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‘The philosophers have only explained the world; the point is to change it.’ This famous dictum of Marx invites us to judge his doctrine by its practical consequences, in other words by examining the kind of society which has resulted from its application. Yet, paradoxically, many Marxists themselves will deny the validity of such a judgement. They will dismiss the example of Soviet society as an unfortunate aberration, the outcome of a historical accident, by which the first socialist revolution took place in a country unsuited to socialism, in backward, autocratic Russia.
It is important, therefore, to begin by asking ourselves just why this happened. Was it indeed a historical accident? Or were there elements in Russia’s pre-revolutionary traditions which predisposed the country to accept the kind of rule which the followers of Marx were to impose?
It is true that Russia was, in some ways, backward and it was certainly autocratic. Economically speaking–in agriculture, commerce and industry–Russia had lagged behind Western Europe from the late Middle Ages onward, largely as a result of two centuries of relative isolation under Tatar rule. There is, however, no single track along which history advances, and this backwardness had positive as well as negative features. It made the mass of the people more adaptable, better able to survive in harsh circumstances. It may also have helped to preserve a more intimate sense of local community, in the peasants’ commune (mir) and the workmen’s cooperative (artel).
Politically, on the other hand, nineteenth-century Russia might be thought of as rather ‘advanced’, if by that we mean resembling twentieth-century Western European political systems. It was an increasingly centralized, bureaucratized and in many ways secular state; its hierarchy had strong meritocratic features; it devoted a considerable share of its resources to defence, and operated a system of universal male conscription; and it accepted an ever more interventionist role in the economy. Furthermore, the state’s opponents, the radicals and revolutionaries, pursued secular utopias with the same mixture of altruism, heroism and intense self-absorption which characterized, for example, the West German and Italian terrorists of the 1960s and 1970s. What Russia did not have, of course, was parliamentary democracy, though even that was developing, in embryonic form, from 1906.
As for autocracy, there were very good reasons why it should have proved the dominant political form in Russia, and why it should have been acceptable to most of the people. It is unnecessary to postulate an inborn ‘slave mentality’, as many Westerners are prone to do. First, there are Russia’s flat, open frontiers, which have been both her strength and her weakness. Her strength, because they gave Russia’s people the chance to spread eastwards, colonizing the whole of northern Asia and occupying in the end one-sixth of the earth’s surface. Her weakness, because they have rendered Russia ever vulnerable to attack, from the east, the south and, especially in recent centuries, from the west. For that reason all Russian governments have made the securing of their territory their chief priority, and have received the whole-hearted support of the population in so doing. National security has been, in fact, more than a priority–an obsession to which, when necessary, everything else has been sacrificed with the enthusiastic approval of the people. Any other people in such circumstances would react the same way. That is not to say that Russian governments have not abused the trust their subjects have placed in them: on the contrary they have found it possible to do so again and again. But the geographical and historical motives for accepting strong authority have nearly always prevailed.
Another reason for the popular identification with the autocrat is that, historically speaking, Russia’s formation as a self-conscious nation began unusually early. The Tatar occupation of the thirteenth century generated, by reaction, intense Russian national feeling, which centred on the Orthodox Church, as the one national institution which had survived the disaster. And because the church conducted its liturgy not in Latin but in a Slavonic tongue close to the vernacular, this national feeling had deep roots among the ordinary people. All this imparted to Russian national consciousness from early times a demotic quality, a defensiveness, and an earth-boundness which still have strong echoes today. Its religious basis was celebrated as soon as Russia was able, thanks to strong Muscovite rulers, to throw off the Tatar yoke. Moscow Grand Dukes proclaimed themselves Tsars (Caesars), claiming the heritage of Byzantium, which had fallen to the infidels in 1453: ‘Two Romes have fallen, the third Rome stands, and there shall be no fourth.’ Russia became Holy Russia, the one true Christian empire on earth.
In order to ensure that armies could be raised and the country defended, the tsars imposed a tight hierarchy of service on the whole population. Nobles were awarded land in the form of pomestya, or service estates, on condition that they performed civilian or military service, usually the latter. They also had to raise a unit of fighting men from among the peasants committed to their charge. In this way the old independent aristocrats, the boyars, were gradually displaced, while the peasants became enserfed, fixed to the land, bound to serve their lord, to pay taxes, and to provide recruits for the army. For nobles and peasants alike, their function and status in society was defined by state service. Society became almost an appendage to the state.
