This essay is an exploration of the extent to which Lenin abandoned or detracted from the basic principles upon which the Revolution was based in October 1917. Including an introduction to the histiography of this issue and an exploration of social, cultural, political and economic areas, I hope it will shed light on this period of Russian history and also on the Soviet leader of Russia from 1917 to 1924.
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To what extent did Lenin abandon the principles of Communism between 1917 and 1924?
The Bolshevik ideas of those, including Lenin, who took power in Russia in 1917 were based on Marxism, which were themselves based on trends in more industrialised countries than Russia. Lenin quickly realised that Marx’s ideas would have to be adapted to the actual physical situation in Russia in order to be implemented. This was clear from the apparent disadvantage Russia was at according to Marxist theory: there was a lack of capitalist development, and the proletariat was both small and disorganised, making a revolution seem unlikely.
The historical view of Lenin’s time in power is two-sided, and Stephen J. Lee names these as the “Leninist Revolution” and “Leninist State” views1. The contemporary views come from Lenin himself (supported by later Soviet historians) and Kerensky, the exiled former leader of the Provisional Government. Official Soviet historiography toes the Lenin line, whereas Western approaches vary, as they were not limited in what they could say during the Cold War. Some agree with Kerensky’s “conspiracy” view, that the revolution was a “freak occurrence and a perversion of Russia’s historical trends”2. The nature of the regime is also a great controversy, with historians such as Solzhenitsyn arguing that the Bolshevik regime led directly and inexorably to Stalinism3. This clearly supports the view that Lenin acted more as a dictator and detracted from communist principles, as Stalin’s rule was extremely authoritarian. E. Mandel argues the differences between the two regimes as “the Bolshevik revolution and the Stalinist counter-revolution”4, thus supporting the claim that Lenin was acting under appropriate ideology. E.H. Carr has also argued that the desire to crush counter-revolution justified the desperate responses in that time of emergency, they were only intended to be temporary anyway, and that Lenin always stuck to ideology where he could without compromising the safety of the regime. In The Bolshevik Revolution (1950), Carr draws attention to Lenin’s “greatness as a political strategist and as a political tactician”5, in that he was much more of a practical politician than an ideologist despite his prolific writing and impact (seen in the phrase “Marxism-Leninism"). Robert Service, a recent biographer of Lenin, describes Lenin’s treatment of Marxism as “casual” when faced with practical problems6. Service is a reliable source as he has had access to Russian archives unsealed by Yeltsin in 1991, and previous historians have not.
Lenin never abandoned his belief in the communist system of government and held as closely as possible to the appropriate ideology when formulating policy, and even when extremely ill from 1922 and so unable to play a really active role in government. However, the pragmatic nature of Lenin and the stark necessity of the events between 1917 and 1924 prevented the Bolsheviks from implementing ideological plans on many occasions.
Politics and Government:
The immediate priority for Lenin and the Bolsheviks after the revolution was to deal with threats to the new system; both internal and external, in order to secure the regime. Most historians, for example Lee7, regard the external threat to be greater than the internal at this point. Lee, of course, is only bringing together views of various historians and is not so reliable as somebody like, say, Service, as he has not undertaken the same degree of research. Internal threats included the Mensheviks and counter-revolutionaries, and the main external threat was the impending civil war, as well as foreign intervention by those opposed to socialist government, namely Great Britain and the United States. Dealing with threats to the regime remained one of Lenin’s top priorities throughout his life, and ideology came second to remaining in power.
The civil war gave the Bolshevik government the opportunity to implement policies that outwardly appeared to be in line with communist dogma, such as the relaxation of divorce law, which gave women more freedom, and thus the policies were not opposed. The importance of more practical considerations is shown by the reversal of many such schemes following the end of the civil war, as women were no longer desperately needed to work. Even if opposition to any policy did exist, Lenin advocated the use of violence in the form of the Cheka (secret police) to ensure the survival of the revolution. This was in direct contrast with the teachings of Marx, who never outlined the use of terror in his works, and early Russian Marxists such as Plekhanov would have vehemently opposed violence. The most obvious sign was the increased use of the secret police, with an official figure of 6,300 executions in 19188 probably an underestimation. The use of the Cheka and the Red Army to control the population became known as “the Terror”, and was often used as a weapon of class war. This was illustrated by the murder of the Romanov family on Lenin’s order, in a manner typical of the way in which the Cheka operated in this period: summary execution without trial. One calculation gives the figure of 140,000 people executed by the Cheka between December 1917 and February 1922, compared to only 14,000 killed by the tsarist equivalent, the Okhrana9. It was in this area that Lenin showed a marked detraction from the views of many Bolsheviks, although certainly those he had outlined in his early writings, in favour of a more pragmatic approach. The development of the system of administration in government was also a cause for concern to Lenin and others such as Trotsky, as there were fears that the bureaucracy would not be working whole-heartedly in the interests of the revolution. This came about mainly due to the fact that the state had actually grown in size and power after the transfer to socialism, not withered away as Lenin had said would happen.
