How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Official anniversaries are for the Soviets not merely occasions to celebrate and eulogize a famous man or event. They are also-if not mainly- occasions for that self-congratulation of which the Soviet régime has made such a rite, and against which the most uninhibited patriotic oratory on a similar occasion in the United States would appear a pallid understatement. In fact, the U.S.S.R. celebrates its thanksgiving several times a year. In speeches and editorials the pretext for the celebration is usually disposed of in the first few sentences and perhaps reverted to again at the very end. In between (and it is usually at length) the listener or reader is treated to production figures then and now, to assurances about the invincible might of the Soviet Union, and yet of its peaceful intentions, of the startling achievements of Soviet science. . . .
Should the occasion be a major one and the speaker or writer a leading Party figure, this general prospectus of Soviet progress in all branches of endeavor would be supplemented by a kind of state-of-the-union-message survey of the troublesome and yet (due to the correct efforts of the Party and government) generally hopeful and reassuring domestic and international situation; of the threats to world communism from dogmatism and sectarianism on the one hand and of revisionism on the other, both being unmasked and overcome through correct remedies prescribed by the Central Committee; of the diversionist strivings of the Maoist clique which are increasingly perceived and resisted by the masses of the Chinese people, who are unwilling to abandon their traditional feelings of friendship and gratitude to the Soviet Union; of the dangerous game which Zionism, in alliance with imperialism, is playing in the Middle East, a game which is being patiently exposed and countered by the U.S.S.R.
While all these elements will be present in this year's massive celebrations of Lenin's hundredth anniversary, it is certain that, for a change, statistics, achievements and policy announcements will not be allowed to obscure the object of the celebrations. This is Lenin's year, and in its descent from and continuity with his achievement, the Soviet régime sees a source of strength that is as important-and this will not be a mere oratorical phrase-as its material achievements since the Revolution.
This in turn reflects not only natural reverence for the principal mover of the October Revolution, and for the man who until stricken with his final illness in 1922 guided the Soviet state through its earliest and most perilous years. It reflects also a feeling, no more difficult to comprehend for a contemporary Western mind than it would be for somebody brought up in the classical Marxian tradition, that the Soviet state and society are ruled in the name and spirit of Lenin, that through the tragic vicissitudes of the last 50 years it is Lenin's teachings and spirit which have protected and guided the communist experiment.
This political mystique began immediately with Lenin's death. "Lenin lives, Lenin is more alive than those actually living," sang a Soviet poet. The mere concept of the Lenin Mausoleum would have appeared distasteful to an earlier generation of the revolutionaries, including the man whose remains it shelters, who had an unfeigned sense of personal modesty and simplicity. But to the oligarchs who succeeded him, the cult of Lenin was the only unifying force and the main link with political legitimacy. His name was invoked on all sides of the intra-party struggle which raged until the late twenties. And then what had begun as a political contrivance became the main ingredient of the official ideology of the civic religion, as it were.
Stalin built his cult upon that of Lenin. Then it was under the slogan "Back to Lenin" that the Party sought to recover from the numbing effects of Stalinism. And today when so many features of Soviet society and of the official creed have been questioned and occasionally, if clandestinely, assailed, it is a source of strength to the régime that these protests have for the most part been made in the name of rather than against Leninism. The passions and enthusiasms of the Revolution, of the great industrialization drive, the great hopes aroused by de-Stalinization-all are by now extinguished. But every day long lines still form in front of the Lenin Mausoleum to parade silently and reverently before the leader. The Mausoleum no longer contains the remains of the man who for much longer presided over the destinies of the country, and who, in fact, sacrilegious as it might sound to the contemporary Soviet generation, left a much stronger impact on Soviet institutions. For all the recent and careful rehabilitation of Stalin, it is most unlikely that he will ever be restored to anything like moral and political equality with Lenin. The latter remains master and teacher, and as such he will be celebrated this hundredth year since his birth.
