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The Story of the CPSU
By Robert G. Wesson
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 1978 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
The Russian Discontent
The Soviet Communist party has shown remarkable institutional continuity over a long period: it has experienced no organizational break from its beginnings to the present. However, the party had no clear beginning. The most crucial turning point was 1917, when it rapidly evolved from a radical sect to a mass movement and then a governing elite; the vast majority of the Bolsheviks who made the October Revolution entered the party in the six months preceding that event. But the central core of the party, except Trotsky and his adherents, had been working with Lenin for many years, and much in the history of Bolshevik Russia (as it was commonly called in its first decades) is more comprehensible in the light of the traditions that were built up in the prewar period. Lenin set the seal upon the existence of his group as an independent party in a meeting in Prague in January 1912. However, in the official chronicle, this gathering is called the Sixth Congress. A Bolshevik faction first formed at the Second Congress, held in Brussels-London in July -August 1903, when Lenin endeavored to muster his adherents to make of the new Marxist party a political instrument such as he (almost alone) envisaged. This was, for all practical purposes, the founding congress of the Russian Social Democratic party, but Lenin had already gathered a following, a protoparty, in the preceding two years. The official First Congress had been held in Minsk in 1898, but it had been broken up by police and left nothing but a memory for the subsequent party to build upon.
Possibly the party should be considered as originating in 1893, the date of Lenin's entry into Marxist circles in St. Petersburg and the date to which he ascribed his entry into the party. Or one might find the beginnings of the Russian Social Democratic party, which produced Lenin's group by fission, in the European Social Democratic movement, or in the inception of Marxism with the Communist Manifesto, which was put out by Marx and Engels in 1848.
Yet the Russian Marxism of the 1890s was not only the theoretical offspring of Marxist philosophy, but also, perhaps more strongly, the heir to a long tradition of radical protest against the injustices and failures of the old Russian empire. Before Lenin, such would-be revolutionaries as Nechaev and Tkachev were Leninists in their hopes for a party that would overturn society for but not with the people. These and other publicists of the 1870s to the 1890s, who were loosely called "Populists," were in turn the successors of the Slavophils of the 1860s, who stressed the communal virtues of Russia in contrast to the perversion of the commercialized West, while blending with their nativism some of the insistence of the Westernizers on improving Russia by adapting Western ideas.
The radical intellectuals of the nineteenth century were too few to trouble the government very much, except when they succeeded in making points by assassination. They were not the cause but the symptom of secular maladjustment, the origins of which, like the origins of Leninism, must be sought in the fundamental Russian situation. The essence of this situation was the irritation of the huge, proud, and powerful, but relatively poor and technologically backward, autocratic, and semi-Asiatic empire at its inferiority to the richer, more rapidly modernizing, less harshly governed, and more pluralistic states of Europe. This antithesis of cultures came about originally by virtue of the conquest of nearly all Russian lands by the Tatars of Central Asia in the thirteenth century and the incorporation of these lands (somewhat loosely, to be sure) into the immense Tatar empire. Previously Russia, which was centered on Kiev, had been politically akin to the West and approximately up to its cultural level. But by the time Tatar power receded in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Russia had become politically alien to the West.
The Moscow-centered realm that emerged as the unifier of the Russian lands took over many of the Tatar traditions of imperial rulership that, along with military skills, had enabled the horsemen of the steppes to build the largest contiguous empire ever known. Moreover, the Russians were able to make themselves practically the heirs to the Tatar domain. Steadily and systematically advancing, especially to the east and south, they came to rule, by the time of Peter (the early eighteenth century), the greater part of the lands once held by Kublai Khan.
The Russians began their monumental expansion at roughly the same time that Western Europeans were undertaking the voyages of discovery that led to the Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch, and British empires. In both cases the basic cause was the technological and consequently military superiority arising from the intellectual upsurge of the West, leading into the later scientific and industrial revolutions. Although Russia was a borrower and hence lagged somewhat, it was sufficiently capable of assimilating Western invention to overcome Asian resistance and at the same time defend itself against its European neighbors.
If the basis for Russian and Western European imperialism was the same, the effects were very different for a simple reason: European empire building occurred overseas, but the Russian-conquered lands were contiguous. Although profitable colonies strengthened kings and contributed to monarchic authoritarianism in Spain and other countries, the Western European empire-holding nations remained nation-states, and kingship was never elevated to total domination of society. The colonies were external holdings, not expansions of the state.