There have been several characteristics of the Bolshevik state that have been described as signs of an increasing authoritarian nature; and the more authoritarian, the less communist it would be. These include the imposition of state control over the Soviets, necessary to increase production and maintain discipline in the civil war; the creation of a one-party state (always one of Lenin’s aims); and the use of terror as described above. These were all implemented to maintain the Bolshevik position and prevent counter-revolution, however, which was clearly the overriding priority for the entire time Lenin was in power, right up to his death in 1924, and as such, in the party’s view, were entirely justifiable. As already shown, Lenin was prepared to compromise ideology with pragmatism and especially where internal or external threats to the regime could be dealt with, often wrapping up policy in ideological packages. These could then later be unwrapped to reveal the truth; that such action was necessary even if it did not strictly comply with the ideas of Marx or other Bolsheviks, which frequently turned out to be the case. Lynch says that “no regime placed in the Bolshevik predicament between 1917 and 1921 could have survived without resorting to authoritarian measures”10, such as the increasing centralisation of government (evident in the renaming of the Soviet state as the USSR in 1922, replacing the loose RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic) of 1918: “the USSR was little more than the RSFSR writ large, and represented an extension of the central authority of Moscow”11) as the civil war required it to possess immediate decision-making abilities. This once again illustrates the practical considerations Lenin had to take into account in this period, which did mean that ideology had to be sidelined – although always followed where possible.
The Bolshevik Party inherited a dire economic situation in 1917. This was greatly exacerbated by the continuation of the war. Lenin risked dissent within the party by seeking an end to the war as quickly as possible, at any cost, resulting in the extremely harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918. This was a particularly keenly felt blow as 32 per cent of Russia’s agricultural land, 34 per cent of her population and 54 per cent of her industry was lost12. The treaty was accepted despite the fact that some Bolsheviks were willing to fight on, because Lenin realised the reality of the political and military situation (i.e. the imminent civil war), showing that the Bolshevik leader was not only subject to ideological considerations but was more of a realist. This pragmatic approach meant that compromise with Communist principles, in Lenin’s view, was acceptable to keep the revolution alive and prevent counter-revolution. In other words, the survival of the revolution was the uppermost priority to Lenin during the formative years of the Soviet state. The signing of the treaty also showed the crucial role Lenin played in the new Bolshevik government, as the decision was only finally made when he threatened to resign – and if it was alright with Lenin, the rest of the party would go along with it, in spite of personal differences or varying opinions in private.
The period known as “state capitalism”, the first few months after the revolution when Lenin was content to let the existing system continue under state supervision, sparked disagreement between the Bolsheviks. This was due to the lack of precedent, and Lenin now faced the task of turning capitalism into socialism, whilst his party and support base disagreed on the correct path to follow. The situation facing the new government necessitated a clear and direct economic policy, as all efforts needed to be directed towards the prosecution of the civil war. The result was “war communism”, designed to help defeat the Whites in the war. The nationalisation, direction of labour and abolition of private trade was included in this policy, and was seen by many as the application of Communist ideology as intended. Nationalisation of industry did not take place at this point, however, as Marx would have done, although this did occur with financial services such as banking. This reflects the short-term program intended by the Bolsheviks, and shows that the particular situation at that time (civil war) forced rapid reforms to be made, faster than many in the party, including Lenin, would have liked. On the other hand, Lenin saw war communism as a temporary measure, as Russia was nowhere near ready for such radical change; the return of the rank system into the Red Army and re-introduction of factory managers showed that some ideological ideas were not workable at this point. The historian Stephen J. Lee, despite only being a textbook historian, not specialising in this topic, and therefore being less useful, saw the failure of war communism as “imminent”13, due to inadequate planning and opposition to reacquisition of grain from the peasantry, describing this first attempt at state control as “ineffectual” and an impediment to the war effort (thus necessitating its reversal).
By 1920, the perception of the real world for many Bolsheviks had been wildly distorted. An example was the sending of the Red Army into Poland, and it was expected to encourage world revolution, as the Polish would see the Soviet invaders as proletarian brothers rather than Russian aggressors. On the economic side, rampant inflation and the devaluation of the currency was confused with the withering away of money under Communism14 – it was clear to the realistic Lenin that this spirit of over-enthusiasm needed to end.
