization ended with an authoritarian-bureaucratic restoration.

A few months after Khrushchev’s downfall prisoners ceased to be released from prisons and camps, and rehabilitations were halted. Liberal intellectuals were arrested in the autumn of 1965. Khrushchev’s terminology, including "socialist legality" and "overcoming the cult of personality," was avoided. Criticism of Stalin and of the Stalinist era was reduced drastically and replaced by the glorification of military feats and heroism of World War II. In place of critical reflections about the Stalinist past, the successes of the party—and increasingly of the army—were now extolled.

The new leadership, which had overthrown Khrushchev in a palace coup, consciously emphasized the continuity of Soviet development and Bolshevik tradition in order to legitimize its own position. By adopting a more positive view of the Stalin era and dissociating itself from de-Stalinization, the Brezhnev leadership signaled that emphasis was no longer on reforms and changes, but on maintaining and consolidating the power and authority of the leadership and the system. In the ideological sphere new concepts and goals were no longer propagated, and the struggle against deviationists, dissidents and reformers was increased—not only in the Soviet Union but in Eastern Europe.

In 1968 the Brezhnev leadership countered Czechoslovakia’s "Prague Spring" with political pressure and finally with military force. Shortly thereafter the Soviet leadership proclaimed the doctrine of "limited sovereignty," generally known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, according to which each socialist country’s sovereignty was limited by the broader interests of the "world socialist system"—i.e., the Soviet Union. The relationships among socialist countries were to be based, not on principles of international law, "abstract sovereignty" or a "formal observance" of the right of self-determination, but according to jointly elaborated (i.e., Soviet-dictated) political and ideological decisions. The defense of the socialist system in a particular country was declared to be a concern of the entire "world socialist system." The Soviet leadership announced this doctrine not only to justify the occupation of Czechoslovakia but also to reserve for itself the right to intervene if another country in Eastern Europe should introduce reforms that exceeded those approved by the Soviet leadership.

This harsher course was confirmed at the 24th Party Congress (March 20-April 9, 1971). Instead of the ideological struggle, the Soviets now spoke of an ideological war: "We are living under the conditions of a continuous ideological war," Brezhnev declared. It would therefore be a socialist duty, he announced, "to eliminate firmly and efficiently any ideological deficiencies in time." Brezhnev particularly criticized the Western broadcasting systems for transmitting news to the Soviet populace that had been withheld by the leadership. Dissidents, members of the civil rights movement and reformers were called traitors, renegades and even spies.

Typical of this authoritarian course was an emphasis on military-patriotic education and the cultivation of the military-patriotic tradition. A commemorative plaque and bust were placed over Stalin’s tomb under the Kremlin wall and he was mentioned more frequently in a positive manner—although without the bombastic praise given in former times. For the first time since Stalin’s day, the notion of the "Great Russian people" was stressed again, and as particular national traits of the Russians, Brezhnev cited energy, self-sacrifice and diligence. All of this meant that Russians were elevated above the numerous non-Russian nationalities of the U.S.S.R.

Khrushchev’s illusory promise to achieve communism by 1980 vanished. The "transition to communism" was mentioned less and less and was replaced by the new, vague doctrine of "mature socialism"; the Soviet Union apparently had entered this phase, though no definition of the term was given. The ideological incentives of a future communist society were replaced by discipline and subordination to the resolutions of the party leadership. The contradiction between ideological goals and Soviet reality became stronger than ever before.

During this period apathy, corruption and moral-political decline became increasingly apparent. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, in his speech on January 27, 1987, at a plenary session of the Central Committee, described the resultant malaise as an "accumulation of negative processes," and as "symptoms of a crisis within the society." According to Gorbachev, all of this had a marked effect on ideology: "In many respects the theoretical concepts of socialism stagnated on the level of the 1930s and 1940s." He complained that during the Brezhnev era the contradictions between the ideal and the actual state of Soviet society had not been "the object of profound scientific research." In the social sciences, according to Gorbachev, "animated discussion and creative thinking" vanished, while "authoritarian assessments and considerations were extolled as unimpeachable truths." The serious defects in politics and ideology "were in many cases veiled by means of great events and campaigns . . . celebrations and numerous jubilees. . . . The world of everyday reality and that of a demonstrative prosperity deviated more and more from each other."


