The Myth and Reality of Communism
Schools of thought: The Liberal perspective
The Liberal view was largely concerned where Russia had deviated from a potential path to democracy and the Western model of economic development. Liberal historians were eager to criticise the Soviet view as little more than propaganda. There was a particular dislike of Lenin. He was seen as a figure who had duped the Russian people by his false promises of ‘power to the Soviets’, ‘Peace, Bread and Land’: he made no concessions of power, he gave Russia years of civil war, he created a famine in 1920-1 and he intended to nationalise the land (that is, take it out of private ownership). The leadership of Russia was the main focus of many studies and naturally so, for the Tsar had been the key decision-maker before the revolution, and Lenin one of the key players after it. The Tsar was regarded as an inept and unfortunate man, but Lenin was an ambitious and ruthless individual. Far from humble origins, he was a middle class intellectual driven by a desire for revenge when his brother was executed for terrorism. Lenin exploited the unrest in Russia to pursue his own ideological agenda, and in the name of his ideology, thousands were killed or reduced to a form of servitude and fear. The democratic institutions of free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience and a free press, on which the West was based, were suppressed. Secret police were given a license to act against any citizen and were only accountable to one party. The emphasis on leadership also tended to mean that Liberal studies were focussed on events in St Petersburg and Moscow.
The Liberal school of thought had different approaches within it
Within the Liberal school of thought, there were many variations and ideas. The ‘optimists’ view, seen in the work of A Gerschenkron, was that the fall of the Tsars had not been inevitable and that democracy may have flourished but for the First World War and the exceptional conditions it threw up. Theodore von Laue took a ‘Pessimists’ line, concluding that the forces arraigned against democracy were too great and that a revolution at some time or another had been inevitable. Whatever their variation, Liberal historians of the West were generally critical of the brutality and deception of the Bolsheviks, rejecting the ‘inevitability’ of Soviet victory and the exaggerated views of Lenin. In the final analysis, Lenin seemed to be consumed by a desire for revenge and power and his adherence to the false principles of Marxist brought years of fear and misery to Russia and the wider world.
The Libertarians were dissatisfied with the emphasis on leadership
The Left wing historians of the West were unhappy that most studies seemed to be concerned only with the events in St Petersburg or the leaders. They were concerned to retrieve the ‘real’ revolution that had occurred at grass roots level. Placing the focus on the people, Libertarians examined the peasants, the urban workers and events in the provinces of Russia and the old Tsarist Empire. Where Liberals pointed out that the October Revolution had been a coup d’etat by a minority, Libertarians instead suggested that the real revolution had been quietly going on in the countryside from February 1917, as peasants seized land and took reprisals against former landowners. Libertarians wee nevertheless unconvinced by the rigid interpretations offered by the Marxists. The danger of seeing everything as being economically determined and the proletarian victory as inevitable was that it tended to deprive the Russians of any freedom of action in history. They were made to appear as bit players in a drama, which obeyed the iron laws of Marxist history. With this approach, the Libertarians had a point. At times, even the Bolsheviks did not look as if they were in control of events and the masses’ had played a key role at certain moments: the February Revolution in Petrograd, the defence of Petrograd against Kornilov, and the Russian Civil War. The chief problem with the Libertarian view is that one cannot write the decision-makers completely out of the history of this period. The people were important, but often they were simply reacting to events too, and relatively few took part in the Bolshevik coup in October, which, like it or not, changed the direction of Russian history.
How Russian history has changed
Since the opening of the Soviet archives and the collapse of communism in Russia, the focus has been on re-examining the Soviet era, rather than the period before the revolution. There has been much criticism of the revolutionaries, but equally there has been no attempt to portray the Tsarist system in a more positive light. This is because the openness of Russian society before 1917 made it possible to study the old system, but the Soviet era documents were hidden. The new archives have revealed fresh details which had been deliberately concealed. The opening of the archives, which is still not complete, is a metaphor for events in Russia since the 1980s. The USSR collapsed primarily because the centrally planned economy broke down under its own inefficiency and corruption. To sort out the mess, Mikhail Gorbachev gambled on a new political openness or glasnost. Revealing problems honestly and openly was supposed to make the Soviet Union more efficient through restructuring or perestroika. In fact, the system could not cope. There were demonstrations, unprecedented criticisms in all the media and an unwillingness to co-operate any longer. The mood was sensed in the Eastern Bloc too and the Berlin Wall was torn down by the crowds. The Soviet Union began to crack up as each of the national minorities asserted their independence. In the case of the archives then, the openness of the sources has exposed the corruption and lies of the Soviet Union. Far from being the great paradise for the workers that communism promised, it was a dreary, inefficient and restrictive place. Foreigners were carefully monitored, the secret police kept up a constant observation and the party ruled all.
The Revisionists offer a fresh alternative
The most difficult group to categorise is the revisionist one, for there is barely a consensus within it. Nevertheless, broadly speaking revisionists are those historians who challenge an existing orthodoxy. In the case of Russian history, revisionists take issue with all the other schools of thought. They are critical of the Marxist reliance on rigid theory and propaganda, and equally dissatisfied that Lenin should be condemned as a man incapable of leadership or influence. Revisionists seem to acknowledge the role of the people, but do not wish to exaggerate their role. In many ways, what revisionists are aiming for is a version of Russian history that can be separated from ‘agendas’ or ideologies. This era of Russian history should be treated dispassionately, using the sources that are now available to reappraise what really happened and why. Revisionists aim to weigh up and assess the most important factors in their relative importance, rather than their ideological significance. Thus Lenin, for example, can be seen neither as the faultless hero of Marxist myth, nor the charlatan adventurer of the Liberal view, but as an historical significant individual sometimes influencing events and sometimes reacting to matters thrust upon him. As more material on Lenin is discovered, and new biographies are published (like the one by Robert Service) a clearer picture of the man is emerging. He was driven by a curious mixture of revenge, deep intellectual convictions and bloody-mindedness. In this sense, he was perhaps closer to Stalin than previously thought.
There is a danger of caricature in Russian history
In some circumstances, it is easy to forget the important comparisons with the West. Russia was autocratic for much of its history, but so were some countries in Europe. When Tsar Alexander II emancipated the serfs of Russia, for example, he did so two years before the United States ended slavery. Tsarist Russia does not look so brutal when one recalls it was only the educated ‘troublemakers’ who were affected by the Ochrana (the secret police). Given Lenin’s and Stalin’s brutal record later, was it not reassuring to think that both of these men were known to the Tsarist secret police as dangerous individuals? In Britain, the most notorious Irish terrorists were known to the British police force in the same way. Russia’s economic backwardness is easily blamed on the Russians, but it was also in part the result of British and French, and later German and American, strangleholds on maritime commerce over continental resources. A lack of capital precluded investment and development at the same rate as the United Kingdom.
Russia was not a failure but achieved much
By the twentieth century, Russia’s continental resources, which had been freed up, allowed it to match the West, and enabled the Soviet Union to emerge as one of the three great superpowers of the twentieth century. It was also able to sustain two and a half years of total war against the world’s most powerful army, and her allies, on two fronts, between 1914 and 1917, and again in 1941-45, the second time victoriously. The February and October revolutions may appear to have been unfortunate episodes, but these were attempts at real liberation by the people themselves, a liberation caused by the suffering of the war rather than being the fault of the Russians themselves. All the western powers were suffering the same kinds of problems in 1918, and endured hardships just like the Russians in 1941-45.