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Between the Twentieth Century and The Longue Durée, from the History of Marxism to the History of Russia: the Origins of "Stalinism"


Domenico Losurdo

Translated using the Portuguese edition of the book, often consulting the Spanish edition, not the original Italian edition.

Translated by David Ferreira

Between the Twentieth Century and The Longue Durée, from the History of Marxism to the History of Russia: the Origins of "Stalinism"

A Catastrophe in the Making

Up until now we have concentrated on the ideological, political and military contradictions in the revolutionary process and their interaction with international conflicts. But the picture wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of another factor: the long history of Russia. The approaching catastrophe was noticed by observers from a broad range of political orientations, well before 1917 and even before the founding of the Bolshevik party. In 1811, in a Saint Petersburg still shaken by the peasant revolt led by Pugachev (illiterate, yet a figure of great political talent) that was crushed a few decades earlier at great difficulty, Joseph de Maistre expresses his concern that a new “European” kind of revolution could break out, led this time by an intellectual class of popular origin or sentiment, by a university educated Pugachev. By comparison, the disorder witnessed in France would be child’s play: “there’s no words to express what I fear could come to pass."308

Let’s skip ahead by half a century. An even more accurate prediction, and quite admirable for its foresight, can be read in an article on Russia by Marx published in an American newspaper (the New York Daily Tribune, January 17th, 1859): if the nobility continues to oppose the emancipation of the peasantry, a grand revolution will break out; and from it will arise a “reign of terror by these half- Asiatic serfs, unequaled in history."309

Soon after the revolution of 1905, it’s the prime minister himself, Sergei Witte, who stresses that the current situation in Russia was unsustainable and warns the tsar of the danger represented by the bunt, the peasant revolt:
One can not halt the forward march of humanity. If it doesn’t triumph through reform, the idea of human freedom will triumph by means of revolution. But in the latter case, it’ll be born from the ashes of a thousand years of calamities. The Russian bunt, blind and unforgiving, will destroy all in its wake, it will reduce everything to ash [...]; the horrors of the Russian bunt will surpass all those known in history.310
Moreover, it’s Witte himself who is involved in the ferocious repression that’s used to confront the revolution of 1905 and the often brutal jacqueries who take part in it. The interior minister, P. N. Durnovo, orders “the governors to ‘immediately proceed to the execution’ of the rebels, and to burn and level the villages where the disturbances originate from." It’s followed by “military courts”, “collective punishment”, death squads, and pogroms against Jews, blamed as the source of subversion. It’s a situation that continues on until the start of the First World War. It’s precisely the interior minister who warns: “The revolution in its most extreme form, and an irreversible state of anarchy, will be the only predictable outcome of an unfortunate conflict with the Kaiser."311

It’s what will happen soon enough. Let’s look at Russia’s situation on the eve of the Bolsheviks rise to power. Soon shaken is the myth of a country that, after the overthrow of autocracy, would  happily proceed in the direction of liberalism and democracy. It’s a myth encouraged by Churchill who, to justify his interventionist policy, accuses the Bolsheviks―sustained by “German gold”―of having violently overthrown the “Russian Republic” and the “Russian parliament."312 It would be easy to accuse the British statesman of hypocrisy: he knew very well that between February and October London had continually supported coup attempts that sought to restore the tsarist autocracy or impose a military dictatorship. It’s Kerensky himself who points out that “the governments of France and Britain took advantage of every opportunity to sabotage the provisional government” of Russia.313 However, from his exile in the United States, the Menshevik leader never gives up cultivating this myth in question, accusing the Bolsheviks of a double treason, against the homeland and against the “recently born Russian democracy."314

