[Partly edited--November 19,
2012 and November 18, 2013]
THE RISE OF COMMUNISM IN RUSSIA
Woodrow Wilson promised the American people that WW I would "make
the world safe for democracy." It didn't. Instead, World
War I led directly to the creation of some of the most tyrannical
regimes the world has ever seen. One of the disturbing things
about the 20th century is that it was not a century that saw the
universal spread of freedom and democracy. Instead, over and over
again, democratic governments and proto-democratic governments gave way
to what we call totalitarianism.
Now there are lots of "flavors" of totalitarianism: Communism, Fascism,
and National Socialism among others. There are differences among
these different types of totalitarianism, but they all have in common
certain things. Most important, a totalitarian system allows no
check on the authority of government.
Now there had been autocratic governments in earlier history, e.g.,
absolute monarchy in France under Louis XIV and Prussia under Frederick
William. But in a totalitarian system, the government goes much
farther than a ruler like Louis XIV would ever have imagined. Partly,
the totalitarian governments go farther because they can: only in the
20th century did technological advances make possible the degree of
control of all aspects of life that totalitarian governments
implemented. Also, it's not until the 20th century that governments
start putting into practice the *total* transformation of society
dreamed of by men like Hegel, Nietzsche, and Marx in the 19th century.
[The Convention phase of the
French Revolution did give a hint as to what was to come, but this was
a short-lived experiment]
So what leads to totalitarianism? Over and over and over
again in the 20th century, people had the idea that all of our problems
could be solved by the government. Got economic problems? Let the
government fix them. Got social problems? Let the
government fix them. Not happy? Let the government make you happy.
Now if you want the government to solve all your problems, how strong
should government be? The stronger the better, right? Well,
that's what totalitarianism is about: strengthen the power of
government, and let the government create a heaven on earth.
But there is a problem here. Lord Acton said that power tends to
corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And he was right:
the more powerful government gets, the more corrupt it becomes, and
when there is no check at all on government authority, government
invariably does horrible things.
Thomas Jefferson is supposed to have said, "That government is best
least." That's probably not a genuine Jefferson line, but the sentiment
is certainly Jeffersonian. Our own country was founded on the
principle of *limited*
government. Now one would think that seeing how well
limited government worked for America and how disastrous
totalitarianism has been over and over again, people would get the
idea. But the totalitarian temptation just doesn't go away, and in the
21st century it's as strong as ever.
The rise of Communism in Russia is an excellent example of the
disturbing nature of totalitarianism. It's disturbing especially
because Russia seemed to be moving in such a different direction.
In the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th
century, the Russian economy was growing by leaps and bounds.
Russia was industrializing at a very rapid pace. In
addition, Russian culture flourished with outstanding writers like
Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and outstanding musicians as well. Also,
Russia began to take some slight steps in the direction of
democracy. The Tsars began working with what the Russians call
the "Duma," a body like British parliament.
[Until he was
Stolypin encouraged the Tsar in some vital agricultural
reforms, reforms that may well have prevented the revolutions that
followed. There's no room to talk about Stolypin in the Civ
those of you who are history majors ought to learn something about what
he tried to do.]
Unfortunately for them and their country, they Tsars didn't work
closely enough with Duma, particularly during WWI. The war was so
difficult (and so important!), that Nicholas
II felt he had to guide the war effort directly. He moved closer
to the German front, leaving the day-to-day government in the hands of
wife Alexandra. Alexandra-- because of her worries about her
hemophiliac son--fell under the influence of the disreputable charlatan
This contributed to the increasing unpopularity of Alexandra and, by
association, Nicholas himself. The Duma in particular criticized
the conduct of the royal family, so much so that, in early 1917, he
gave orders to disband the Duma. The Duma refused to disband and
riots broke out in the streets of Petrograd (St. Petersburg).
Nicholas abdicated in favor
of his brother Michael (who *wanted* to work with an elected
assembly). One day as Tsar was enough for Michael, and he too
abdicated, surrendering his power to a provisional government led by
This should have been the beginning of democracy in Russian. The
provisional government immediately lifted censorship, got rid of harsh
punishments, and issued guarantees fundamental rights.
Unfortunately, the provisional government didn't get the chance to show
what it could do.
The Germans, trying everything possible to cripple the Russian war
effort, shipped back to Russia a revolutionary leader named Lenin--and
apparently financed his Bolsheviks.
Lenin and his party wanted to see Russia move, not in
the direction of Democracy, but in the direction of Marxist Communism.
The Bolsheviks did everything possible to destabilize the country,
committing acts of terrorism and sabotage. They undermined the war
effort, telling Russian troops to lay down arms--no point in fighting a
"bourgeoise" war. Most insidious, they keep calling on the
provisional government to HOLD ELECTIONS--not because the believed in
elections, but to undermine faith in a government supposedly not
adhering to its own principles.
Well, elections were held, and the Bolsheviks lost. That didn't matter
to them: the seized power in Moscow and St. Petersburg and from
their bases in these cities gained control
of the whole country. They put an end to the war,
unconditionally to the Germans [see the details in the WW I lecture],
and concentrated on cementing their control of Russia.
Seizing power is one thing, holding on to it something else,
and there was, initially, much opposition to Bolshevik control.
The result: a bloody civil war in which the Whites
(non-Communists) fought the Reds (Communists). The Whites
probably should have won. They had America, Britain, France on their
side. But the Western democracies were tired of fighting and struggling
with their own problems. The various constituencies that made up the
"White" forces often had very different interests and couldn't stay
united. And Lenin had the fervent support from
peasants (who thought they were going to get land of their own) and
factory workers, who believed the promise of worker's paradise.