For Russia, on the other hand, there was no sharp division between old and new territories, and expansion swelled an already autocratically inclined state. It gave a mission to rulership and made the total power of the monarch seemingly, and probably in fact, indispensable to prevent dissolution and chaos (much as the power of the monolithic party is accepted today by many Russians as the only guarantee against breakup and disorder). Rulership over the boundless territories and countless peoples became a necessity, therefore a holy vocation with overtones of universalism and messianism. Far more than in the West even in the socalled Age of Absolutism, the Russian state, as maker and holder of the continental empire, became an entity superior to society, standing above it, taking its own directions, and imposing them on society. The Russian empire became and remained characterized by the idea of rulership that does not ask but commands, the use of law as a political instrument instead of an impartial regulator, indoctrination and censorship, an obligatory official philosophy, control of movement and exclusion (so far as was practicable) of alien influences, lack of independent standing for either wealth or nobility, and government by a self-chosen elite of political administrators — a political tradition that was continued and intensified after the October Revolution.
But it did not suffice for imperial tsarist Russia to rule in absolutist fashion. It had to maintain its technological level in competition with rapidly progressing Western Europe. It had continually to borrow ideas and inventions from the West because of the uninventiveness and difficulty in innovation that are part of the price of any tightly governed society. The Russians, being Christian in background and culturally and racially akin to Europe, found it much easier than did other empires, such as Turkey or China, to put to use the technological, economic, and organizational attainments of the modernizing Western community. From the days of Ivan the Terrible (who reigned 1547-84), Russia was importing not only Western artillery and artillerymen, mechanics, architects, and so on, but also many Western laws and social patterns.
Hence tsarist Russia was — and Soviet Russia remains — a compromise between Eastern and Western, European and Asiatic, wherein the autocratic society, making good use of the achievements of more liberal societies, has inevitably taken on some Western institutions or at least their appearances. Russia had to govern autocratically to exist as a multinational empire, yet it always had to import the achievements of more liberal states to sustain its autocracy. These two aspects coexisted in abiding ambivalence — an ambivalence that was made only more acute by the Bolshevik revolution and the assertion of total power by the political party in the name of a Western ideology of total liberation.
This ambivalence and the antithesis of Western ideas and Eastern political modes began to trouble Russians as soon as they were able to give it thought. From the days of Ivan the Terrible, some became aware of the greater liberties of Western lands and wondered why they should not enjoy similar liberties. The desire for greater freedom was limited to a few nobles, however; discontent rising from comparisons between Russia and the West was of no great importance until near the end of the eighteenth century. The number of persons who were acquainted with conditions abroad or sufficiently educated to think about the differences was very small; the prevailing style of government in the West was monarchy, as in Russia; and change in the West was slow enough that Russia could keep fairly well abreast of military and productive technologies.
But these conditions began breaking down in the last decades of the eighteenth century. "Enlightened Despotism" lost standing and became intellectually enfeebled under philosophic criticism even before the French Revolution. Tsarina Catherine II felt compelled, in the interest of modernity, to correspond with such skeptical thinkers as Voltaire and Diderot, to make pretenses of implementing some of their liberal political ideas, and to employ a republican, Frederic-Cesar La Harpe, as tutor for her grandson, the future Alexander I. The French Revolution then came to topple the leading monarchy of Europe and to exalt rationalism, liberty, democracy, and the rights of man, concepts that were wholly subversive of the Russian way of rule. Although France was ultimately defeated and the Bourbons returned, the ideals of the great libertarian revolution could never again be laid to rest. At the same time, economic development was quickening, fueled by increasing technological progress. The industrial revolution that took shape in England in the eighteenth century was not quick to spread to the continent; but especially after the end of the wars in 1815, the pace of change began visibly to accelerate. The West continued to move forward ever more rapidly, and Russia was increasingly pressed to avoid falling too far behind. Pressure to keep pace required more education and more travel, both of foreigners to Russia and of Russians abroad, compounding the difficulties of the empire.
The patriotic feelings aroused by the Napoleonic invasion and the exhilaration of victory in 1814- 1815, when Russian troops paraded down the boulevards of Paris, subdued potential discontent for a few years. But it came to the surface at the death of the victorious tsar, Alexander I, on December 23, 1825. In the confusion surrounding the succession, which the oldest son, Constantine, had privately renounced, a group of officers (called the "Decembrists" after the date) attempted a coup d'etat. Having learned something of the relative freedom of Bourbon France from their service in that country, they sought not merely to determine the person of the ruler, as in previous palace coups, but to remodel the state according to ideological preconceptions. Some dreamed of a constitutional monarchy, others aspired to a republic (to be inaugurated by military dictatorship). Their insurgency met only incomprehension among the people and failed quickly, but it began the radical oppositionist movement that led to 1917. Soviet histories claim that the Decembrists were precursors of the Leninist party.
The immediate effect of the Decembrists' failure, however, was repressive reaction on the part of the threatened tsar. Nicholas I tried to rule his land like a drill-sergeant and to cut it off, so far as possible, from subversive Western influences. No Russian was permitted to go abroad except by special permit; an official ideology of "orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality" was proclaimed (1833); a political police was charged with controlling the subjects; and reform was banned in all sensitive areas. Nicholas thus succeeded in imposing a few decades of relative quiet.