If the accusation of treason to the nation becomes obsolete with the end of the Second World War and the rise of the USSR as a superpower―Kerensky was one of the few defeated Menshevik  leaders who clung to it―, still today the topic of the Bolshevik’s betrayal of democracy is commonplace, a betrayal that culminates in the Stalinist terror. But that general line of thinking doesn’t stand up to historical analysis. It’s not just a matter of the obstinacy of the leaders who arose out of the February days of the revolution (Kerensky especially), determined to remain in a bloodbath that the great majority of the people are determined to end; it’s a political line that can only be carried forth by resorting to terror and an iron-fist discipline on the frontlines and in the rear. And not even the repeated attempts to install a military dictatorship (attempts that Churchill is no stranger to) constitute the principal aspect. There’s much more: “The idea that the February Revolution had been a ‘bloodless revolution’ and that mass violence had only broken out with the October Revolution was a liberal myth." It’s ”one of the most stubborn myths around 1917”, but “has now lost all credibility."315 Let’s examine the real timeline of events: “The rebels took terrible revenge on the officials of the old regime. There was a hunt for police officers in order to lynch and kill them without mercy."316 In Saint Petersburg, “after a few days the death toll reached around 1,500”, with the ferocious lynching of the most hated representatives of the old regime; “the worst violence was to be committed by the Kronstadt sailors, who mutilated and killed hundreds of officers."317 Those who mutinied were the younger recruits; “the standard disciplinary norms didn’t apply” to them, and the officers took advantage of this to treat them “with a brutality even more sadistic than usual”; and now they have unleashed a vengeance of “unprecedented ferocity."318

Things worsen later in September, after the attempted coup d’état by general Lavr Kornilov. Executions and assassinations by crowds break out and are accompanied by “unprecedented violence." “The officers were tortured and mutilated before being killed (eyes and tongues ripped out, ears cut, nails driven into shoulders, in the place of epaulettes), hung upside-down, impaled. According to general Brusilov, a large number of young officers killed themselves to escape a horrible death."319 Further, “the methods of killing their superiors were so brutal (the men under their command went as far as cutting off their victim’s limbs and genitals, or skinning them alive), that no one could really condemn such a suicide."320 Moreover, the rage already made itself felt before October, and “In the resolutions by the soviets, then in large part dominated by the socialist revolutionaries, they branded as ‘enemies of the people the bloodthirsty capitalists, the bourgeoisie who drink the blood of the people’."321

On the other hand, “the crisis in commerce between the city and the countryside, well before the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks”, caused a new round of intense violence. In the tragic situation that had arisen after the catastrophe of the war, with the fall in agricultural production and the hoarding of what scarce food is available, the survival of urban residents depends on quite drastic measures: even before the October Revolution, a government minister, despite being a “prominent liberal economist”, argues in favor of requisition by “force of arms” should market incentives fail; the fact is that “the practice of requisition” is common to “all parties during war."322

The combination of these multiple contradictions causes a bloody state of anarchy with the “collapse of all authority and all administrative organization”, with an explosion of savage violence coming from below (in which millions of deserters or disbanded soldiers are the primary protagonists), and with a “militarization and an overall brutalization of social behavior and political practices."323 It’s a “brutalization without possible means of comparison to that known in Western societies."324

To understand this tragedy, it’s necessary to keep in mind the “way in which social violence spreads; beginning in the areas where military violence takes place”, the "rear is engulfed in the violence by peasant-army deserters outside the confines of the military", by the “millions of deserters from the crumbling Russian army”, by the fact that the “distinctions between the front and rear, between the civilian and military sphere”, become increasingly narrow. In conclusion, “the violence from the military zones spreads everywhere” and society as a whole not only falls into chaos and anarchy, but becomes hostage to an “unprecedented brutalization."325

Therefore, it’s a question that begins with the First World War and the crisis and breakdown of the Russian army. Perhaps it would even be better to go even further back. The exceptional level of violence that strikes twentieth century Russia is explained by shedding light on the two interlinked processes: “the grand Jacquerie of October 1917” that had been gathering force for centuries, and precisely for that reason unleashes a wave of blind and indiscriminate violence against the landowners, against their property, their homes, and their very lives; in addition to this, there’s powerful resentment toward the city itself. The second process is the “collapse of the tsarist military, the most numerous army in history, 95% of whom were peasants."326

The oppression, exploitation and humiliation of an immense mass of peasantry by an exclusive, aristocratic elite, who considered themselves foreign in relation to their own people, considered a different and inferior race, were precursors to a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. Especially because the social conflict became even more acute with the outbreak of World War I, in which the noble officers on a daily basis exercised a true power of life and death over peasant soldiers; it’s no coincidence that at the first signs of crisis they sought to maintain discipline on the front and in the rear by resorting to the use of artillery.327 The collapse of the old regime is the moment for revenge and vengeance, cultivated and sown over centuries. The prince G. E. Lvov self- critically recognizes this: “the vengeance of the peasant servants” was a settling of accounts with those who for centuries had refused to “treat the peasants as people, rather than as dogs."328