In the end, even the church was taken into service. The process began in the seventeenth century, when its head, Patriarch Nikon, tried to provide for the church’s imperial role by correcting liturgical mistakes which had crept into the prayer books over the centuries, and which he felt would shame the Russian Orthodox Church in its relations with other churches. He was also ambitious for the church to play a stronger role in the state. Although Tsar Alexei dismissed him as a dangerous rival, the reforms he had sponsored were ratified by a Church Council. These reforms aroused vehement opposition among both priests and laity, who felt that the integrity of the Russian faith was being violated by foreign importations. All the strength, exclusiveness and defensiveness of Russian national feeling was exhibited by the Old Believers, those who clung to the old liturgical practices, and were prepared to be imprisoned or exiled, or even commit mass suicide, rather than submit to the new and alien practices. The Old Belief survived right up to the revolution of 1917, and beyond, depriving the official church of many of its natural, indeed most fervent, supporters.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this schism, whose importance for Russian history can scarcely be exaggerated, was that the church became dependent on the full coercive support of the state in implementing its reforms. The way was thus prepared for. Peter I, in the early eighteenth century, to abolish the Patriarchate, symbol of the independent standing of the church, and replace it with a so-called Holy Synod, essentially a department of state, headed moreover by a layman. Peter did this with the same aims as Henry VIII in England: to bring the church under firm state control, to discipline it and make it fitter to fulfil the tasks the state had in mind for it, such as education, social welfare and the pastoral care and supervision of the common people. His principal ecclesiastical theorist, Feofan Prokopovich, insisted that the state should have undivided and indisputable sovereignty on earth, including the right to interpret God’s law. Any less clear arrangement he deemed dangerous, since it might mislead ordinary, gullible people to entertain the ‘hope of obtaining help for their rebellions from the clergy’. This secular approach to church-state relations, and the obsession with civil disorder, was close to the thinking of many European Protestant thinkers at the time, notably Thomas Hobbes. Shades of the Leviathan hung over Russian society from then on.
Peter I also impugned Russian traditions in numerous other ways. He moved the capital from Moscow to a swampy outpost on the Baltic coast, simply because that sea gave direct access to the ports of Europe, in whose more ‘progressive’ ways Peter hoped for salvation. In the new city of St Petersburg, he required his nobility to adopt European fashions in everything from education to clothing. When some of his courtiers refused to shave their beards–honoured as a sign of manhood in Muscovite custom–Peter took the shears and did the job personally. Both the changes he promoted, and his uncouth manner of imposing them, aroused considerable opposition. Old Believers, indeed, regarded him as the Antichrist.
Catherine II completed the subordination of church to state by expropriating the church’s huge landholdings, which left the priesthood poor and dependent on their parishioners for subsistence. The clergy became in effect a subordinate estate, having neither the education nor the financial independence to cultivate a distinctive stand, even in spiritual matters. They were also a more or less closed order, since clergy sons usually had little choice but to take their education in a church seminary, and then to follow in father’s footsteps. The high culture and politics of the period were essentially secular: priests were regarded by most intellectuals as beings of inferior education and status, peddling superstition to pacify the plebs. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this subordination of the church. It meant that Holy Russia, still haunted by visions of unique religious rectitude, was governed in a radically secular manner, outdoing most Protestant states, and was acquiring an almost aggressively secular culture.
Russian government in the nineteenth century is often described as ‘reactionary’, but this view is based on superficial comparisons with West European political systems. In fact, from the time of Peter I, Russian governments were radical and modernizing to an almost dangerous degree. They were so because they felt they faced a potential military threat from European nations which on the whole were technically better equipped. It was to face this challenge that Peter sacrificed so much to the creation of a strong army and navy, with a modern armaments industry to back them up, and overhauled the administration of the country, the tax system, education and even social mores. He regarded all the country’s resources–material, cultural and spiritual–as being at the service of the state for the good of society as a whole. His successors continued his work, but they faced both the advantages and disadvantages of weak social institutions. Advantages, in that no fractious nobility or urban patriciate possessed the independence to impede the monarch’s commands. Disadvantages, in that the existing aristocratic and urban institutions (the elites of town and country) were often not even strong enough to act as transmission belts for orders from above, as they did in other European countries; in their absence the government’s intentions often petered out ineffectually in the vast expanses of the landscape.