As war communism had resulted in decline in output (only 13% of the 1913 production level was reached in 1921), the Kronstadt mutiny threatened the Bolshevik position in 1921 and the civil war was by then all but won, the scheme was abandoned and the New Economic Policy (NEP) was begun. This returned a degree of capitalism and private enterprise to the economy, along with the restoration of the currency and the replacement of compulsory reacquisition with regulations allowing peasants to dispose of their surplus as they wished. Although socialist principles were included, such as promoting collective farms and encouraging people to move away from private ownership, the main emphasis was on recovery, which required patience. In the mid-term, the NEP succeeded in restoring the economy to pre-war levels, but also posed the problem of long-term policy, as it was really more capitalist than communist in nature. Lee goes as far as to suggest that thinking in only ideological terms at this late point would be “naïve”, possibly another reason for the pragmatic approach taken by Lenin. The NEP divided the Bolshevik party from the very beginning, with “rightists” such as Bukharin arguing for a continuation of the policy for the foreseeable future with emphasis on agriculture. “Leftists” (including Trotsky and Preobrazhensky), who believed rapid industrialisation was more important, and therefore wanted the NEP to end as soon as possible so that a more refined form of war communism could be employed, opposed this view. The NEP can also be seen as a reflection on the validity of Bolshevik ideology, almost an admission that Lenin could have been wrong in his belief that the Russian economy was ready for socialism without the period of capitalist development outlined by Marx15.
The balance between pragmatism on the part of Bolshevik leaders and ideology has long been a source of debate, as either explanation is possible. Indeed, the Bolsheviks themselves changed their stance on this issue, initially using ideology to justify war communism, for example by Bukharin and Preobrazhensky in 1919 in their ABC of Communism, and then preferring to ignore this when abandoning the scheme and switching to the New Economic Policy in 1921. Lee has described Lenin’s methods as “trial and error…a changeable mixture of ideology and pragmatism”16, which seems to be reflected in the change to the NEP. Lee also explains Lenin’s view of this being a temporary measure as little more than an excuse for the utter failure of war communism rather than a legitimate reason, but this merely reinforces Lenin’s pragmatism and shows that he only covered the failure to protect the regime. Although industry had largely recovered from the pre-NEP depression by Lenin’s death in 1924, there was no guarantee of economic stability as debate over whether the NEP really represented the aspirations of the Soviet state, i.e. how far it conformed to communist ideals, continued, and it is argued that Bolshevik economic policy at this time was reactionary and never structured. The period 1917 – 1924 revealed the huge gap between ideology and economic reality, with the necessity of survival meaning an inevitable detraction from Marxist theory. Yes, Lenin “abandoned” (or, rather, temporarily detracted from) communist principles when dealing with the economy, but ideology was always his second priority compared with keeping the revolution alive. This is reflected when he said he was prepared “to let the peasants have their little bit of capitalism as long as we keep the power”17.
Society and culture:
There are several views that historians take towards the period following the revolution regarding Russian society and culture. There are those who argue that the scale of the problems facing the Bolsheviks explain and/or justify the measure taken in relation to or against the population. Others point to the nature of Marxist-Leninism, arguing that repression is an inevitable part of any ideology that regards itself as superior to all others. Another is that Lenin himself had always accepted that terror was necessary as an instrument of social control, and that he allowed his zeal for class struggle to dominate his thoughts. This then was the main impact of the revolution on society, the ensuing “terror” that Lenin had often made clear he endorsed, despite the obvious difference with Marx this made.
A series of assassinations, for example of the German ambassador by Social Revolutionaries (SRs), and an attempt on Lenin’s life in 1918 were the pretext for this reign of terror, with no restrictions placed on the activity of the Cheka and of the Red Army, which were the instruments used by the Bolsheviks to control the population. At the time most party members advocated such repression, once again due to the hazardous situation in relation to the survival of the revolution. Dzerzhinsky, for example, believed that the only way to save the revolution was by “exterminating the enemies of the working class”18. This is in clear violation of what Marx believed, as never was violence mentioned in his works, and is often pointed out as part of the essentially authoritarian rather than socialist nature of the regime.
There is an example of how a particular section of Russian society felt about the status of communist Russia by 1921. There had already been opposition to war communism within the party, the “Workers Opposition”, but this was especially worrying as the section of society involved were the sailors at the Kronstadt naval base, who had been staunch supporters of the revolution in 1917, named by Trotsky as “heroes of the revolution”19. The uprising called for “soviets without communists”, reflecting the extent of opposition to the regime in that area (Petrograd - the birthplace of the revolution). Here were genuine socialists rebelling against the government that had betrayed its founding principles, and therefore its leader, Lenin, must have abandoned these principles. Not a small extent either, but so much so that the very people who had first supported the Bolsheviks were now opposing them. This is clear evidence that the government, and thus Lenin, detracted from Marxist ideology to a large degree. Also, following the crushing of the rebels, although Lenin did learn from the episode (as it led to the NEP later that year), calling it the “flash that lit up reality better than anything”20, no political concessions were made, only economic, in order to relieve the famine. In the words of Lynch, “the screw of Communist control was turned even tighter”21. Or, in the words of Plekhanov, “Lenin re-defined the dictatorship of the proletariat as dictatorship OVER the proletariat”22.