Unfortunately, precisely because it was a matter of vengeance, it took on forms not only brutal, but also purely destructive: “thousands of drunk workers and soldiers wandered through the cities, looting warehouses and shops, breaking into homes, beating and robbing peasants." Still worse is what would happen in the countryside: “near the front, large groups of deserters wandered through the countryside and engaged in banditry." The combined agitation of the disbanded soldiers and peasantry provokes throughout Russia a devastating fire, not only similar to the jacquerie (the homes of the nobles were burned and their owners were frequently killed), but to luddism as well (agrarian machinery was destroyed, machinery that in previous years reduced the need for wage labor), and included vandalism ( they destroy and ruin “anything that could hint of excessive wealth: paintings, books, and sculptures”). Indeed, “the peasantry destroyed noble homes, churches and schools. They set libraries and priceless works of art aflame."329

The Russian State Saved by Those Who Sought the "Withering Away of the State"

Overall, the situation created after the February Revolution and the fall of the old regime can be described as follows:
In short, Russia was enduring a process of Balkanization [...]. If 1917 proved anything, it was that Russian society wasn’t strong enough, nor was it sufficiently united, to sustain a democratic revolution. Without the state, there’s nothing to hold Russia together.330
An irony of history, the state was restored by a party that worked for and desired the final extinction of the state! It requires ruthless energy to restore order to a world that, having been ruined through centuries of isolation and oppression, experiences a new period of anarchy and chaos which breaks out after the war and the collapse of the old regime. But it would be ideologically superficial to focus on the recourse to terrorist violence by only one of the actors. Let’s see how the new authority is challenged:
We’re dealing with a terrible, vengeful war against the communist regime. Thousands of Bolsheviks were brutally killed. Many of them victims of horrible (and symbolic) torture. Ears, tongues and eyes ripped out; limbs, heads and genitals cut off; stomachs emptied and filled with sand; foreheads and chests branded with crosses; people crucified upon trees, burnt alive, drowned in freezing water, buried up to their necks and fed upon by dogs and rats as a spectacle to joyous crowds of peasants. Police stations and courthouses were destroyed. Schools and propaganda centers trashed [...]. Simple banditry played a role as well. Nearly every gang attacked trains. In the Donbass, it is said that in the spring of 1921 these robberies were “almost daily." Incursions into town centers and sometimes even remote farms were another regular source for provisions.331
What caused this brutal violence? The policies carried out by the Bolsheviks? Only in part: in 1921 and 1922 “a terrible famine” ravaged the countryside, “directly caused by a year of drought and freezing temperatures."332 Yet the peasant revolt was also a protest against “a state that took their sons and horses to the army, that prolonged the devastation caused by the civil war, that forcibly conscripted peasants into work crews, that looted their food supplies”;333 this was also a protest against a catastrophe that began in 1914.