For that reason some Russian monarchs, notably Catherine II in the late eighteenth century, and Alexander II in the 1860s, actually tried to create or strengthen what Montesquieu would have called ‘intermediary bodies’, that is, self-governing associations of nobility and of townsmen, with a direct responsibility for local government. Others–Paul I, for example, and Nicholas I–regarded such associations as self-seeking and divisive, tried to curb them and to rule through monarchical agents, controlled from the centre. Much of the history of Imperial Russia’s government between Peter I and the revolution of 1917 is to be found in this swing to and fro between local autonomy and strict centralization, between support of local elites and distrust of them.
The radical intelligentsia of the nineteenth century were in some ways the unnatural offspring of this frustrating relationship. Most of the radicals came from the social strata from which the tsarist government recruited its central and local officials–the minor nobility, the clergy, army officers and professional men–and they typically went through the same education system as the country’s civil servants. They espoused many of the ideals of the modernizing wing of the bureaucracy: progress, equality, material welfare for all, the curbing of privilege. Frustrated, however, by the hierarchy and authoritarianism of the state service, and by the gross discrepancy between ideal and reality, they underwent a conversion, usually as early as their student days, and harnessed their vision to a revolutionary ideology.
In the absence of a genuinely conservative political theory, and lacking the support of an independent church, the Russian imperial state often found itself extraordinarily vulnerable when faced with the activists of the revolutionary movement. In effect the state’s own ideals had been hijacked by its opponents, and as a result the government found itself being deserted by those who should have been its natural supporters. Even Dostoevsky, a writer of conservative views, once said that, if he knew that revolutionaries were going to blow up the Winter Palace, he would not report the plot to the police, for fear of ‘being thought an informer’: ‘The liberals would never let me hear the end of it.’ Without necessarily approving of terrorism, in fact, members of the nobility and liberal professions sometimes felt a kind of sympathy for the terrorists’ world outlook. The impeccably liberal Kadet Party in 1906, for example, refused publicly to condemn terrorism for fear of discrediting itself in the eyes of public opinion. In this way the revolutionaries came to constitute a kind of ‘alternative establishment’.
This did not make the practical dilemmas of the radicals any easier. It was not at all clear how they were to achieve their aims. Alexander Herzen, perhaps the first thorough-going Russian socialist, thought the peasant commune should function as the nucleus of the new society, but he was ambivalent about how and even whether a revolution should take place to bring that about. Mikhail Bakunin urged that the only essential thing was to spark off a massive popular uprising by the narod (the common people), and this would of itself purge and destroy the evils of existing society, leaving men free to improvise. Petr Lavrov, on the contrary, hoped that revolution would not be necessary at all: he felt that the educated strata had a debt to the narod, their education having been made possible by the latter’s toil. They should pay this debt off by ‘going to the people’ and passing on the fruits of their education to them, teaching them how they might create a truly humane society on the basis of their own institutions, the mir and the artel. In the 1870s several hundred students tried to fulfil Lavrov’s vision, learning handcrafts and dressing in smocks and felt boots in order to live in the village, practise a trade and pass on the good word. Most, though not all, of the peasants met them with incomprehension and some suspicion: for the time being at least their faith in the ‘little father’ tsar was still unshaken. Many of the student idealists who ‘went to the people’ finished up in prison.
Their failure lent strength to those who argued that a revolutionary movement must lead and it must use violence, disorganizing the government apparatus by terror, and if possible seizing power by a coup d’état. An organization called the People’s Will (Narodnaya volya) was set up to achieve this, and in 1881 it actually succeeded in assassinating the Emperor Alexander II. But setting up a different regime, or even putting effective pressure on Alexander’s successor–that proved beyond their capacities. Their victory was a pyrrhic one: all it produced was more determined repression.
