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Impact of the Russian revolution – Ideology matters Essay

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I. BACKDROP: GERMAN IDEALISM AND RUSSIAN REVOLUTIONARIES

German philosophers in the 19th century were often “Idealists,” that is to say that they maintained that ideas have a force, power, and reality that is more “real” than that concrete, reality that so consume us in our daily lives.

German idealism dominated the 19th-century Russian revolutionary movement from the Decembrist Revolt of 1825 until long after Lenin’s successful revolutionary coup that we call the October (or Bolshevik or Communist) Revolution of 1917.

While I never want to downplay the central role of raw hypocrisy in human affairs, much of what we in the United States have interpreted as hypocrisy in the Soviet Union-the dissonance between the profound humanism of Marx’s ideas and the coarse violence of the Stalinist dictatorship-this hypocrisy can also be seen as the desperate attempt to coerce reality through the power of belief-through the power of the Idea.

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And one way to interpret the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was that the Soviets had lost their ability to convince themselves that the Leninist/Stalinist Idea had the power to transform reality into a better future. With the collapse of this self-justifying, central Myth that legitimized the Soviet experience, the Soviet Union died not with a bang but rather whimpered into Lev Trotsky’s “dust bin of history.”

With this introduction, I would now like to offer three examples in the Russian Revolutionary experience where Ideas profoundly affected the future course of events. Only toward the end of the Twentieth Century have these effects begun to run out of steam.

II. THREE EXAMPLES

A. “MODERATE” SOCIALISM AND THE FEBRUARY REVOLUTION OF 1917

The first example involves the reaction of moderate socialists to the February Revolution in Petrograd in 1917.

Moderate Socialists, including the Marxist Mensheviks in contrast to Lenin’s Bolsheviks, had adopted a position that Russia was not yet ready for a Socialist Revolution; reading Marx’s Stages of History quite literally, they understood that the Bourgeois Revolution had to come first and had to take place under the leadership of the bourgeoisie. The working class movement thus had to be satisfied with playing the role of a party of the extreme opposition-the bourgeois revolution must come first and be developed, and the responsibility of the proletariat was to encourage this historical necessity.

Real consequences flowed from this belief. When the women, workers, and soldiers of Petrograd spontaneously took to the streets in February 1917, it took only several days for them to overthrow the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty. They then handed power they had won in the streets to their moderate socialist leadership-none of whom were philosophically or psychologically ready to assume the mantle of power. Consistent with their beliefs, the socialists in turn handed power to the bourgeoisie who established the Provisional Government. Not having the complete courage of their convictions, however, the moderate socialists also established the Petrograd Soviet which basically held veto-power over the actions of the bourgeois Provisional Government.

This “compromise” established the period of “Dual Power” which was inherently unstable. In retrospect, it is amazing that the Provisional Government, amidst the catastrophe of World War I, managed to hold on to power until October of 1917 when Lenin’s and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks managed a coup d’etat to take power.

Lenin, like his Menshevik cousins, was a Marxist, but his Marxism focused less on the determinist element of Marx’s Stages of History than on the ability of the individual to assert his will on history. For him, there was no need to wait patiently for the bourgeoisie to fulfill their historical duty at their own leisure; Bolshevism could force the pace. Lenin’s Will to Power and his belief in the power of the Idea to change reality made the difference between his success and the moderate socialists’ failure.

B. LENIN’S IMPERIALISM, THE HIGHEST STAGE OF CAPITALISM

The second example of the power of the Idea concerns Soviet influence on the developing world.

Lenin wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism in 1917, during the trials of the First World War and before the Bolshevik Revolution, to explain two crucial contradictions facing Marxists of the day.

The first contradiction concerned the delayed outbreak of the promised world revolution. After all, it had already been sixty-nine years since Marx in the Communist Manifesto had proclaimed that “A Specter is haunting Europe-the specter of Communism.” What had gone wrong?

The second failure of the Marxist promise involved the inability of the world’s proletariat to prevent war and its rejection of internationalism for nationalism. It had been a common belief among those of all political stripes from the far right to the far left, that socialist influence on the proletariat had made a major European war impossible. One of the central socialist beliefs was that wars are fought for the benefit of capitalist profits. Now, with the spread of democracy and the entry of powerful socialist parties into Europe’s parliaments, the capitalists could try to provoke war to their heart’s delight but would find it impossible to vote war credits through parliament or to mobilize soldiers who, following their socialist leadership, would refuse to fight. These ideas evoke memories of the anti-Vietnam War poster: “What if they gave a war and nobody came?”