Seventy years after the Bolshevik Revolution, ideology in the U.S.S.R. has reached its nadir. Marxism-Leninism was once a source of inspiration, hope and strength; now it is merely paid lip service and taken seriously only by a small minority. Since Khrushchev’s overthrow in 1964 the deterioration of ideological influence has become so obvious that one could call it an ideological vacuum in Soviet society. Several causes led to this decline.

First there is the contradiction between the theory of Marxism-Leninism and Soviet reality. More and more Soviet citizens as well as party members and even party functionaries have asked themselves: How can the ideological claim of having built socialism and formed a higher social order be compared with the real situation? What is the explanation for such incredible and inhuman developments as the dictatorship of Stalin, the mass terror, the great purge? What have privileges for party functionaries, obvious social inequalities and the growing nationalistic conflicts to do with Marxism-Leninism? What is the reason for the clash between claims of "socialist democracy" and the existing bureaucratic party apparatus?

A second factor in the decline of ideology is its erroneous estimate of the fate of capitalism. Soviet pronouncements on the development of the Western industrialized states have proved to be wrong. Neither a polarization of Western society into two opposed classes nor a dissolution of the Western middle class has taken place; there are no signs of an alleged decay of capitalism to be followed by successful socialist revolutions in the West. The official doctrines of Marxism-Leninism are not able to recognize—let alone analyze—the successes, problems and contradictions of modern industrial societies.

Third, the official claim of "Marxism-Leninism" to be an "international theory" is more and more doubtful, because unified world communism is a thing of the past. Different nations under communist rule—for example, Yugoslavia, China, North Korea and Albania—have altered the theories of Marxism-Leninism according to their own specific conditions and goals.

Soviet citizens, especially members of the scientific-technological intelligentsia, have turned away from Marxism-Leninism because the Soviet version seemed incapable of explaining the many novel problems of a modern industrial society. Marxism-Leninism has failed to provide convincing answers to humanity’s existential problems, to satisfy people’s ethical concerns or to explain, let alone remedy, the moral crisis of Soviet society—the increase in theft, corruption, bribery and hypocrisy.

The fact that Marxism-Leninism is an obligatory subject in all Soviet institutions of higher education has not stopped the erosion of ideology; on the contrary, it has actually contributed to ideology’s decline. Courses are one-sided, schematic, boring and irrelevant to everyday concerns. Students have to memorize the supposedly infallible theses and concepts of the official ideology and are not allowed to take an active interest in independent varieties of Marxism—the study of Trotskyism, Chinese and Yugoslav communism, or the Frankfurt school and Eurocommunism is still forbidden. All of this has led most people in the Soviet Union to the conclusion that Marxism-Leninism is little more than a means for the regime to legitimize its continued rule and its policies.

Many Soviet citizens are seeking an ideological alternative to Marxism-Leninism, and many of those are finding it in religion. Gone are the times when religious believers could be found mainly among the older generation in rural areas. More and more young people, even sons and daughters of party officials, profess their faith openly—much to the chagrin of the party. Another common alternative is found in seeking one’s historical roots and national traditions. Finally, in some circles one finds a renewed interest in such political alternatives as liberalism and social democracy—but also neo-Stalinism and, increasingly, nationalistic conservatism.

Under these conditions it is understandable that the party’s repeated demands for an intensification of ideological work should meet with disinterest, even rejection. The ideology of Marxism-Leninism, once both a source of inspiration and an instrument for the legitimization of the regime, is no longer a vital force in Soviet society. The monotony and one-sidedness of ideological instruction and propaganda is generally considered repugnant. There can be no doubt that the Soviet regime has lost its ideological legitimacy for most people.


Are we, then, witnessing the death of Soviet ideology? Will the U.S.S.R. become a "normal superpower" not motivated by a strong ideology? This is very doubtful. On the contrary, during recent years several ideological-political trends have appeared, and there is reason to believe that the U.S.S.R. is approaching an ideological crossroads. The three possible ideological alternatives for the future might be: 1) a reformation and modernization of Marxism-Leninism in accord with Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring); 2) a rise to predominance of Russian nationalism; or 3) a victory of neo-Stalinism.

