Stalinism, Czarism etc.

Wed Aug 10 12:51:48 MDT 1994

Apologies if I'm just playing out a depleted thread, but something hasn't
yet come up in the discussion of Marx's "responsibility" for Stalinism.
It's always seemed to me that what might be called the "Russian option"--
the idea that Stalin was after all nothing more than a crypto-Czar, a new
Ivan, that the drift of the Russian Revolution toward fascism was an
expression of something permanent (or at least of long duration) in the
Russian soul--was fundamentally a kind of mysticism, and as such no more
satisfying a historical explanation than the idealist one that has Lenin
"reading" Marx in the 1917 revolution and then Stalin "reading" and
responding to both of them in his own subsequent maneuverings.

A couple of months ago I read through Nikolai Sukhanov's riveting memoirs
of 1917 (Sukhanov was a leading figure in the February Soviet, a non-party
intellectual with left Menshevik leanings), and I came to be persuaded by
what I took to be his (largely implicit) explanation for the failure of
the February Revolution to proceed toward liberal democracy.  The Mensheviks
have usually been criticized for a politically immature, theoretically
rigid version of economism:  capitalism wasn't developed enough in Russia
in 1917, there weren't enough real proletarians in the mass of the
population to justify a proletarian revolution; hence the Mensheviks
refused to endorse and participate in the agitation of the workers in the
capital, leaving them to the leadership of the Bolsheviks.  Undoubtedly
that was a Menshevik line, even the dominant one, but it doesn't seem to
have been Sukhanov's.  Instead, he seems to have understood the fundamental
political problem facing the democratic parties, namely the absence in
Russia of a functioning, mass civil society.  There were simply no effec-
tive mechanisms in place to assure the conferral and transfer of political
legitimacy, the conduct of political agitation, by nonmilitary, nonterrorist
means.  Sukhanov's rapidly and increasingly frustrated efforts in the
Soviet Executive Committee were meant to provide a breathing space for the
development of a civil society, within and around the workers' movment,
but in retrospect his program looks foredoomed, which even he may have

It's in this special sense that Stalinism (through Leninism) can be said
to be the child of Czarism.  Czarism, itself an instrument of violence
(however haphazard it looks by comparison with Stalinism), had fatally
restricted the development of what might be called "ordinary" political
life, had created and fostered a counterterrorism in its own mechanisms
of terror; then it compounded that disaster with the disaster of a war
against Germany and the consequent destruction of the Russian economy.
In the dire emergency that existed by early 1917, no one but a Lenin--a
fundamentally unscrupulous opportunist with a conspiratorial bent--could
have consolidated a social revolution in Russia; of course his efforts to
consolidate what the Bolsheviks did in October extended and exacerbated
the emergency and failed, again, to create a structure of civil society
that might support any sort of liberal democracy (as far as I can tell, in
fact, Lenin never even posed the question as such).  Stalin made himself
into a crypto-Czar not because that was what the mass of the Russian
people were drawn to, nor because Czarism was something that Russian
society hadn't yet "outgrown," but because the ideological mechanisms by
which the Czars had maintained control of Russian society lay readiest
to hand and he had no scruples about using them--may even have considered
Communism to be the culminating phase of Great Russian history.  In any
case, Stalin was continuing the logic of a line of least resistance that
Lenin (and Trotsky, for that matter) had already laid down, a line whose
(tragic) opposite is represented by someone like Sukhanov.

Call this a Menshevik version of early Soviet history if you like; I
prefer to think of it as Gramscian.  But I'm not in any sense a Russian
historian, and if what I've just offered is skewed--or if somebody
respectable has said something better--I'd welcome correction.

I guess as a first-timer I should introduce myself:  I teach English at
Louisiana State U., mostly British poetry, mostly Romantics; I'm working
these days on a series of essays (just started) attempting to give an
account of Romanticism through the lens of Marxist cultural theory,
beginning with the analysis of commodity fetishism.  I did graduate work
at Yale, so I can say I know something practical about authoritarianism;
while I was there I worked as an organizer for GESO, the grad student labor
union still struggling to be born.  That's not just by way of Marxoid
credentials--it left me with a very lively interest in problems of
organization in labor-left politics.

Glad to have found you--

Michael Dietz


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