By the 1880s, in fact, the Russian revolutionary movement seemed to be in a blind alley, unable to achieve its aims either by peaceful propaganda or by terrorism. It was in this situation that Marxism presented itself as a panacea in troubled times. Its first Russian exponent, Georgy Plekhanov, was the leader of those who had refused to accept the methods of the People’s Will. He welcomed Marxism because it suggested he had been right all along in rejecting the idea of a coup d’état: no revolution could yet come about in Russia, by any means, simply because objective social and economic circumstances were not yet ripe. Plekhanov’s interpretation thus emphasized Marxism’s determinist features: he argued that capitalism had not yet even begun in Russia, so that naturally the socialist revolution, which could only take place as a result of the contradictions of capitalist society, had no chance of success yet. In his view, Russia must first accept the coming of capitalism, with the concomitant breakdown of the peasant commune and the creation of large-scale industry, because these processes would generate a genuinely revolutionary class, the factory proletariat, which would not let down the hopes of the radical intelligentsia, as the peasantry had done. Plekhanov took up Marxism with such enthusiasm because he discerned in it a scientific explanation of history, and hence the certainty that the revolutionaries, if they followed it, would no longer sacrifice their hopes, and indeed their lives, in vain. Previous revolutionaries he dismissed contemptuously as ‘Populists’.
Historians of Russia often approach Marxism as though it came to the country as a completely formed and internally consistent doctrine. In fact this was far from being the case. Marxism was itself the product of European experiences not unlike those which had troubled the Russian revolutionaries of the 1860s and 1870s, especially the disappointments of the French revolution, and of the European risings of 1848–9. Each time, the shortfall between revolutionary expectation and subsequent reality had been immense. Marx claimed that this was because the revolutionaries had not heeded objective socioeconomic conditions: they were in fact mere ‘utopian socialists’. His kind of socialism, on the contrary, he described as ‘scientific’. He argued that the proletariat, growing now uncontrollably with the expansion of capitalist industry, would overcome the gap between ideal and reality. The factory worker was in a uniquely favourable position to achieve this, since he was both the ‘subject’ and the ‘object’ of history: the object in that he was the victim of its economic laws, the subject in that he was conscious of the fact that he had nothing to lose and he was impelled by the vision of the more just and prosperous society that would come out of his revolt. As the unavoidable contradictions of capitalism bore ever more heavily on the workers, so they would inevitably rise and overthrow their oppressors, creating of their shared destitution a more just and humane society.
In this way Marx overcame, to his own satisfaction and that of most of his followers, the troubling gap between ideal and fulfilment. The trouble is, there was and is no necessary connection between Marx’s vision of intensifying socioeconomic crisis, with everyone moved by their own material interests, and the world of harmony and brother-hood which was supposed to succeed the revolution. Indeed, logically speaking, if the workers were impelled by their own economic interests in making revolution, then the more likely sequel of such a revolution would be further economic struggle, but with a different set of masters. Nevertheless, the idea that the workers’ revolution would somehow magically cancel out all the conflicts of society had enormous attraction. It seemed to be both realistic and optimistic at the same time. It had the simultaneous attractions of a science and a religion. That is what made it so appealing, and nowhere more so than in Russia, where the intelligentsia already had its own troubles with a secular state claiming religious prerogatives.
Certainly the young Vladimir Ulyanov–or Lenin, as he became known–was attracted by precisely this dual nature of Marxism. He had been deeply affected by the execution in 1887 of his elder brother Alexander for membership of a conspiracy to murder the emperor. Lenin was attracted by his brother’s idealism and self-sacrifice, but at the same time he was determined not to give up his own life in vain. He wanted to pursue Alexander’s aim of revolutio...
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APA 6 Citation
Hosking, G. (2017). History of the Soviet Union ([edition unavailable]). HarperCollins Publishers. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/671291/history-of-the-soviet-union-pdf (Original work published 2017)
Hosking, Geoffrey. (2017) 2017. History of the Soviet Union. [Edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers. https://www.perlego.com/book/671291/history-of-the-soviet-union-pdf.
Hosking, G. (2017) History of the Soviet Union. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/671291/history-of-the-soviet-union-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Hosking, Geoffrey. History of the Soviet Union. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.