The first alternative is linked with Gorbachev. He is a product of the Soviet system, but by Soviet standards he is an unusual leader. The first lawyer in the top leadership position since Lenin, he is also an agronomist. Gorbachev’s career has been in the post-Stalin era, and he is the first postwar Soviet leader not to have participated in World War II.

Gorbachev’s rise to the top has been particularly rapid. Until 1978 he was first party secretary in the Stavropol region of the northern Caucasus. In the summer of that year he was called to Moscow and promoted to the Central Committee Secretariat, where he took charge of agriculture. In November 1979 he joined the Politburo as a candidate member, and by October 1980 he had become the youngest full member of that body. In the summer of 1983, during Yuri Andropov’s short rule, Gorbachev took over responsibility for cadres, ideology and consumer industries. In April 1984 he extended his influence by becoming chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Supreme Soviet; after that it took him less than a year to accede to the top post. Past top leaders had needed three decades to accomplish what Gorbachev did in seven years. His quick rise nurtures the hope that his resoluteness, independence and sense of initiative has not been broken by decades of routine bureaucratic work.

Apart from his personality, it is mainly the decay he witnessed during the Brezhnev period that was decisive for Gorbachev’s reformist ideas. Like other well-informed and active functionaries he perceived that the bureaucratized economic system has blocked technological innovation, and that the continuing agricultural crisis has led to grave problems in food supplies. He realized the increasing contradictions in relations among the nations of the Soviet Union, the drastic decline of ideology, the increase of social problems—and, most of all, the degeneration of the officials of the regime.

In the first weeks after his nomination to succeed Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985, Gorbachev apparently still hoped to realize his "acceleration" (uskoreniye) by exhorting the people to show greater dynamism and imposing discipline through such measures as an anti-alcoholism campaign. Very soon, however, he recognized that real change could only be achieved by glasnost and perestroika. The two concepts are interrelated. Through the open discussion (glasnost) of shortcomings, problems and mistakes—a greater openness in the mass media, more freedom in literature and art, and a critical reevaluation of the Soviet past—Gorbachev hopes to activate Soviet citizens, to overcome their apathy and to win them over for future reforms, i.e., for perestroika.

The term perestroika implies far-reaching reforms in the Soviet system, in its political, economic and legal sectors, with the aim of reducing the bureaucracy, making the system more flexible and increasing the autonomy of enterprises in industry and agriculture. Of course Gorbachev does not want to install democracy, pluralism, the rule of law or the free market system as these are understood in Western democracies. He does, however, strive for changes that justify the expression "radical reforms." The political climate has already changed, although reforms of the system have hardly begun.

That glasnost meets strong opposition, that proclaimed reforms are delayed, has led some observers to conclude that Gorbachev’s program is merely propaganda, the tactic of a new leader. This seems very unlikely; Gorbachev could have a much easier life if he would stop criticizing the failures of the Soviet system and calling for far-reaching reforms. The problem is not that he is a mere tactician, but that strong forces are in fact blocking his reforms. There are three opposing forces.

The first group is the political elite; above all, the Central Committee with its 307 full members and 170 candidates. Many among the elite fear that glasnost and perestroika might lead to a decline in the regime’s authority. Their opposition is demonstrated by occasional censoring of Gorbachev’s speeches, postponement of plenary sessions of the Central Committee and adoption of resolutions that are watered-down versions of Gorbachev’s original proposals. All of this is a clear sign that his power is limited. His proposals to promote non-party members to important government posts and introduce a multi-candidate election system at all levels have so far been blocked.

The second strong opposition force is the huge bureaucratic apparatus (the state economic apparatus alone consists of 15.3 million officials). Its members fear losing their positions and privileges through the reforms.

Finally, Gorbachev has to reckon with a widespread skepticism among the population; many Soviet citizens are used to bureaucratic orders and find it difficult suddenly to promote changes and reforms. Many industrial workers are fearful about the new wage system. And there is, above all, a widespread disposition among the people to wait for better supplies of food and consumer goods to arrive in the shops before actively supporting perestroika. Among party functionaries, only the modern, open-minded and well-educated minority really supports Gorbachev’s new course. He can count on the majority of the young generation and the intelligentsia—scientists, artists and journalists. But even so, under these circumstances Gorbachev needs to continue glasnost in order to promote his aims and to activate his supporters.