Once in control, Lenin began immediately to give them their
paradise, instituting as much as possible the ideas
of Marx. Instead of increasing individual liberty, as a
democratic leader would have done, he did everything he could to
increases the power of the state. To do so, he worked to control
or destroy those institutions that might challenge government authority.
1. He worked to limit the power and influence of the
Church. Teaching anyone under 16 about Christ became a capital
offense. Priests were imprisoned and executed--as was anyone standing
faith. Church buildings were seized by the state for its own
purposes. The Kremlin buildings in Moscow--built as churches--became
the symbol of Communist dominance. Some churches were allowed to
remain open, but only under the control of priests and officials
appointed and approved by the Communist authorities.
2. He adopted policies to destroy the traditional family. Divorce
was made easy. So called "free love" was encouraged. The
Communists preferred children born outside the traditional family
unit. Children were encouraged to inform on their parents if they
said anything critical of the government, a further measure to weaken
parental influence and authority. Why did they do this?
Well, in traditional families, kids tend to absorb their parents
values. Breaking up the family unit makes it possible to train children
with an entirely different set of values.
3. And to implement those new values--well, what better than the
schools? The Bolsheviks made the schools, not forums for the free
exchange of ideas, but institutions to indoctrinate students in Marxist
ideology. No more history in the schools. They were replaced by
[Totalitarians prefer people to be ignorant of history.]
4. The Bolsheviks also took over the arts, theater,
and literature for state purposes. Artists and writers who supported
Communist values got massive subsidies. Those who don't couldn't
show/publish their work at all.
5. Lenin began also to transform the economy on Marxist models.
confiscated much private property for government use. The state
took over the ownership of factories. Collective farms took the
place of privately owned farmland.
6. To ensure his continued to control, Lenin created the Cheka to
seek out and destroy potential opponents. No way he was going to
allow his enemies to destabilize his government using the techniques he
had used to destabilize Kerensky's provisional government! The
Cheka (later renamed the OGPU and still later the NKVD), was a huge
secret police force. Because no one knew who might be a Cheka
member, people became frightened of saying anything anywhere critical
of Lenin and his Bosheviks. Anyone denounced by a Cheka agent
found themselves in front of a secret tribunal where they could be
sentenced to imprisonment or death without any chance to adequately
defend themselves. The Cheka used frightful tortures to get its
victims to denounce others. The took people outside in freezing
weather, stripped them naked, poured boiling water over them, and then
let them freeze. Things were particularly bad during the
civil war as Russia went through the period of the "Red Terror," but
the Cheka and its successor organizations kept Russians in fear
throughout the period of Communist rule. Over 300 "Gulags" were
established in Siberia and elsewhere: huge concentration camps where
victims of the regime were held.
7. Lenin also took steps to spread the ideas of Marx elsewhere,
creating Comintern. This organization at first aimed at making
sure the all socialist parties everywhere in the world would move in
the direction of Marxist socialism rather than any other kind [note the long section in the Communist
Manifesto where Marx defends his kind of socialism against all others].
Later, Comintern would try to influence even "bourgeoise" parties,
trying (with some success) to get them to steer their countries in a
But did they have to do this? Wouldn't people world-wide embrace
Marxism once they saw the worker's paradise Marxism produced?
Well, it wasn't producing a paradise at all. The Russian
economy collapsed. Industrial output fell 80
per cent. Agricultural output fell 60 per cent. And even
Lenin realized changes had to
made. He adopted a New Economic Policy (the NEP), a policy that
allowed a measure of free enterprise. This quickly led to
economic recovery: by 1928, the Russian economy was back to its pre-WWI
levels. But there was one problem: this wasn't
communism. 75 per cent of the economy was in private hands.
was largely do to a group the Soviets called Kulaks, tight-fisted
It's unclear what Lenin would have done long term. He died in
1924, and, after a period
of uncertainty, a new dictator came to power: Joseph Stalin.
Stalin (Soviet dictator from 1928 until 1953) had at his disposal all
the means of totalitarian control devised by Lenin (see above).
In addition, he was determined to transform the Russian economy, to
turn Russia into a formidable industrial power. To do so, he
adopted a series of Five Year Plans, plans to transform Russia.
To carry out these plans, he needed money, and so Stalin reintroduced
the collectivization of agriculture. He did this partly because
Marx had said farms should be collectivized, but also because it made
it easy for him to seize the grain the farms produced. He then
sold the grain on foreign markets to get the money he needed for his
Resistance to collectivization was brutally put down. Note the
horrible things described in the "Harvest of Despair" video. [When there is time, we watch this
video in class. Otherwise, you can find it on YouTube.]
Millions in the Ukraine and elsewhere died in the
man-made famine brought about by forced collectivization
(1932-1933). Millions more died as Stalin purged both the
Communist party and the Soviet Union as a whole of any potential
opponents. Historians estimate that as many as 20 million people
died under Stalin, making him an even greater mass murderer than Adolf
And yet, despite all this, Stalin was literally worshipped by many of
his people. See, for instance this Hymn to
Stalin. There are all sorts of things disturbing about the story of
Stalin, but one of the most disturbing is the fact that such a man
could have such an extensive, devoted following. And,
unfortunately, the Stalin story isn't unique. Over and over again
in the 20th century, personality cults developed around equally
ruthless individuals (Mussolini, Hitler, Joseph Mobutu, Saddam
Hussein--the list goes on and on). Many, many people seem to have
a need for a secular savior--a need so deep that they not only excuse
the excesses of such a man, but applaud enthusiastically as he destroys