The unique position of Lenin explains even if it does not fully excuse Soviet sensitivity when it comes to his biographical data. Already in the relatively easygoing days of the twenties, publication of materials concerning Lenin's life and activity was becoming somewhat selective. Later and predictably, as the situation grew worse, successive editions of Krupskaya's memoirs of her life with her great husband grew more and more panegyrical and politically oriented. A reverent fictionalized account of the Ulyanov family published in the thirties still drew official wrath because of its excessive discussion of Lenin's ancestry, and of the non- Russian elements of his ethnic background. Many of the most important documents concerning Lenin's personal and what might be called personal- political life have been released only when it suited the needs of the current leaders. Thus it was Khrushchev's campaign against Stalin which enabled notes of secretaries attending Lenin during his last illness, an invaluable document concerning Lenin's attitude on party affairs, to see the light of day. Many documents of equal if not greater importance must still be locked in the archives; we know, for example, of the existence of memoirs by those who had at one time been close to Lenin, such as Mme. Kollontai's, which the Central Committee in its wisdom has not thought fit to clear for publication.
Now, some of the selectivity shown in the release of Leniniana by their Soviet guardians has a direct connection with what they understand to be the essence of Lenin's legacy to their own society and the world at large. One can, up to a point, sympathize with their distaste for the current biographical fashion in the West: its psychoanalytic orientation, its mainly iconoclastic thrust, and its inordinate curiosity for intimate detail. But beyond this natural sensitivity to anything which might furnish ammunition for a sensationalist treatment of the life of the maker of the Revolution and the Soviet state, one detects a more general determination to stress those elements of Leninism which are useful in defending current Soviet reality and to minimize or ignore those which would serve as a basis for its criticism.
Lenin was a great revolutionary and a great restorer; a passionate patriot and a fervent internationalist This combination of opposites enabled him to carry the Revolution through to its logical conclusion in the virtual dissolution of the Russian state; and to rescue Russia from the Revolution and lay the foundations of the most centralized state of modern times. It is no wonder that to the outside observer of the first phases of the Bolshevik Revolution Lenin and his followers appeared as "nihilists" bent upon wrecking the old and utterly incapable of creating a new social order. Even to some of his followers Lenin's pronouncements after his return to Russia in 1917 smacked of anarchism rather than socialism. "He has occupied the place vacated by Bakunin," exclaimed one of his followers upon hearing the April theses. The whole orderly world of theoretical Marxism-its canon of stages of historical development dictating the appropriate political forms-ceased to be of any interest to Lenin as contrasted with the imperative need for revolution.
But Lenin defied not only the Marxian historical laws. The whole rationalist tradition of the doctrine, its democratic accretions, appeared to him a burdensome ballast His "State and Revolution," written supposedly as a critique of anarcho-syndicalism, comes close in its postulates to anarchism: the state and its whole machinery are not to be reformed, they are to be smashed, the need for professional bureaucracy is decried, social and economic egalitarianism extolled. "As long as there is the state there is no freedom; when there is freedom there will be no state." No need for material incentives; all officials, managers, etc., are to be paid the worker's wages. It is unlikely that in this year's celebrations those postulates of Lenin's will be often repeated.
Yet within a few months of the writing of his tract, and with power in his hands, it was the other Lenin who began to emerge. The leader and statesman supplanted the revolutionary. The task of running society became for him between 1918 and 1922 increasingly not a simple matter of revolutionary will and enthusiasm, but one of expertise and discipline. Who could have foretold in 1917 that the man who then adopted an existentialist view of revolution, who pleaded what in the parlance of the New Left is participatory democracy and an end to all centralized authority-for what else under the circumstances was meant by the slogan "All Power to the Soviets"?-would within a year decry the workers' takeover of factories, plead for retention of specialists in the army and industry, and extol the necessity of material incentives?
It was natural for the Left communists to exclaim that he had betrayed the Revolution. Outside observers commented gleefully that, confronted with the practical problems of governing, the Bolsheviks had to give up their fine theories and revert to the humdrum ways of the past When the New Economic Policy was introduced in 1921 the Marxist purists had their one moment of triumph; Lenin had finally admitted what they had been saying all along: Russia was not ready for socialism! All such criticisms contained partial truths, yet they missed a more basic one: Lenin, even if he often disregarded the letter of Marxism, sought and discovered its original spirit. It was a sound instinct which had him already in 1914 seek to rename his party "Communist" World War I had undone the effects of a century of liberalism and parliamentarianism; Marxism, if it was to secure power, had to recapture its earliest militant and conspiratorial tradition and to shed those democratic and humanitarian elements which began to dominate it after 1870 when it seemed as if the main struggles ahead would be resolved at the ballot box.