The Russian Orthodox Church was a fairly strong institution in Russia at that time, and it was necessary for the Bolsheviks to considerably reduce its power as it was very much seen as a feature of the tsarist regime. Therefore harsh measures were taken during the civil war, but worship was allowed to continue when the situation was safer, as there was an unwillingness to interfere too deeply. Islam was strong in the Central Asian areas of Russia, representing the problems of controlling such a vast and varied country. Here interference was minimal, despite a weak attempt to spread communist ideas using parts of the Koran, and a decision was reluctantly made to tolerate and not abolish religion. Marx saw religion as the “exploitation of human ignorance and credulity”23, and so would have tried to abolish it in Russia had he been in power. This toleration by the Bolsheviks is another concession to practicality over ideology in this sense, and once more shows how Lenin and his peers were willing to retreat on certain subjects.
It was impossible for Lenin and the Bolsheviks to maintain an ideologically pure policy in everything post-revolution. The practical problems were simply too great for this to be possible and the regime to be able to survive at the same time. Lenin was extremely dedicated to his personal brand of Marxism, but was essentially a realist far before he was an ideologist in his political life, and was the driving force behind the Bolshevik government’s willingness to compromise that was so often seen. This feature of the early communist regime remained constant throughout this period. Such a pragmatic approach invariably led to criticism of Lenin from contemporaries and historians alike, but was undoubtedly a major factor in the success and survival of the world’s first communist revolution.
The extent to which the Bolsheviks abandoned communist principles was noticeable to the general population, as shown by the Kronstadt mutiny of 1921. It is fair to say, however, that the Soviet government tried to implement ideological policies where it could, shown by their early efforts, such as state-run industry. It was only ever the absolute necessity of remaining the world’s first communist state that dictated when pragmatism had to be applied.
Carr making a persuasive case on this point. The policies may have seemed to be more authoritarian than one would expect in a communist society, but it was practicality and not abandonment of principle that determined this. Lenin the man was certainly a committed communist right up to his death (his Testament of 1922 warned against the rise of a dictator, so appalled was he at the idea), even if his actions in government did not reflect this; ideology can never be viable in every situation. It can also be seen that after his death in 1924 Bolshevik policy becomes less obviously tied to ideology. Such a shift is visible due to the large personal role Lenin played in formulating most policies.
Despite this, though, the fact remains that the Marxist principles on which Communist Russia was founded were abandoned to a substantial degree. The exact extent will always be subjective and open to interpretation. Robert Service (who has had access to post-USSR archives from 1991 and has therefore had a deeper insight than many others) says Lenin was “mercurially difficult to comprehend”24 in this respect, which is why opinion of him is so varied. It is unlikely that Russia would have been communist for so long without policies such as the NEP, but Lenin was nonetheless forced to abandon his principles for the greater good. He would not have liked doing so, of course, but he did. This abandonment was by no means complete, but nor was it only minor. Lenin was faced with the stark reality of events during his reign from 1917 to 1924 and dealt with them the only way he could, “political warrior”25 that he was - ideology be damned.
1 Stephen J Lee: The European Dictatorships 1918-1945 (1987), Chapter 2, page 39.
2 Lee, ibid.
3 Solzhenitsyn: Gulag Archipelago (1974).
4 E. Mandel: “Solzhenitsyn, Stalinism and the October Revolution”, New Left Review, 86 (1974).
5 Steve Phillips: Lenin and the Russian Revolution (2000), Chapter 12, page 123.
6 Robert Service: Lenin, A Biography (2000), Chapter 23, page 410
7 Lee, op.cit, Chapter 19, page 178.
8 Phillips, op. cit, page 129.
9 Lee: The European Dictatorships 1918 - 1945 (1987), Chapter 2, pages 34/35.
10 Lynch, op. cit, Chapter 6, page 116.
11 E. H. Carr: cited in Lynch, ibid.
12 Phillips, op. cit, Chapter 5, pages 39/40.
13 Stephen J. Lee: Aspects of European History 1789-1980 (1982), Chapter 29, page 267.
14 Sheila Fitzpatrick: The Russian Revolution (1994), Chapter 3, page 84.
15 Phillips, op. cit, Chapter 13, page 128.
16 Lee, op. cit, page 266.
17 Michael Lynch: Reaction and Revolutions: Russia 1821 – 1824 (2000), Chapter 7, page 135.
18 Lynch, ibid, page 118.
19 Lynch, ibid, page 123.
20 Anthony Wood: The Russian Revolution (1986), Chapter 6, page 61.
21 Lynch, op. cit, page 124.
23 Rius: Marx for Beginners (1976), Dictionary, page 152.
24 Service, op.cit.
25 Service, ibid., Introduction, page 8.