Never before has a Soviet leader been so outspoken about the shortcomings of the system. At the plenary session of the Central Committee at the end of January, Gorbachev maintained that Soviet ideology had, in many ways, stalled since the 1930s and 1940s, and he called on party members to abandon old doctrines and "modernize" ideology. Gorbachev’s goal is twofold: to find an ideological justification for his planned reforms and to overcome widespread indifference to ideology. This "modernization" would begin by breaking certain taboos, discussing "unpleasant" problems which have been ignored, trying to subsume modern science into ideology and commencing with a more objective writing of Soviet history.

We can expect that economic reforms will be justified by a positive assessment of the NEP period and by an emphasis on certain of Lenin’s statements, such as those supporting the establishment of cooperatives. A rehabilitation of Bukharin and Khrushchev has begun, as was evident in Gorbachev’s address on the 70th anniversary of the revolution in November. Political reforms will be accompanied by an extensive criticism of Stalin’s dictatorial rule and by increasing criticism of the Brezhnev era—again evident in Gorbachev’s anniversary address. Foreign policy will not be dominated by the "struggle" between capitalism and socialism but by competition and even cooperation in such areas as disarmament, ecology, the Third World and the battle against international terrorism. In time this might even lead to a "reform communism"—unless, of course, the reform process is cut short.

The second ideological alternative is not Marxist-Leninist at all, but an authoritarian, Great Russian nationalism linked with nationalism among the non-Russian peoples of the U.S.S.R. The emergence of Russian nationalist groups known as pamyat or otechestvo, and recent civil disorders in Kazakhstan and in the Baltic republics imply a growing nationalism—both Russian and non-Russian. To judge from the pamyat groups, a Russian nationalist ideology would combine elements of extreme national chauvinism and anti-Semitism.

In this alternative, a Russian nationalist state would depend on the two traditional pillars of power—the army and the government—and its highest civic virtues would be authority and order. In foreign policy Russia would take a much harsher line toward the West, because of the nationalists’ fundamental assessment of the West as economically, politically and culturally corrupt. A Russian nationalist government might cease to pursue a global foreign policy which involved it in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America, but it would undoubtedly pursue neo-tsarist foreign policy objectives, maintaining or increasing dominion over the countries contiguous with the Russian "empire": Eastern and Central Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and parts of the Far East. Russia would be transformed from a global superpower to a continental, Eurasian power founded on tradition, authority and nationalism.

A third ideological alternative is also conceivable: a modernized Stalinism which would justify an abrupt shift to a harsher domestic and foreign policy. Neo-Stalinism is not now a dominant force, but we may be sure that it has its advocates in the government, KGB and army. The rehabilitation of Vyacheslav Molotov, positive appraisals of Stalin in the Soviet press in the summer of 1984 (under General Secretary Chernenko), and the request of certain World War II veterans to rename Volgograd "Stalingrad," are supported by a nostalgic portion of the populace that believes everything was better under Stalin, that the country needs order and strong leadership.

Should Gorbachev’s reforms become bogged down, neo-Stalinists could insist on an abrupt change in policy. Economic difficulties would be blamed on the "traitors" Khrushchev, Brezhnev and especially Gorbachev. Stalin would be rehabilitated. There would be show trials, purges, vigilance campaigns and attempts, reminiscent of the 1930s, to motivate youth to rebuild the economy. Stalin’s writings would be reprinted for political education; in foreign policy a harder line would be adopted, especially toward "capitalist" countries.

Which of the three alternatives discussed above—or perhaps others not mentioned here—will come to pass is a question that only the future can answer. The present crisis of Marxism-Leninism in the U.S.S.R. should not lead us to conclude, however, that ideology will not play a role in the country’s future. In coming years the West will have to deal with strong ideological trends in the Soviet Union. The desire for an ideological force that moves the Soviet populace in one direction or another is not a thing of the past.

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  • Wolfgang Leonhard was educated in the Soviet Union (1935-45), is Adjunct Professor of History at Yale University, and is the author, most recently, of The Kremlin and the West: A Realistic Approach (1986). Copyright © 1987 by Wolfgang Leonhard.
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