With power in the hands of the Bolsheviks, the next urgent task, that of laying down the material prerequisites for a socialist society, could not be entrusted to the whimsical ways of a democracy : neither the state nor industry could be turned over to the workers. The Trade Unions had to remain subordinate to the Party. Lenin then saw the sense of Marxism, and this provides a thread of continuity between his pre- and post- revolutionary policies, as primarily an ideology of social engineering.
This theme of Lenin's pragmatism, of his "revolutionary common sense," will be sounded repeatedly in this year's celebrations. And just as the true story of Lenin's personal modesty has been used to lash the personality cults of Stalin and Mao, so this stress on Lenin's practicality, on his impatience with metaphysical and theoretical subtleties, is to carry an important lesson. As against the allurements of the New Left in the West (so strikingly similar in some of its attitudes to the Russian Populist tradition from which Lenin emerged but which he rejected in his youth) and voices of dissent in the Soviet Union, the régime is eager to invoke the supreme authority. It was to a dissident party member who complained of being persecuted that Lenin wrote in words which could be taken from today's Pravda editorial : "A decadent petty bourgeois intellectual when he sees an untoward incident or injustice whimpers, cries, loses his head, his self-control, gossips and puffs himself up to talk nonsense about the 'system.'... the proletarian ... seeing something wrong goes about correcting it in a businesslike way...." And to be sure even in his "anarchist" phase we do not find Lenin advocating rebellion for rebellion's sake, indulging in gloomy disquisitions on alienation or on modern industrial society and science subverting the sense of human existence.
To him, all political activity and struggle were to advance specific goals. Rather than dehumanizing society, industrialization was for Lenin, as it must be for every genuine Marxist, the main vehicle of social and cultural progress. There is no doubt that he would hold much of what passes for radical social thought in the West as obscurantism having nothing to do with socialism. And one must unhappily grant the Soviets that in the eyes of the father of the Revolution much of current dissent in Russia would appear as the kind of squeamishness and bourgeois hypocrisy he decried in those who protested revolutionary terror and repression of political opposition.
And yet, just as one cannot accept the official image of the monolithic Lenin, one cannot assume his unqualified approval of current Soviet reality. One has to remember not only the revolutionary leader uninhibited about violence and deception and the statesman who after October restored authority and put down anarchy, but also the man who in his last months of political activity grew horrified at some of the aspects of the system he had helped build. It was not only the intrigues of the oligarchs of the Politburo which filled him with apprehension about the future of the socialist experiment but the whole phenomenon of bureaucracy, of the new ruling class becoming entrenched in the Soviet system. One cannot credit Lenin with much genuine democratic feeling: the whole concept of socialism as social engineering implied élitism, as did his concept of the Party enunciated as early as 1902 in "What Is To Be Done." But both to himself and to others Lenin always rationalized this élitism with the belief that the Party would retain a close contact with, and the "feel" of, the masses, that it would rule on their behalf rather than as a severe schoolmaster. The Party was to be a vanguard, not an oligarchy. To us, of course, such hopes appear as most unrealistic, but to Lenin they constituted a cardinal part of his political philosophy. There was after all a small remnant of the social democrat left in his makeup: the old order was to be destroyed not only because it had been condemned by the forces of history but also because it was offensive to human dignity. And today in surveying Soviet society it is easier to see Lenin approving the repression of dissident individuals or groups than to see him tolerating the bureaucratic complacency of the ruling group, the lifeless ritual which Soviet official political life has become and that smug self-congratulation in which the régime is constantly indulging. The strength and vitality of the Soviet state and its peoples offer a startling contrast to the petrified form of Soviet political life. Such is the ambiguous legacy of Lenin to the society he helped create.