Lenin’s ingenious answer to both questions came in his book, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. In it he argued that the concentration of production had transformed the capitalism of free competition into monopoly capitalism. The concentration of production also had dramatically increased the socialization of production. Big banks had changed from pure credit institutions into business banks and as such they dominated whole sectors of industry. Together the banks and industry were tied in with government. This coalescence of bank capital with industrial capital with strong government ties had led to the formation of a financial oligarchy that controlled large sections of the national economy.

Share issues and state loans had increased the power and amount of surplus capital which flowed beyond political frontiers and extended the financial oligarchy’s control to other countries. The capital exporting monopolies had divided the world among themselves; international cartels formed the basis for international relations, and the economic division of the world provided the ground for the struggle for colonies, spheres of influence, and world domination. But once the world was divided up, the struggle had become one for the repartitioning of the world. Because the economic development of individual countries is uneven and sporadic, some were left at a disadvantage in this repartitioning. Imperialism represented a special, highest, stage of capitalism.

The transition to a capitalism of this higher order was connected with an aggravation of contradictions, frictions, and conflicts. Monopolists assured profits by corrupting the upper stratum of the proletariat in the developed countries. The imperialist ideology permeated the working class. In other words, the burden of bourgeois oppression had been shifted from the shoulders of the domestic proletariat to those of the colonial peoples. In effect, the domestic proletariat had been bribed and they came to see that their material interests were tied up with colonial enterprise. Now, successful war to repartition the world in the favor of a particular nation made fighting war against fellow proletarians in other countries worthwhile.

With his theory, Lenin seemingly had explained those two problems with Marx. The revolution had not yet swept the world because the potential revolutionaries, the proletariat, had been bribed by the illusion of short-term, material gains to forget their true, long-term interests. They had rejected their class-based internationalism for nationalism because wars fought to expand colonial holdings appeared to be in their material self-interest. Hence they did not prevent the outbreak of the Great War.

This theory held long-term importance because Lenin, unlike Marx and Engels, did not see the revolutionary perspectives as centered uniquely upon advanced capitalist countries. After the Great War, in a period of “Capitalist Encirclement” the Soviets attacked “the weak link in the chain of imperialism,” the colonies. Political influence went to where the oppression was-the colonies.

In the colonial and post-colonial world after World War II, given the absence of an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie with the will and capacity to transform existing conditions and to overcome the entrenched interests opposed to full-scale development, a gospel of competitive individualism seemed useless for modernization to those in the Third World. What appeared to be needed to get the underdeveloped country moving has been collective effort inspired by a national sense of political purpose. Only governments had sufficient capital, organizational skills, and commitment to make rapid development possible. Ideologically, therefore, the intelligentsia of such countries gravitated to one or another of the various socialist doctrines-something that in general might be described as state capitalism, that is, the state and not private individuals perform the entrepreneurial duties of gathering land, labor, and capital for productive enterprise. Socialist rhetoric disguised this crucial essence.

For most of the twentieth century, Soviet Russia provided the model for those in the Third World who wished to rapidly modernize their countries. And rapid modernization was necessary for the sake of national prestige and independence. Russia’s success seemed obvious when we note that within forty short years Russia had risen from the ashes of World War I to defeat Hitler, to become one of the world’s two superpowers, and to be the first in space. Just as important as was this practical example was the vocabulary provided by Lenin.

That Marx himself had had little to say to the underdeveloped world mattered little. I would argue that many Third World leaders, for two contentious examples Ho Chi-Minh and Fidel Castro, who led revolutions to assert national pride, independence, and prosperity, turned to Communism because Lenin had provided a vocabulary with a coherent explanation for colonial degradation and a means for asserting national regeneration. Additionally, of the major powers, the Soviet regime alone more-or-less consistently supported the aspirations of those wishing to throw off the oppression of colonialism and capitalism. Of course, today, the Communist model no longer holds the same allure it once did.

C. TWO MARXIST HERESIES: LENINISM/STALINISM AND MUSSOLINI’S FASCISM

The final example of the power of ideas generated during World War I involves the intimate, kissing cousin-relationship between Stalinist Communism and Mussolini’s Fascism.

Despite facile assumptions, Fascism and Communism were not antipodes. Although their exact relationship remains difficult to define, there exist commonalties, as one author has pointed out:

Fascism was the heir of a long intellectual tradition that found its origins in the ambiguous legacy left to revolutionaries in the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Fascism was, in a clear and significant sense, a Marxist heresy. It was a Marxism creatively developed to respond to the particular and specific needs of an economically retarded national community condemned, as a proletarian nation, to compete with the more advanced plutocracies of its time for space, resources, and international stature.