With respect to Bolshevik policies it’s necessary to know how to distinguish between measures that unreasonably struck against the peasantry, from those that had a completely different character. Let’s consider the collective farms that had already started in 1920, and were often formed by communist militants arriving from the city, driven not just by ideology but also by the hunger that ravaged the urban centers: “They ate and worked collectively. The women did the difficult field work alongside the men, and in certain cases nurseries were established to take care of the children. On top of this, there was a total absence of any religious observance." In this case as well, the hostility of the peasantry was insurmountable, given “that they were convinced that they [the communists] sought to collectivize not only the land and the tools, but also the women and daughters, and for all of  them to sleep together under one big roof."334 Still, more bitter was the experience of the populists who at the turn of the century were determined “to go to the people” and help them create cooperatives, but were quickly forced to abandon their idealistic image of the Russian peasantry. Here we see Mikhail Romas’s experience:
From the start, the peasants were suspicious of the cooperative, not being able to understand how the prices of the new company would be lower than other sellers. The more successful farmers connected to the merchants in the region started to harass Romas and his people with a series of acts meant to intimidate them: putting gunpowder in the firewood used for the fireplace, threatening poor farmers who showed some interest in the cooperative, until going as far as brutally killing a poor peasant from the cooperative, horrendously dismembering his body and then scattering it along the riverbank. Finally, they set fire to the kerosene deposit, making the cooperative (and part of the village) go up in flames.
The naive populists were barely able to escape with their lives.335 Once again, we see the extent of the violence that is unleashed in a Russia consumed by crisis. This is true as well for the horrific pogroms directed against Jews and Bolsheviks, the first especially, who are suspected of being behind the Bolsheviks, using them as puppets. Let’s again turn to the English historian previously quoted:
In some areas, in Chernobyl for example, the Jews were gathered in the synagogue that was then set on fire. In other towns, like in Cherkassy, hundreds of girls, not yet ten years old, were raped, many of whom were later found to have wounds in their vaginas from bayonets and swords [...]. The Cossacks from Terek tortured and mutilated hundreds of Jews, mostly women and children. Hundreds of bodies were discarded in the snow, food for the dogs and pigs. In this grim atmosphere, Cossack officers had a party at the post office, with dancing, evening wear, an orchestra, with the local magistrate in attendance, and a group of prostitutes brought from Cherson. And while the soldiers continued to massacre Jews for pure entertainment, officers and women spent the night drinking champagne and dancing.
Regarding this, “the final report of an inquiry done in 1920 by the Jewish Agency in Soviet Russia speaks of ‘over one hundred and fifty thousand documented deaths’ and nearly three hundred thousand presumed victims, including the dead and injured."336

Stalin and the Conclusion of the Second “Time of Troubles”

The Russian Revolution is now seen under new light: “Without a doubt, the success of the Bolsheviks in the civil war was ultimately due to their extraordinary ability to ‘build the state’, an ability that their adversaries lacked."337   Those who called attention to this question were, in the Russia of 1918, some of the declared enemies of the Bolsheviks. Pavel Milyukov recognized their merit in having known how to “reestablish the state." Vasily Maklakov went further: “The new government has begun restoring the state apparatus, reestablishing order, and combating chaos. On this front the Bolsheviks have shown energy, and―I’ll add―undeniable skill."338   Three years later, in a conservative American newspaper, we can read that: “Lenin is the only man in Russia who has the power to maintain order. If he were toppled, only chaos would reign."339

The revolutionary dictatorship born out of the October Revolution performed a national function  as well. Gramsci understood this well when, in July of 1919, he celebrates the Bolsheviks as protagonists of a great revolution, but also for having shown their revolutionary greatness in the form of a leadership group made up of excellent “statesmen”, capable therefore of saving the entire nation from the catastrophe caused by the old regime and the old ruling class. A year later, Lenin himself would indirectly reference this in a polemic against extremism, stressing that “the revolution isn’t possible without a crisis of the entire nation (which therefore implies exploited and exploiters)”; the political force that demonstrates its ability to resolve that conflict is the one which conquers hegemony and achieves victory.340 It's on these grounds that Aleksei Brusilov, a brilliant general of noble origin who tried in vain to save his officers driven to suicide by the savage violence of revolting peasant-soldiers, joins the side of Soviet Russia: “my sense of duty to my nation has often forced me to disobey my natural social inclinations."341 

A few years later, in 1927, while offering an overview of Moscow, Walter Benjamin stressed “the strong national identity which Bolshevism has developed among all Russians, without exceptions."342 Soviet power had achieved a new identity and a new self-esteem for a nation not only terribly tested, but also in some ways lost and adrift, without any solid reference point.

However, the “crisis of the entire Russian nation” hadn’t truly ended. It had exploded with all its violence in 1914, but with a long period of incubation behind it, at times it is defined as a Second “Time of Troubles”, in an analogy to the crisis that raged in 17th century Russia.343 The struggle between claimants to the throne develops and combines with the economic crisis and peasant revolt, and with the intervention of foreign powers, it escalates in the 20th century to a conflict between a number of actors claiming political legitimacy. According to Weber’s classic “Tripartite”, traditional power follows the tsar’s family to the grave, even if this or that general desperately seeks to recover it; charismatic power, already weakened after the difficult conflict sparked by the Brest-Litovsk treaty, doesn’t survive Lenin’s death; finally, legal power finds great difficulty in asserting itself, after a revolution that triumphs with an ideology marked by the utopian idea of the state’s extinction in a country where the hatred of the peasants for their masters is traditionally expressed in violent, anti- statist terms.