This ambiguity is even more pronounced and the achievement more puzzling when it comes to another major dimension of Lenin's activity. He was an international revolutionary for whom the Russian Revolution was to be but a prelude to a much wider one, and the Soviet state but the beginning of the historic process leading to an eventual world federation of socialist states. Here the success of the venture initiated by Lenin has been truly breathtaking. From those few men who gathered in Moscow in 1919 and established the Third International, communism has grown into the world's most widespread ideological movement. It has conquered China, swept over Eastern Europe and has reached into and become a contender for power in practically every country in the world.
In contrast, the Western capitalist system, which loomed like a colossus against the sole embattled and backward communist state of the day, has withdrawn from vast areas of the world. Its ideology, liberalism, is no longer a triumphant, self-confident creed as it was before 1914; its remaining practitioners are increasingly beset by doubts and a sense of guilt. Again, history has seemingly vindicated Lenin's insight: his rupture with the letter of Marxism in favor of what he considered to be its spirit. International socialism, to be effective in the twentieth century, could not remain a loose confederation of radical parties such as the Second International had been; it had to become a centralized, disciplined and ideologically homogeneous movement. It could not, through a slavish adherence to the doctrine, confine its activities to highly advanced industrial societies. The weak and vulnerable links in the international capitalist system are the economically backward and colonial areas. Hence, according to Lenin, communism had to concentrate its activity there and blend its appeal to class war with a call to national struggles of liberation against imperialist oppressors.
The whole history of world politics since 1945 has attested to the correctness of Lenin's insight and his prescription. And yet how depressing he would find the present situation and prospects of world communism!
That communism should have become a servant of Russian nationalism, that after the emergence of other communist states it still would not be truly international, but that the whole movement and ideology should have become an arena for contending nationalisms-all this would have seemed to Lenin monstrous. And yet the personality of its founder as well as the historical circumstances dictated this fate for communism. In his own mind and in his public pronouncements he was a fervent internationalist. Often he had called Tsarist Russia "the prison house of nationalities." His very love for his country made him detest that gross bullying boorishness which the pre-revolutionary officialdom displayed in its dealings with Poles, Jews and other national minorities of the Empire. And how searing was his indictment and how clear his insight not long after the Revolution when he said of the Bolsheviks, who thought of themselves as the vanguard of the world revolution: "Scratch a Russian Communist and you will find a Russian chauvinist." Just as Lenin cannot be blamed for the full extent of the Soviet state's bureaucratic degeneration, so the veritable worship of Russian nationalism instituted by his Georgian successor and but slightly moderated by the present rulers cannot be laid to his account.
But the whole thrust of Lenin's political philosophy as well as of his political activity made it inevitable that nationalism should become the moving force behind communism. By extolling the monolithic Party, by making political dissent impermissible, by demanding submission of all other forms of social activity to politics, he abjured all the restraints and cautions which liberalism sought to place between the state and the individual. And in such an absolute state in the twentieth century it was only nationalism which could provide a strong link between the rulers and the ruled. The Revolution was won in the name of an internationalist ideology, but revolutionary Russia could be saved only by an appeal to Russian nationalism, as the Bolsheviks recognized already during the Civil War when this nationalism was unabashedly invoked against foreign intervention and again in 1920 against the Poles.
It was, then, utopian thinking to expect that those Russians, and russified Jews, Georgians, etc., who of necessity assumed the leadership of world communism, would be able to subordinate or even to distinguish their interest as rulers of a state from their duty as soldiers of the world revolution. And after a generation of socialist construction and ideological indoctrination, this inability of the doctrine to evoke supreme loyalty was quite explicitly recognized; in the moment of its mortal danger the Soviet régime called its people to fight the invader "for our country, for Stalin," and not for the Revolution or for Marxism-Leninism. In the official historiography, the war which served communism remains the Great Fatherland War. And we have it on the authority of Stalin on the morrow of the victory that it was the Russian people which saved the Soviet people not only because it was the most numerous but also because it was the most loyal of the nations of the U.S.S.R. There is no better testimony as to what has constituted the real strength and basis for cohesion of the Soviet Union and what has been largely a façade.