Was this kind of self-awareness present as thinkers and politicians struggled to define these two ideologies as they co-developed earlier in this century? In fact, many did recognize that their common interests held much greater weight than did the Talmudic differences between Fascism and Communism.

Arturo Labriola’s Avanguardia Socialista of Milan by 1903 had become the forum for Italy’s Sorelian syndicalist revolutionaries, who were struggling to make Marx relevant and against reformist socialism. Such luminaries as Vilfredo Pareto and Benedetto Croce graced its pages, followed shortly by a second generation of Sorelian theoreticians, who came to dominate Italian radicalism for more than a generation. Together they constructed an alternative socialist orthodoxy, which they believed was the true heir to classical Marxism. Clearly, their ideas were no more heretical to those of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels than was Lenin’s Marxism.

By 1904 Mussolini, then a socialist agitator in Switzerland, had begun his collaboration with Avanguardia Socialista, a relationship he maintained for the next five years. The syndicalist contributors to the journal affected the future Duce’s intellectual and political development.

Radical syndicalists like A. O. Olivetti innovatively argued that, under retarded economic conditions, socialists must appeal to national sentiment if their ideas are to penetrate the masses. For him, both syndicalism and nationalism were dedicated to increasing production dramatically. As long as Italy remained underdeveloped, the bourgeoisie remained necessary to build the economic foundation requisite for a socialist revolution. Olivetti spoke of a national socialism, because in an underdeveloped economy, only the nation could pursue the economic development presupposed by classical Marxism.

When Mussolini took over as editor of the socialist paper, Avanti!, in December 1912, he attracted anarchists and even some rigid Marxists like Angelica Balabanoff, whom he took on as his assistant editor. Paolo Orano, who served on the editorial staff of Avanti!, along with other syndicalists like Sergio Panunzio, set the tone of that socialist paper. Mussolini also founded and edited Utopia from November 1913 until December of the following year. This bi-monthly review attracted many of the most important young socialist and syndicalist theoreticians, who helped Mussolini to develop his own ideas.

In the final years before the First World War, many independent national syndicalists, including Panunzio and Ottavio Dinale saw war as progressive. Helping to put together the rationale for Fascism, they supported Italy’s fight with the Ottomans over Libya in 1911, and, along with Mussolini, they called for Italy’s intervention in the First World War. Many socialists now passed into Mussolini’s Fascist ranks, and syndicalists such as Panunzio, Olivetti, and Orano, became its principal ideologues.

As early as October 1914, Olivetti in Pagine Libere spoke of an Italian socialism infused with national sentiment, a socialism destined to complete Italy’s unification, to accelerate production, and to place it among the world’s advanced nations. Over the next three years in L’Italia Nostra, Olivetti spoke of the nation as uniting men of all classes in a common pursuit of historical tasks; class membership did not align an individual against the nation, but united him with the nation. Patriotism was fully compatible with the revolutionary tradition of Italian socialism.

By the time of Mussolini’s accession to power, Fascism had given clear evidence of its commitment to industrialization and modernization of the economy. Not only were the Futurists, Nationalists, and National Syndicalists agreed that maximizing production was the first order of business, but all also advocated urban development, the rationalization of financial institutions, the reorganization of the bureaucracy on the basis of technical competence, the abolition of “traditional” and nonfunctional agencies, the expansion of road, rail, waterways, and telephonic communications systems, the modernization and secular control of the educational system, and the reduction of illiteracy.

What does this mean for Fascism’s relationship with Soviet Russia? Mussolini by 1919 was pointing out the absolute decline in economic productivity in Russia as proving its failure to recognize its historic obligations. He suspected that the Bolsheviks ultimately had to commit themselves to national reconstruction and national defense, that is, to some form of developmental national socialism as defined by Fascism’s former syndicalists. Speaking of the Bolshevik failure to comprehend their revolutionary necessities, Mussolini presciently predicted that Lenin had to appeal to bourgeois expertise to repair Russia’s ravaged economy. Bolshevism, he said, must “domesticate” and mobilize labor to the task of intensive development, something which could have been anticipated, because Marxism had made it quite clear that socialism could be built only upon a mature economic base. Russia, not having yet completed the capitalist stage of economic development, met none of the material preconditions for a classic Marxist revolution. Russia was no more ripe than was Italy for socialism.

Lenin, in the practical working out of his revolutionary government, did run headlong into many of these conundrums predicted by the syndicalists. In the months following his takeover, he had expected that the revolution in Germany would bail Soviet Russia out of its difficulties. Thus, while the first Fascists were organizing for a national revolution, the bolsheviks were still dreaming of an international insurrection. Lenin, changing horses, in 1921 proposed the New Economic Policy to replace the ideologically purer but failed War Communism. Like Fascists, Lenin now spoke of holding the entire fabric of society together with “a single iron will,” and he began to see the withering away of the state as a long way away: “We need the state, we need coercion”-certainly a Fascist mantra.