To the extent that a charismatic power was still possible, its most likely realization took shape in the figure of Trotsky, the great organizer of the Red Army, brilliant speaker and writer, who sought to embody the hopes for the victory of the world revolution, and thereby legitimize his aspirations of governing the party and the state. Stalin, however, embodied traditional-legal power which tried to solidify itself with great effort: different from Trotsky, who arrived late to Bolshevism, Stalin represented historical continuity for the party that led the revolution, and was therefore the holder of the new legality. Moreover, affirming that socialism could be achieved in one (large) country, Stalin gave new dignity and identity to the Russian nation, thus overcoming the frightening crisis―ideological but also economic―suffered after the defeat and chaos of the First World War, to find historical continuity at last. But for that very reason his adversaries denounced him for “treason”, while for Stalin and his supporters the traitors were those who, with their adventurism, facilitated the intervention of foreign powers, and in the last analysis, put in danger the survival of the Russian nation that was at this time the vanguard of the revolutionary cause. The clash between Stalin and Trotsky is the conflict not only between two political programs, but also between two forms of legitimacy.

For all these reasons, the Second Time of Troubles ended not with the defeat of the supporters of the old regime, or with the defeat of the intervention by counter-revolutionary foreign powers as is often thought, but with the end of the third civil war (that which divided the Bolshevik ruling group itself), and also with the end of the conflict between the two opposing forms of  legitimacy; therefore not in 1921, but in 1937. Despite the fact that the rise of the Romanov dynasty meant the end of the Time of Troubles, 17th century Russia found its definitive consolidation only with the crowning of Peter the Great; after having passed through its most acute phase in the years following the outbreak of the First World War until the end of the Entente’s intervention; the Second “Time  of Troubles” ends with Stalin’s consolidation of power and the industrialization and “westernization” pushed forward by him in preparation for the approaching war.

Exalted Utopia and the Prolongation of the State of Emergency

Obviously, the long duration of the Second “Time of Troubles” isn’t just an objective fact. What  role was played in its prolongation by the intelligentsia, politicians and the ideology which inspired them? One line of thought, with Arendt as its reference, dedicates itself to the search for the  original ideological sin committed by the revolution that unfolded in the most tormented way. A different approach seems more fruitful to me, which is based on a comparative sociology of the political and intellectual classes. In the movements unleashed by a revolution, whether in France or in Russia, we see the “feathered scoundrels” in action, the Gueux Plumées, according to Burke’s definition, or the “Pugachev from university”, according to Maistre’s definition. In short, we’re dealing with non-propertied intellectuals, ridiculed as “abstract” by their adversaries. There’s no doubt that the propertied intellectuals already had real political experience, including experience in exercising political power by the time the old regime collapsed. In the United States, the slave- owners, from whose ranks came eminent intellectuals and statesmen (slave-owners are president during thirty of the first thirty-six years of the American Republic), not only enjoy their wealth as a “particular” type of private property, alongside the others; they simultaneously exercise executive, legislative and judicial power over their slaves. Similar considerations could be made with respect to England and the Glorious Revolution: landed property (from which intellectuals and liberal leaders often came) is very much present in the House of Lords and the House of Commons; and together with the gentry, they directly appoint judges, and therefore retain judicial power. Less prepared for taking power are the non-propertied intellectuals. Their abstraction contributed to making the process of consolidating the revolution more difficult and painful. But there’s another side to the coin: it’s exactly this “abstraction” and this distance to property which make it possible for these “feathered scoundrels” to support the abolition of slavery in the colonies, and for the “Pugachevs from university” to give their support to the process of decolonization that would later play out across the planet.