How weak, then, the tie of ideology was to prove when it was not buttressed by the national interest! It would have been the most bitter disappointment for Lenin to witness how the very spread of communism had eroded its unity. After all, the sacrifices and privations of the Revolution, as well as of revolutions to come, were justified in his eyes by the imperative need to banish war as well as exploitation. Whatever the number of victims claimed by revolutionary terror, how insignificant it was compared with those claimed by the Great War! Yet such calculations and rationalizations can hardly carry much conviction in view of the experience of the last 25 years when some of the sharpest antagonisms and the most dangerous conflicts have arisen between communist states. History has turned around many of the dicta and formulae of Marxism-Leninism; instead of being applicable to the capitalist world they can be seen as fitting that of communism.
Where is there a better example of inherent contradictions of a social system than in the Soviet state, where the constant need to raise the material and cultural level of the people clashes with the vested interest of the party oligarchy in preserving unimpaired its monopoly of power? Imperialism was in Lenin's formulation the highest, i.e. the last, phase of capitalism, and imperialist rivalries were the main cause of wars. Yet the most significant and potentially dangerous international conflict of today is not between two capitalist powers but between the two great communist states. And it is only the vast preponderance of Soviet strength and not the common ideological inheritance which secures the unity of European communism. There will be many articles and arguments this year propounding the thesis that the current rulers of the Soviet Union have betrayed Leninism, that he never would have licensed persecution of writers and intellectuals, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and so on.
But in the most fundamental sense it is history which has betrayed Lenin, History has vindicated his tactics, but has repudiated his hopes. And, most important, communism has not proved a solvent of national animosities and a path to world peace. Militant nationalism, to paraphrase his statement about imperialism, appears, if we are to judge on the basis of available evidence, as the highest phase of communism. Goethe's exclamation about how green the dogma and how green the tree of life was one of Lenin's favorite quotations. This was as paradoxical as much of his life's work. For he saw himself as an orthodox Marxist and a defender of the doctrine against revisionism of all kinds. But of course he was himself a revisionist when it came to discarding much of the theoretical apparatus of Marxism in order to rediscover the essence of the doctrine and to put it to practical use. His great strength was his ability to equip Marxism with weapons necessary to fight the twentieth-century battles-weapons it eschewed or abandoned as it grew, along with nineteenth-century Europe, more moderate and democratic. Thus the zeal of a doctrinaire blended in him with the political skills of a practical politician, and this combination was responsible for much of the Bolsheviks' great success.
But by the same token Lenin could not endow his successors with his own personality. In due time the doctrine was bound to degenerate into a lifeless ritual, and political pragmatism would harden into cynicism. The state which Lenin helped save from utter anarchy, in many ways a greater achievement than his seizure of the Revolution for Bolshevism, would grow enormously in power and prestige. But this growth reflects primarily the vigor and ability of the Russian people rather than the superior virtues of the new social system. The spread of communism throughout the world will in turn reflect the power and prestige of the Soviet state rather than the inherent appeal of the doctrine. And once communism loses its exclusively Russian coloration it will become entangled in its own national and imperialistic rivalries.
To his followers, then, Lenin stands not only for the heroic days of the Revolution but for the hopes of those distant days when communism, though confined to a single backward and devastated country, still exuded more faith and self-confidence that it marked a new era in the history of mankind than at present when it is the ruling ideology in countries with nearly one-third of the world's population. The contending factions will join in this year's celebrations. There will be calls for unity and for efforts to recoup the fervor and purpose of the earlier days, but it is unlikely that they will prove effective.
Lenin was abashed to realize after the Revolution, he tells us, that Marx had actually very little to say as to how a socialist society is actually to be run. The father of scientific socialism was primarily an analyst of early capitalism, the discoverer, he believed, of those self-destructive elements in capitalist economy which eventually must bring about its collapse and clear the path to a higher and better form of social organization. Lenin's achievement was similar in so far as he sought to discover and exploit the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the liberal and social democratic traditions. Economically, Western civilization proved much stronger than Marx had expected and hoped. But politically and psychologically it has proved much less resilient and tough. It is on the realization of this disparity that Lenin's stature is based as the greatest political organizer and strategist in this century. History has confounded his hopes about communism, but has not as yet refuted his perceptions as to what is weak and vulnerable in what communism seeks to destroy.