The end of the Soviet Union has released a flood of new histories of Russia and communism. Edward Skidelsky recommends two-one describes the tragedy of an idea, the other of a peopleby Edward Skidelsky / March 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Tragedy is a compound of two elements: engagement and distance. This explains why the tragedy of an individual’s life is revealed most powerfully at the moment of his death. The memory of the life is still sufficiently vivid to engage us. But already a certain distance is placed between us and him. We no longer feel stirred to censor or correct, to applaud or wag a finger. Detachment-the necessary condition of tragic or indeed any form of contemplation-is born.
What is true of individuals is also true of nations and ideas. Only now, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its animating idea, communism, has it become possible to view the history of both as tragic. Until now, writers have been forced to position themselves on one or another side of a political conflict: red or white. To be a red is, by definition, to renounce tragedy as a means of understanding the world. Even Trotsky, who might have written a tragic history of the revolution, was incapable of it. He was incapable of seeing the embryo of Stalinism in the original aspirations of the revolutionaries; doctrinal orthodoxy, as well as personal vanity, proved too strong. He had to resort to the implausible supposition that an originally “progressive” revolution was somehow hijacked by malevolent reactionary forces; a melodrama, maybe, but not a tragedy.
But the whites also proved incapable of writing a tragic history. To them, Marxism was merely a set of errors, the Bolsheviks a gang of criminals, the revolution a series of crimes. They were not entirely wrong: Marxism was erroneous; the Bolsheviks did commit terrible crimes. But to reduce the history of communism to a series of errors and crimes is to render it unintelligible. This is why the best books written about communism in the past, the only ones to approach the level of tragedy, were by apostates such as George Orwell and Arthur Koestler. Alasdair MacIntyre (another apostate) is right when he says: “Those for whom the project of the revolutionary liberation of mankind from exploitation… is an absurd fantasy disqualify themselves from writing about communism in the same way that those who find the notion of the supernatural redemption of the world from sin an outmoded superstition disqualify themselves from writing ecclesiastical history.”
The communist era is now over; the historian is freed from the burden of this trench mentality. A disinterested reckoning with communism is both possible and desirable. It is this, along with the opening of new sources and archives, which explains the post-Soviet flood of histories. Two in particular stand out: Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy and Andrej Walicki’s Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom. Both authors position themselves beyond the red/white argument; both take a tragic view of the events they describe. But they have little in common apart from this.
For Walicki, the history of the Russian revolution is first of all the history of an idea. As it unfolded, this idea revealed murderous potential unsuspected by its authors; therein lies its tragedy. It is a tragedy of unintended consequences-an inversion of Hegel’s cunning of reason which turns base deeds to good effect. Walicki concedes that neither Lenin nor any of the other actors in the drama of communism qualifies as tragic in a subjective sense; they were too mono-dimensional to experience the conflict of values essential to tragedy. Yet Lenin’s actions “can certainly be regarded as tragic in an objective sense-that is, as an expression of heroic hubris facing a fateful power, intransigent in its aims but forced to acknowledge its defeat by the gods.”
The tragedy of communism is summarised by a remark of Shigalev, a character in Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed, quoted in the introduction: “I started out with the idea of unrestricted freedom, and have arrived at unrestricted despotism.” Communism, according to Walicki, is first and foremost a philosophy of freedom; the communist revolution is, according to Engels’s famous dictum from which the book’s title is taken, “the leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.” But this freedom-and here’s the rub-is to be understood in a special sense. It is Isaiah Berlin’s “positive freedom”-freedom not from external constraint, but freedom to realise the human essence. Marx identifies freedom with a positive idea of what human beings should be like, rather than with the mere possibility of their becoming whatever they wish to be. Freedom is thus defined “for others”; people are not given freedom to define freedom for themselves. And whereas, in the liberal tradition, freedom attaches to individuals, Marx’s freedom consists in the self-realisation of human beings’ “species essence.” Communism is a project of “collective” liberation. This explains Marx’s indifference to “bourgeois” liberty enshrined in constitutions and parliaments-and his willingness to sacrifice the liberty of some to ensure the liberation of mankind.