Over the long duration of the Second “Time of Troubles”, the role played by ideology is beyond question. However, it’s necessary to then add that it’s not just a matter of Bolshevik ideology. We have seen the millenarian hopes that accompanied the fall of the tsarist autocracy, and we also know that the theme of the betrayed revolution goes beyond the borders of Russia and the communist movement. Just a few months or weeks after the October Revolution of 1917, without wasting any time, Kautsky stressed how the Bolsheviks haven’t kept―or are unable to keep―any  of  the promises made upon seizing power:
The Soviet government has already seen itself forced into a number of compromises toward capital [...]. But even more so than with Russian capital, the Soviet Republic had to make concessions to German capital and recognize its demands. It’s still unclear when the Entente’s capital will be introduced into Russia; everything indicates that the dictatorship of the proletariat has liquidated Russian capital, only to give its place to German and American capital.344
The Bolsheviks had taken power promising “the spread of the revolution to the capitalist countries, under the impetus of the Russian experience." But what became of this “grandiose and unrealistic” perspective? It had been replaced by a program of an “immediate peace at any cost."345 It is 1918 and, ironically, Kautsky’s critique of Brest-Litovsk isn’t very different from what we’ve already seen, from Bukharin in particular.

Aside from international relations, the record of the October Revolution within Russia itself is even more catastrophic from Kautsky’s perspective:
By removing the remains of feudalism, it has given stronger and more definite expression to private property than the latter had previously. It has now made the peasants, who were formerly interested in the overthrow of landed private property―namely, the big estates―into the most energetic defenders of the newly created landed private property. It has strengthened private property in the means of production and in the production of commodities.346
Again we are reminded of those, including within the Bolshevik party, who describe the persistence of landed private property and NEP as a shameful abandonment of the socialist course.

The collectivization of agriculture later on doesn’t put an end to the denunciation of treason; which, in the middle of the 1930s, finds its organic expression in Trotsky’s book dedicated to the “Revolution Betrayed." It is interesting to observe how the fundamental charges of this accusation are in some form already present in Kautsky’s book from 1918. Let’s see how the eminent social democratic theorist makes his argument: if individual private property is also substituted by cooperative property, one must not forget that the latter is only “a new form of capitalism." On the other hand, the “state economy still isn’t socialism”, and not just for the fact that the market and commodity production continue to exist.347 There’s something more: the liquidation of  a  determined form of capitalism doesn’t necessarily mean the liquidation of capitalism as such; the new power “could abolish many forms of capitalist property”, but this still isn’t the “establishment of socialist production." As a matter of fact, a new exploiting class emerged in the Soviet Union, or is emerging: “In the place of those who were until this moment capitalists, now transformed into workers, enter intellectuals or workers, now transformed into capitalists."348 While Trotsky, contrary to some of his more radical followers, prefers to speak of a “bureaucracy” instead of a new  capitalist class, the similarities between these two discourses remain, even more so because in the Russian revolutionary’s analysis, the “Soviet bureaucracy” apparently seeks “to rival the Western bourgeoisie."349

Of course, there are differences. For Kautsky, it’s the Bolshevik leadership as such that has abandoned and betrayed the noble ideas of socialism in some form; more than a subjective and conscious decision or renunciation, this desertion is the expression of the “impotence of all revolutionary endeavors carried out without taking into consideration the objective social and economic conditions."350 In comparison to Trotsky, Kautsky’s reasoning appears more persuasive. He doesn’t commit the fallacy of explaining gigantic objective social processes (which, on top of Russia, affected a number of other countries) by railing against the betrayal by a limited political stratum or by a single individual―a single individual that plays the role of deus ex machina! However, there’s a moment in which the German social democratic leader also brings in the category of subjective and conscious betrayal. The Bolsheviks had committed it when, voluntarily ignoring the immaturity of the objective conditions, they deserted to the “cult of violence” which “Western Marxism strongly condemns."351 It is but the initial choice of carrying out the October Revolution which is synonymous with the renunciation of the noble ideas of Marx and socialism; in this case, however, the accusation of betrayal includes Trotsky as much as Lenin and Stalin. It remains to be seen if Kautsky’s condemnation of the Bolsheviks’ “cult of violence” is compatible with  the criticism he directed at them for having sought in Brest-Litovsk “an immediate peace at any cost."

