This post is going to be a little different from what I normally do. Usually, when writing about history especially, I try to research things very carefully before I post them. This time, however, I can’t really do that because what I want to talk about is so complex a subject it would take me a whole career’s worth of work to be sure of everything.
Instead, I’m just going to use the facts I already know, and give my opinion on this subject as an amateur student of history. If you find errors, please point them out to me in the comments. I realize I’m risking making an idiot out of myself, but in my (again, amateurish) reading, I’ve come to have one or two ideas. Obviously, if I find any information in the future which contradicts what I say here, I shall correct it ASAP.
Now then, let’s talk about the Soviet Union. Conservatives I know frequently point to it as what happens when “leftism” runs amok. Are they right?
First of all, as some readers may know, I try to ignore the right-left spectrum and examine politics using the framework of Nationalism, Cosmopolitanism, and Materialism. But where does the Soviet Union fit in to this model?
Let me begin by saying that Karl Marx’s theory was anti-nationalistic and, in the sense I mean it, anti-materialistic. While it is true Marx called his philosophy a “materialist conception of history”, what I mean by “anti-materialist” is that he opposed the concentration of material wealth through greedy, capitalistic means. He sought rather to redistribute material wealth to improve people’s lives. As he and Engels wrote in The German Ideology:
“[A]s soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic and must remain so if he does not wish to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening,criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”
And as they wrote in The Communist Manifesto:
“The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got…
National differences, and antagonisms between peoples, are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world-market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto. The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster. United action, of the leading civilized countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.”
This mixture of anti-greed and anti-nationalism immediately put his philosophy at a strategic disadvantage, for it was forced to combat both of these forces at once. However, it was fundamentally a cosmopolitan, universalist endeavor, to improve life for people the world over. This was the motivating idea even after Marxism had taken over Russia and formed the Soviet Union. The anthem “The Internationale” signified this, as did the slogan “Workers of the World, unite!”
But then something very interesting happened. In the 1920s, Mussolini was getting lots of attention for his system of “fascism”. As Jonah Goldberg (among others) pointed out in one of those rare correct observations that make him such a frustrating writer, Mussolini had dreamed up fascism when he noticed that appealing to nationalism made it more popular than adhering to the usual internationalist tendencies.
I don’t think this escaped Stalin for one minute. He noticed what Mussolini was doing and began to imitate him. Fascism swept Europe in the ’30s, and the Soviet Union was not spared, though it tried to seem as if it had been.
It was Stalin, then, who fundamentally destroyed any meaning Communism may have had; by changing it into more of a Russian-nationalist movement. By shifting the nature of the State to what was essentially an ultra-collectivist form of what we might today call “fascism”, Stalin rendered it a mere exercise in the pursuit of Power, without real philosophical significance. It was not quite an ultranationalist movement, given Marx’s foundation, but nor was it an international movement. After Stalin took power, it was similar to many of the other governments in Europe at the time, but unlike Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, its leader was not even “honest” about its true nature.
(It was for these Nationalist reasons, also, that Leon Trotsky was exiled from the party. Trotsky remained a committed Internationalist kind of Marxist, and hence had no place in Stalin’s Government.)
This led to all sorts of confusion, especially in the way of liberal intellectuals feeling a need to defend (or deny) certain actions taken by the Soviet Union despite the fact that it really wasn’t on their side.
Nationalists will claim I am only saying this to excuse the cosmopolitans from responsibility, to claim that they do not deserve blame for the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union. They will claim that I am using a tautological reasoning system whereby all people who do bad things are automatically, by the fact itself, nationalists.
Well, I have deliberately tried not to do this. There were genuinely internationalist communists who committed atrocities. And the Communist system seems to lead almost inevitably to authoritarian systems of government, whatever Marx may have intended. And those sorts of systems usually lead to atrocities, no matter who is in charge.
Those who wish to point to the Soviet union as a failure of the “left-wing” may still do so, for it was a cosmopolitan idea that gave it philosophical power. However, in the event, it was a failure largely because of its susceptibility to being taken over by nationalistic forces.
What if there hadn’t been any nationalist shift? What if Trotsky had gotten rid of Stalin? Would it have been a Heaven on Earth, as some people desperately wanted it to be? Very unlikely. It is clear that the allocation of resources under the Communist system was very flawed. This would have been a problem, sooner or later, no matter who was running the show. Might there have been fewer casualties resulting from the Soviet Union’s actions? Possibly so.
Marx invisioned a violent take over of industry by the workers. The crazy thing is that the two major countries to try his economics were mostly agrarian. Lenin quickly figured out you can't collectivize farms or nothing get grown and added incentive to industrial workers. Stalin shut off incentives and collectivized the farms. He went nationalistic to get the people behind the wars. His paranoia almost lost the war. After the non-aggression pact with Hitler he purged all lower officers and sent them to the gulag. In their army second and first lieutenants led the men into battle not sergeants. That's why Germany pushed so far so fast into Russia the first year.Russia's history is one of autocratic and totalitarian rule. It's not about to change. Putin is just a lot slicker than his predecessors.
I think Stalin became interested in nationalist issues way before Mussolini took power. After their first meeting Lenin wrote in a letter that Stalin was “a wonderful Georgian” who was writing an article on nationalism. It was in 1915, as far as I remember.But all that Soviet nationalism became a pure travesty by the 70s, if you looked at it from the inside. All that remained from it was imbeciles with balalaikas on TV, mediocre novelists who wanted people to leave the cities and dwell in half-ruined villages where you couldn’t buy even a loaf of bread, matryoshka dolls, samovars, and restored churches for tourists, and vodka as a common denominator.