Walicki rejects the view of Marx and Engels as “one spirit in two bodies.” He sees Engels as a thinker in his own right, who bears much of the responsibility for transforming Marxism into a dogmatic pseudo-science amenable to be used by totalitarian regimes. Engels was a thorough-going environmental determinist; he believed that human beings were nothing more than their circumstances. He elevated Marx’s dialectic into an iron law of historical development; he even detected its operation in the physical world, thus collapsing the distinction between man and nature. Marx’s conception of the human essence-and, a fortiori, of human freedom as the realisation of that essence-was quietly discarded. Indeed, it might seem that Engels’s conception of the human condition contains no room for freedom. However, Engels followed the Stoics and Spinoza in seeing no contradiction between human freedom and natural causality. “Freedom,” he wrote, “consists in the control of ourselves and over external nature, a control founded on knowledge of natural necessity; it is therefore necessarily a product of historical development.” This is the philosophical foundation for Engels’s espousal of centralised economic planning which, in contrast to the “anarchy” of the market, promises the maximum degree of conscious control over mankind’s collective fate and-it follows-of freedom. With impeccable but perverse logic, he maintained that humanity’s collective freedom increases to the extent that individual humans are reduced to the position of cogs in a machine. Engels, to a much greater extent than Marx, was impressed by the rational organisation of the modern factory, and saw it as a model for the economy as a whole. Here-not, as is often argued, in the German war economy-lies the origin of Stalinist planning.
Engels’s “necessitarian” Marxism was susceptible to different developments. In Germany it provided the foundation for Bernstein and Kautsky’s revisionism. They reasoned that we must follow the tide of history, even if that entails abandoning revolution, because history is rational and invincible. Lenin, however, drew a different conclusion. For him, Marx and Engels had demonstrated the inevitability of revolution; history would now have to be shaped so as to realise that prophecy. Logically, this is nonsense; it amounts to predicting that the house will burn down and then setting fire to it. However, Lenin, in an extraordinary feat of double-think, managed to combine extreme voluntarism in action with extreme determinism in theory. This hypocrisy was necessary; he could not openly renounce historical necessity because his party’s title to power rested on its claim to embody that necessity. Thus Leninism contains the foundations of ideocracy-rule on the basis of the idea.
Lenin was not a philosopher but a man of power. He was not given to utopian speculation. Even so, Marx’s vision of communist freedom plays a crucial role in his works, if only a negative one-it functions as a polemical device for showing up the fraudulence of “bourgeois” freedom. If Marx was merely indifferent to bourgeois freedom, Lenin was actively hostile to it. In this, argues Walicki, he was steeped in the tradition of Russian populism, with its crude materialism expressed in slogans such as “Not rights but bread.” However, Lenin’s populism cannot be described as a deviation from Marx: contempt for constitutionalism is a perfectly logical deduction from Marxism, even if Marx himself was too entrenched in the European tradition to make it. The positive aspects of Leninism derive more from Engels than from Marx. In particular, the Engelsian identification of true liberation with total control “deserves to be regarded as the philosophical cornerstone of the Leninist edifice of oppression.”
Stalinism was simultaneously the fulfilment and the betrayal of the Marxist kingdom of freedom. It followed logically (although not, Walicki is careful to point out, inevitably) from Marxist theory, and yet the authors of that theory would never have recognised it as the fulfilment of their hopes. Walicki sees a close link between Leninism and Stalinism, but refuses to identify the two regimes. Stalinism was “a paradoxical and tragic, but not unpredictable, consequence of Bolshevism.” The shift from one to the other is captured in the dictum: “From totalitarian communism to communist totalitarianism.” Under Lenin, totalitarianism was the means to the realisation of communism; under Stalin it became an end in itself, with communist ideology serving as its instrument. The extreme elasticity of ideology under Stalin was possible because the mere fact of an idea’s orthodoxy had become more important than its content. Everything, truth included, was subordinated to power. Communism itself-both the doctrine and the party-was eaten up by its own progeny. This was the final act in communism’s tragedy; the rest is an epilogue.