More important than the differences are the similarities that are shared between the two Marxist theorists under examination here. In both discourses, the millenarian vision of the future society opens up an abyss between the beauty of authentic socialism and communism on the one hand, and on the other hand the irredeemable mediocrity of what’s present and what’s real. They try to fill this abyss by resorting, in the case of Trotsky, to the category of betrayal and, in the case of Kautsky, to the category of the objective immaturity of Russia, which inevitably ends up provoking the disfiguration and betrayal of the original ideas. In the eyes of the German social democratic leader, given the “economic backwardness” of a country that “isn’t among the developed industrial states”, the failure of the socialist project was inevitable: “in reality, Russia is completing the last of the bourgeois revolutions, not the first socialist revolution. This is clearer by the day. The current Russian Revolution could only take on a socialist character when it coincides with the socialist revolution in western Europe."352 Again we come across Trotsky’s desires and predictions.

Indeed, having emerged from the February Revolution, the millenarian vision of the new society yet to be built ends up being defended, in different and contradictory ways, by quite a broad group of people. It’s a dialectic that manifests itself with particular clarity with the introduction of NEP.  Those outraged aren’t just important sectors of the Bolshevik party, nor is the indignation always motivated by concerns over fidelity to Marxist orthodoxy. While the Christian Pierre Pascal laments the arrival of a new “aristocracy” and the emergence of a “counter-revolutionary” process, the great Joseph Roth speaks disappointingly of an “Americanization”, which sees Soviet Russia losing not only socialism, but its own soul as well, thus falling into a “spiritual vacuum."353 The outraged cries caused by defrauded and betrayed millenarian hopes are met in turn by declarations of victory in the bourgeois camp for the fact that, with the introduction of NEP, even Lenin―so the argument goes―sees himself obligated to turn his back on Marx and socialism.354 Again we come across the category of betrayal, though this time met positively.

Paradoxically, what in someway pushed the Bolsheviks toward another revolution was an unprecedented, ample and diverse front. The horrors of the war had led Pascal to apocalyptically predict in August of 1917 “a social and universal revolution” of unprecedented radicalness.355 On the opposing side, adversaries and enemies of the October Revolution were ready to celebrate its failure every time plans were drawn up to move on from the phase of millenarian expectations, to the less enthusiastic but more realistic phase of building a new society. All of this could only strengthen the already existing tendency in the Bolshevik party, itself a consequence of the spiritual climate whipped up by the war, in favor of radicalizing the utopian themes found in Marx’s thinking. In that sense, the ideology which contributed to the prolongation of the Second “Time of  Troubles” appears to be rooted in an objectively concrete situation.

From Abstract Universalism to the Accusation of Betrayal

Now let’s take an overall look at the charges involved in the accusation of “betrayal." Formulating the problem in philosophical terms, we find that despite being considerably different and despite arising out of quite different ideological and political positions, these accusations share a vision of universalism which requires further examination. Driven by the need to counter and surpass the domestic egoism of the bourgeois family, which concentrates its attention exclusively on its restricted unit while avoiding the tragedies that unfold all around it, Kollontai calls upon communists to cultivate a universal sense of responsibility; moving past, even with regard to children, the distinction between “yours” and “mine”, struggling alongside others for that which is common to all, for that which is “ours." We have seen Trotsky rightly point out the catastrophic consequences when parents ignore their particular responsibilities toward their own children. In other words, bypassing the responsibilities within the immediate family unit, without starting first from a particular and unavoidable responsibility, universal responsibility proves to be empty, and even becomes a tool to avoid responsibility. In this sense, according to Lenin, Kollontai’s theory was “anti-social."356

But while they appreciate it in relation to the family question, the Bolshevik leaders tend to forget the unity of the universal and the particular when confronting the national question. At the moment of its founding, the Third International starts from the assumption that a single party of the international proletariat is called upon to achieve the universal emancipation of humanity, without getting confused by “so-called ‘national interests’”;357 we have seen Kollontai in a similar way theorize a type of universal family where “mine” and “yours” seamlessly dissolve into “ours." Soon after, the Third International goes through a difficult learning process that would lead to Dimitrov’s report before its Seventh Congress in 1935, which denounces any kind of “national nihilism” as dangerous.358 But isn’t the rediscovery of the nation a betrayal to internationalism? While for Kollontai the continuation of the family institution, and giving particular attention to one’s own children, are synonymous with egotistical pettiness and disinterest for the welfare of all children, for Trotsky “examining the perspectives of social revolution within the limits of a single nation” means ceding to or indulging in “social-patriotism” and social-chauvinism, responsible among other things for the bloodbath of the First World War. Also, “the idea of a socialist revolution that is carried out and completed in a single country” is a “point of view that is fundamentally national-reformist; it is neither revolutionary nor internationalist."359 These are statements from 1928; ten years later the Fourth International is founded, which takes up (and then radicalizes) the abstract universalism from earlier, and therefore defines itself as the “party of the world socialist revolution."

