The Greeks are credited with inventing the concept of democracy. This was evident in the establishment of city-states were ordinary people – those who are not part of the nobility – can help shape policies that would in turn affect every aspect of city life. It is therefore interesting to find out that one of the most popular Greek scholars, Plato, was opposed to the idea of democracy. His magnum opus The Republic is a testament to this fact. But what is more interesting is the realization that the former Russian Empire was transformed into a communist state based on the ideas found in Plato’s book. Men like Karl Marx, Lenin, and Stalin were influenced by the ideas of government and leadership found in The Republic. These ideas inspired them to create of one of the most dreaded and most important regimes in 20th century, the former Union Soviet Socialist Republic.
The rationale and the motivation to study the former USSR stems from the fact that in its heyday it was one of the most feared as well as respected regimes in modern history. The armed forces of the Soviet Union can only be rivalled by the military might of the United States of America. The said communist regime was the first to launch a man into space and aside from that they were in possession of a significant number of nuclear warheads, enough to destroy the Western world. But this is merely the tip of the iceberg. What makes the USSR an interesting topic is the realization that this regime can trace its roots to Plato, one of the most respected philosophers of antiquity. This study will attempt to probe the connection between the Soviet Union and Plato’s The Republic.
This can be achieved by using Karl Popper’s book The Open Society and Its Enemies as the starting point for discussion. Afterwards additional works from other historians and commentators will be used to achieve a balanced analysis of Plato’s work especially with regards to the claim that the development of Communism as a political doctrine can be traced to Plato. Thus, it will be revealed that Communism started from noble intentions, a passionate desire to build Utopia but only to taste bitter defeat after the said social experiment failed.
The idea that the communist doctrine was shaped in part by the principle emanating from the discourse in Plato’s The Republic came after reading the Karl Popper’s Open Society. In the said work, Popper was able to show that historians and political scientists misunderstood Plato. He began his attack by saying that many were misled by the title of Plato’s masterpiece. Popper asserted that the Latin term was erroneously interpreted as Republic giving the false idea that Plato was eager to establish something akin to a democratic society.
Popper said that it should be translated as The Constitution or The State for there is no English equivalent that can give justice to what Plato intended to say. Popper retorted that this is a major error and he proposed that at the core of the Republic are ideas that will lead to a totalitarian state. Popper supported this claim by pointing out that according to Plato:
1. There must be a strict division of the classes;
2. There must be a ruling class;
3. The ruling class has a monopoly of things like the right to be trained, educated and carry other privileges but with the exception of having no ability to acquire wealth;
4. All innovation in education, legislation, and religion must be prevented or suppressed (Popper, 1971);
5. The state must be self-sufficient and must abhor international cooperation for it will weaken the state.
An analysis of Russian society when it was under the rule of the Communist Party bore an uncanny resemblance to what Plato had in mind when envisioning a perfect society ruled by a ruling class. It must be made clear that adherents to communism made some changes but it cannot be denied that Plato’s idea of justice, exceptional leadership, and a utopian society was also at the core of the communist doctrine giving its supporters the carte blanche to subdue the Russian populace in order to attain their goals of building a just and humane society.
The first thing that must be considered is how communism modified Plato’s idea of a utopian society. While Plato proposed that the ruling class should be composed of highly-trained and highly-educated people, the communists believed that the proletariat – the working class composed of farmers, factory workers, etc. – can be the new rulers of society. This was a noble aspiration considering the impact of the Age of Industrialization to Europe where the rich became richer while the poor became more destitute. This made it easy to understand why communism became a very popular idea. But in reality the farmers and the factory workers did not have what it takes to rule. Lenin and Stalin were members of the intelligentsia. Both men had access to higher education and should never be mistaken as members of the proletariat.
It is only in the distinction of the classes and the dominance of ruling elite where Plato and communism differ significantly. But with regards to the rest of Plato’s discourse concerning the creation of a just society it can be argued that communist Russia seemed to copy what Plato proposed in The Republic. Take for instance Plato’s assertion that rulers must strive to maintain the natural state of society. According to Karl Popper, Plato believed that, “Change is evil … change can be arrested if the state is made an exact copy of its original, i.e. of the Form or Idea of the city” (Popper, 1971). In the early days of the USSR the main motivation of the establishment of a communist regime was to combat the radical changes that resulted from rapid industrialization.
According to one commentator, when communism began to spread in Russia, many were well aware that, “In England, France, and Germany, modernization had been demoralizing and injurious to many since the first part of the nineteenth century” (Wesson, 1978). Thus, the Russian people clamored for a form of government that will save them from this tragedy, “The anguished outcry of Populism was largely an effort to save Russian virtues and the Russian soul from the evils of capitalism” (Wesson, 1978). So when communism came into the picture the Russian people embraced it without realizing that it will not lead to Utopia but to hell.
In order to convince the people that communist ideals are much better than democracy and monarchy it was necessary to demonstrate the wickedness of these two systems. The main goal was to expose the weakness of the Russian monarchy and to withdraw support from the Russian Emperor. In the first quarter of the 20th century Lenin and his cohorts succeeded in destroying the old form of government but instead of creating a system where the proletariat had the authority to chart their own destiny, the communist regime inadvertently followed the suggestion of Plato and created a ruling elite. It was misleading because the ruling class was called the Communist Party yet the outside world was not deceived it was very clear that this is merely a new interpretation of an ancient form of government which is the rule of the few.
Aside from creating a ruling elite that was worse than the previous Russian monarchy the Soviet Union was forced to suppress the innovation and expansion in religion and education, just as Plato had suggested. The significant improvements made by the USSR was linked to military expansion e.g. high-tech weaponry, the quest to send manned spacecraft outside the earth’s atmosphere etc. There was no significant program that led to the creation of a better state. Aside from that there was a paranoid attempt to be self-sufficient and the Soviets abhor international cooperation especially when it came to fostering healthy relationships with Western countries.
As a result the Soviet Union came very close to fulfilling what Plato envisioned in The Republic with only one major problem, the social experiment that was communism failed. It did not create a utopian society and on the contrary critics minced no words in exposing the hypocrisy and the arrogance of the communists as seen in one commentary, “Seven decades have passed since the Bolsheviks came to power, but Soviet society is still poorer than the capitalist West and not very egalitarian, either. Alas, much of the history of the USSR may be thought of in terms of social catastrophe – war, famine, poverty, heartless administration, and militaristic expansion” (Matthews, 1989). Lenin and Stalin did not set out to copy Plato’s vision of a just society but in their bid to form a society unlike any other they inadvertently followed the suggestion of Plato, to create a ruling class, to suppress radical changes, and to use all means necessary to build heaven on earth.
It can be argued that Lenin and Stalin did not set out to create a government based on Plato’s The Republic. This is based on the fact that Plato favored the creation of a ruling class emanating from nobility, whereas communism believed that the proletariat must overcome the moneyed class in order to build a just and humane society where everyone has equal opportunity to enjoy life. Yet in their desire to create a government unlike any other they inadvertently followed the prescription of Plato.
The only thing that they modified from The Republic is one that pertains to the ruling class and yet the Communist Party was just a new name to an old concept which is the rule of the elite. It was no egalitarian society; the members of the Communist Party had privileges that were unavailable to the masses. At the end the communist regime was exposed for its hypocrisy, preaching equality but in reality creating a totalitarian society not ruled by kings and princes but by a group of men intent to dominate the whole Russian populace. It was a clever use of Plato’s ideas but at the end it was a failed social experiment.