This story of the degeneration of an idea has been told many times before, by Isaiah Berlin, Leszek Kolakowski and John Plamenatz, among others. Why, we might ask, is it necessary to tell it again? Part of the answer lies in the sheer thoroughness of Walicki’s exposition. As far as I know, it is unequalled. Walicki has clearly been schooled in the continental tradition of philosophical hermeneutics, in which every sentence of a text is scoured for tensions, ambiguities and sources of influence. His final condemnation of Marxism is all the more authoritative for his having treated it with the utmost respect. This approach to Marxism contrasts pleasantly with the glib dismissals which I heard as an undergraduate at Oxford. (I remember one Oxford philosopher boasting: “I have a little trick for dealing with Marxists and people like that. When they say to me, ‘You’re only saying that because you’re an old bourgeois fuddy-duddy’ I say to them: ‘Well, you’re only saying that because you’re a bolshy oik.’ I find that usually stumps them.”) Walicki’s conclusion is more sombre: “I fully share the view… that communism was the most powerful modern incarnation of ancient millenarian hopes; and that the destruction of such hopes, no matter how unreasonable and dangerous in their practical application, should not be an occasion for facile celebration.”
If there is a flaw in Walicki’s book it is a flaw inherent in philosophical history; this is a tragedy with no blood in it. Or, to put it less metaphorically, there is no sense of a discrepancy between the order of concepts and the order of events; the one follows from the other. In this respect Orlando Figes is Walicki’s mirror image. If Walicki has written the tragedy of an idea, then Figes has written, as the title of his book suggests, “a people’s tragedy.” There is enough blood and torture in these 800 pages to satisfy the most jaded devotee of horror. Marxism (inaccurately described as “a critique of the modern factory system”) receives, by contrast, only 15 pages. Figes delights in that very Russian species of humour which consists in contrasting high-flown ideals with the muddled realities of Russian life. Russians understood the revolution according to their own murky lights. “Up with Trotsky and Zinoviev; down with the Jew Kerensky!” was found scrawled on a Petrograd wall in 1917. “Up with the Bolsheviks; down with the Communists!” shouted peasants during the civil war. Communist planning, far from Engels’s vision of rational control, was a series of improvisations. Commenting on the fact that the Bolshevik commissariat of finance used up a large proportion of Russia’s gold reserves to finance the printing of worthless paper money, Figes writes: “The situation was surreal-but then this was Russia.”
Figes attributes the failure of the revolution to realise its ideals not so much to the flaws inherent in communism as to certain deeply ingrained evils of Russian life. Figes’s first piece of research was on the Russian peasantry, and A People’s Tragedy is a history of the revolution written from the peasantry’s point of view-communism reflected in a samovar. The peasantry, Figes argues (in opposition to Richard Pipes), was not an inert and flabby mass. It had a distinctive revolutionary world-view “shaped by centuries of opposition to the tsarist state.” The peasantry was instinctively anarchist, rejecting all authority apart from that of the village commune. Patriotism had no hold over it. Nor did the state courts, whose authority it never accepted. The peasantry had its own customary law: the land belongs to him who works it. This law was applied with no regard to objectivity; cases were judged according to the status of the parties concerned. A crime committed against a nobleman or peasant from another village was punished less severely than a crime committed against a peasant from one’s own village. Finally, peasant life was characterised by “intrigue, vendettas, greed, dishonesty, meanness, and sometimes gruesome acts of violence by one peasant neighbour against another.” It was a long way from the mir, beloved of 19th century Russian intellectuals.