After Lenin’s death in 1924, this logic culminated in 1925 with Stalin’s “creative development” of Marxism: “Socialism in One Country,” a national socialism by any other name. Mussolini suspected that Stalin might be abandoning true Communism. This, it seemed, might provide economic advantages to Italy, and to Mussolini it made sense for his country to build ships and planes for the Soviets in exchange for one-third of Italy’s oil supplies.

For him the even more interesting possibility was that Stalin might be the true heir to the tsars and an imperialist with whom Fascism could see eye-to-eye. In 1923, the Duce predicted, “Tomorrow there will not be an imperialism with a socialist mark, but . . . [Russia] will return to the path of its old imperialism with a panslavic mark.” Mussolini convinced himself that Russian Communism was proving to be less revolutionary than was Fascism. The Duce and some of his followers considered it possible that the two movements were moving together closely enough as to be no longer easily distinguishable.

Even dedicated Fascist party workers such as Dino Grandi, Mussolini’s foreign minister from 1928 to 1932, early recognized Fascism’s affinities with Lenin’s Bolshevism. He had taken at least part of his own intellectual inspiration from revolutionary syndicalism, and in 1914 he had talked of the First World War as a class struggle between nations. Six years later, Grandi argued that socialists had failed to understand the simple reality of what was happening in revolutionary Russia. The Bolshevik Revolution had been nothing less than the struggle of an underdeveloped and proletarian nation against the more advanced capitalist states.

Not only Fascists made this sort of analysis. Torquato Nanni, a revolutionary Marxist socialist and an early acquaintance of Mussolini, as early as 1922 had anticipated these developments. He analyzed the common economic foundations of Fascism and Bolshevism, which produced the related strategic, tactical, and institutional features of these two mass-mobilizing, developmental revolutions. Both, he wrote, had assumed the bourgeois responsibilities of industrializing backward economies and defending the nation-state, the necessary vehicle for progress.

Lev Trotsky, the organizer of the October Revolution, consistently, even mulishly, argued that Fascism was a mass movement growing organically out of the collapse of capitalism. He also rejected all notions of any sort of “national” Communism. Nonetheless, he too recognized a certain involution. “Stalinism and Fascism,” he said,

in spite of a deep difference in social foundations, are symmetrical phenomena. In many of their features they show a deadly similarity. A victorious revolutionary movement in Europe would immediately shake not only fascism, but Soviet Bonapartism. (that is, Stalinism)

He, however, refused to go as far as his sometime ally, Bruno Rizzi, who later argued that the assumption of similar developmental and autarchic responsibilities could only generate social and ideological convergence. He lamented, “that which Fascism consciously sought, [the Soviet Union] involuntarily constructed.” For him, the governments of Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, and even Roosevelt were lurching toward a global system of “bureaucratic collectivism,” a new form of class domination.

Fascist theoreticians agreed with such convergence notions. By 1925, Panunzio claimed that Fascism and Bolshevism shared crucial similarities. Fascists noted that the Soviets had created an armed, authoritarian, anti-liberal state, which had mobilized and disciplined the masses to the service of intensive internal development. The supreme state generated and allocated resources, articulated and administered interests, and assumed and exercised paramount pedagogical functions.

Thus, while the first Fascists were formulating the rationale for a mass-mobilizing, developmental, authoritarian, hierarchical, anti-liberal, and statist program guided by a charismatic leader, events had forced the Bolsheviks along the same course. Both intended to create a modern, autarchic, industrial system, which would insure political and economic independence for what had been an underdeveloped national community. With forced industrialization and “state capitalism,” the Soviets hoped to bring Russia all the benefits of bourgeois modernization. In the face of required austerity, to mobilize their respective populations, the Communists and Fascists alike supplemented economic incentives with pageantry, ritual, ceremony, and parades. All this, coupled with territorial aggression, completed a compelling picture of “systemic symmetry.”

III. CONCLUSION

I have presented three diverse examples of the impact of the Russian Revolution on subsequent history. There are other potential examples. I find it interesting that events so crucial to the twentieth century, now seem to be fading so rapidly in their influence. One real benefit of examining the Communist Revolution within the larger question of “how best to develop” is that the Revolution loses its sense of seminal criticality. For all the pathos surrounding the effort, it becomes just another interesting attempt at rapid development-a failed attempt at that. While I would happily argue that Marx still has relevance for us today, especially in his critique of capitalism if not particularly in his solutions, clearly Lenin and Stalin no longer do.

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