But the small Russian intellectual movement continued to grow, led by the earliest of the well-known Russian writers, including Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, and Griboyedov. Art is inherently disposed to criticism, and voices of protest began to be heard. In the 1830s German idealist philosophy became the mode. By the 1840s a new radicalism was stirring, deriving (like Marxism) from Hegel, Proudhon, and other prophets of socialism. Herzen and Bakunin, both of whom sought freedom in exile, represented respectively moderate socialism and anarchism. The French revolution of 1848, which spread to most of the countries of Europe, provoked some excitement among Russian intellectuals and raised the idea of revolution to the level of a general aspiration.
Voices of change in Russia were few and subdued, however, until humiliation in the Crimean War (1854-56) showed that the proud, stiff, militarized Russian state was inwardly rotten. The price of shutting out the West and suffocating dissent was evidently weakness. Nicholas having appropriately died in the shambles of his lifework, the new tsar, Alexander II, instituted a series of reforms in the Russian tradition of reaction to defeat. He ended the serfdom that had degraded the majority of the population, relaxed censorship, improved higher education, established noble-dominated agencies of local self-administration, modernized army service, and instituted a model court system.
Russia's problems were not, of course, solved thereby, and critics were not satisfied but were encouraged to increase their demands. The intellectuals became only the more vocal when, after a few years, a conservative reaction led to restrictions and the partial withdrawal of concessions. In the process, the Russian mind was opened and stimulated, and the great debate began on the meaning and future of Russia that went on until the victory of Lenin's party imposed an answer, or at least silenced opposing views.
The passionate and far-ranging debate was carried on by a class that was at that time new to history, the intelligentsia (a Russian word).* Its members were primarily students and journalists whose distinguishing characteristic was that by virtue of Western-style education and outlook they no longer fitted into traditional Russian society and could not find the employment for which they believed themselves qualified. Of diverse social backgrounds (many came from the nobility, which was demoralized by its loss of functions after the emancipation of the serfs), they had little in common except profound alienation. They were generally quite young, as were the radicals of Lenin's day; in maturity they usually found places in the bureaucracy and became faithful cogs in the tsarist apparatus. Their chief vehicle was essays in fat journals, usually rambling discourses posing as literary criticism. The tsarist government practically cultivated their extremist opposition by imposing capricious and irritating, yet ineffective, restrictions. Somewhat unpredictable censorship served mostly to make critical writings, with their Aesopian language, more interesting. Lacking any tradition of objectivity or of tempered, rational discourse, and with no responsibility for policies, the intellectuals were fond of indefinite, often incoherent theorizing and of striking statements advocating unachievable ends. They were amateur philosophers with a dilettantist passion for the latest theory. They saw the world in black and white and hoped for quick and total change, that is, revolution. They had something in common with modern youth protests; the nihilists of the 1860s, finding virtue in the rejection of conventional values ranging from cleanliness to orthodox religion, were akin to the hippies of a century later.
Excerpted from Lenin's Legacy by Robert G. Wesson. Copyright © 1978 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents
Editor's Foreword vii
Chapter 1 The Russian Discontent 1
Chapter 2 Lenin's Party: Formation and Waiting
The Marxist Vogue 11
The Advent of Lenin 16
Lenin's Movement 20
Hope and Failure 28
Disillusion and Decadence 32
Lenin and the Minorities 38
The Last Years of Waiting 41
Chapter 3 The Conquest of Power
The End of Tsarism 48
Lenin Takes Charge and Fails 50
The German Connection 56
The Summer of Disruption 62
The Coup 68
The Party Becomes a Government 75
Brest Litovsk 83
Civil War 88
Consolidation of the Party 94
Chapter 4 The Liquidation of Dissent
The End of Allies 100
The End of Factions 103
Lenin's Retreat 108
Lenin's Last Years 111
Lenin the Leader 115
The Advent of Stalin 118
Stalin Defeats Trotsky 123
Stalin Crushes Left and Right 132
Chapter 5 Stalinism in Power
The Conquest of the Peasantry 139
The Great Purges 148
The Stalinist System 161
The Eve of the War 166
The War 168
High Stalinism 172
The Finale 178
Chapter 6 The Khrushchev Era
The New Rulers 183
Khrushchev, the Challenger 188
The First Secretary versus the Prime Minister 191
De-Stalinization: First Round 195
The Defeat of the Old Guard 205
Khrushchev Victorious 210
The Troubled Vision 214
The Slippage of Power 222
The Fall 232
Chapter 7 Brezhnev and Conservative Communism
The New Regime 235
Leonid Ilich Brezhnev 242
The Brezhnev Era: Consolidation 245
Brezhnev in Command 251
The Brezhnev Party 255
Conclusion: The Party Transformed and the Same 271
1 Figures on the Party 279
2 Women in the Party 285
Bibliographical Note 307