It took someone of Lenin’s political genius to grasp the peasantry’s revolutionary potential, and someone of his unscrupulousness to exploit it. It was precisely because the Bolsheviks had such a low opinion of the Russian people that they proved so effective at manipulating it; idealists such as Prince Lvov, who tried to appeal to the people’s innate goodness, were swept aside. The Bolsheviks exploited popular anger, first of all to gain power, then to destroy the remnants of aristocratic and bourgeois life in Russia. None of this had anything to do with Marxism. It was rather, in Pushkin’s famous phrase, “the Russian riot, senseless and merciless.” It was the “serfs’ revenge.” Figes ends up endorsing Kerensky’s pessimistic verdict that the Russian people were no more than “rebellious slaves.”
But if the anarchism, violence and lawlessness of the peasantry swept the Bolsheviks into power, precisely these qualities rendered it powerless to defend its own interests once the true intentions of the Bolsheviks had been revealed. There was no mass reaction to the dissolution of the short-lived Constituent Assembly, in which the largest party was the peasant-based Social Revolutionaries, because most Russians simply had no grasp of its significance. And the peasant uprisings of 1921 were not hard to suppress, because they had no central organisation and no ideology. “If there was one lesson to be drawn from the Russian revolution it was that the people had failed to emancipate themselves. They had failed to free themselves from emperors and become citizens.” Thus Figes, while acknowledging that it would be “obscene” to suggest that the Russians got the government they deserved, concludes that they were “not the victims of the revolution but protagonists in its tragedy.” The success of Russia’s fledgling democracy, he observes, depends on the Russian people’s ability to accept responsibility for their own destiny, rather than to cast Russia itself once again in the role of eternal victim of malevolent fortune.
Two very different tragedies: which is the true one? The answer depends on what you perceive as the moving force in history-disembodied ideas, blowing across nations like the wind, or the internal dynamics of a national culture. But perhaps we are not forced to choose. These two histories complete one another. What Figes’s account leaves unexplained is the extraordinary ambitions of the Bolsheviks. There have been many slaves’ revolts throughout history, yet they have never resulted in anything more terrible than a restoration of the old tyranny. Figes tries to assimilate the Russian revolution to this pattern when he writes: “By 1921, if not earlier, the revolution had come full circle, and a new autocracy had been imposed on Russia which in many ways resembled the old one.” But this reveals the limits of Figes’s historical imagination. By 1921 the Bolsheviks had shot more political prisoners than the Tsarist regime during the whole of the 19th century. This was ruthlessness of an entirely new order; it can only be explained by reference to ideology.
Walicki’s history passes over any explanation of why the communist revolution took place in Russia rather than, say, in France or Germany. Such an explanation, he maintains, lies outside his brief: to analyse the nature of communist ideology. But surely it is impossible to understand the nature of that ideology without also understanding why communist revolutions have taken place where they have-without understanding, that is, the social passion to which communism answers. Walicki’s over-intellectualism is connected to his Eurocentrism. If, as he rightly states, “communism as idea or ideology is at the heart of European political thought,” communism “as a political force” has its heart not in Europe but in Asia. If we bear this in mind, then Figes’s characterisation of communism as “the serfs’ revenge” seems more to the point than Walicki’s “leap to the kingdom of freedom.” Asian societies such as China, Cambodia and (on this analysis) Russia have all, in the not too distant past, enserfed their own populations. Resentment and the yearning for a better life have combined with a lack of civic consciousness to produce the conditions of a successful communist revolution. What do such primitive passions have to do with the subtleties of European philosophers?
Only when you combine Figes and Walicki does a full picture of communism emerge: it is the only ideology which is at the same time archaic and modern, primitive and sophisticated, bloodthirsty and intellectual, fiery and icy. It is, to borrow DH Lawrence’s metaphor, a “blazing tiger wrath emitted through a machine.” The blazing tiger wrath is that of plebian rancour; the machine is Marxist philosophy. Buy both these excellent books and read them one after the other. Marxism and the leap to the kingdom of freedom
Stanford University Press 1997, ?19.95