It would be easy to use against Trotsky his own argument from the polemic against Kollontai. Just as ignoring and avoiding personal responsibilities in relation to one’s own kids and relatives doesn’t represent a true overcoming of domestic responsibilities, neither is it synonymous with internationalism to lose sight of the fact that the concrete possibilities and tasks of revolutionary transformation are first centered in a determined national terrain. Distance and indifference to one’s own country can certainly have a non-progressive meaning: in Tsarist Russia, Herzen, an author dear to Lenin, observed that the aristocracy was much “more cosmopolitan than the revolution”; far from having a national base, their dominion was rooted in the denial of the very possibility of a national base, in the “deep division [...] between the civilized classes and the peasantry”; on one side, a restricted elite inclined to behaving themselves as a superior race, and the immense majority of the population on the other.360 Without eliminating the racialization of the subaltern classes,  and without upholding the ideas of the nation and national responsibility, one isn’t a revolutionary.

Stalin understands this well, as the speech delivered on February 4th, 1931 demonstrates. On this occasion, he presents himself as a revolutionary and internationalist leader, who is at the same time a statesman and Russian national leader, committed to resolving the problems that have held back the nation for some time: 

“we Bolsheviks, who have carried out three revolutions, who have emerged victorious from a hard civil war”, must also deal with the problem of overcoming Russia’s traditional industrial backwardness and military weakness. “In the past we had no nation, nor could we have one”; 361 with the overthrow of the old regime and the arrival of Soviet power, national nihilism is more unwise than ever, the revolutionary cause is at the same time the cause of the nation. The emphasis now appears to shift from the class struggle (with its internationalist dimension) to the construction of the national economy. But more precisely, in the concrete political situation that’s been created, the class struggle becomes the task of achieving technological and economic development for the socialist country, putting it in the position of confronting the terrible challenge that’s approaching, and offering a real contribution to the emancipatory and internationalist cause. The class struggle not only takes on a national dimension, but it appears to configure itself in Soviet Russia as a banal and routine task: “in the period of reconstruction, expertise decides everything”; therefore, it is necessary “to learn skills” and become “masters of science." In fact, this new task is no less difficult and demanding than the storming of the Winter Palace: “We Bolsheviks must conquer science” and become “specialists”; it’s certainly not an easy objective to reach, but “there’s no fortress Bolsheviks can’t storm."362 

The policy during the Great Patriotic War finds its first expression in the years when Soviet Russia is committed to a colossal endeavor of industrialization and reinforcing national defense.

In the lead-up to Nazi aggression, we have seen Stalin stress the need link “national sentiment and the idea of the nation” to “a healthy nationalism, correctly understood, with proletarian internationalism." In the concrete situation that arose following the Third Reich’s expansionist offensive, universalism’s advance passed through the concrete and individual struggles of the nations determined not to let themselves be reduced to slavery at the service of Hitler’s master race; truly advancing internationalism was the resistance by nations most directly threatened by the Nazi empire’s program of enslavement. Just three years earlier, as confirmation of the fact that we are in the middle of a learning process that’s encouraged or imposed by the concrete necessity of developing the struggles of national resistance against imperialism, Mao Zedong states: “To separate the content of internationalism from its national form is the habit of those who don’t understand anything about internationalism. With regards to us, however, we must closely link them together. Some of our worst errors were committed because of it, and they must be corrected with the  utmost dedication."363 Gramsci similarly distinguishes between “cosmopolitanism” and an “internationalism” which knows―and in fact must know―how to be “profoundly national” as well.

Aside from the rejection of the nuclear family and the theorization of a type of collective parenthood (“our children”), at the general political level, abstract universalism is clearly seen in the proposal of a “collective management”, seen once again as the dissolution of personal responsibilities and duties taken on individually. It’s not a coincidence that Kollontai is for some time part of the Workers’ Opposition, whose slogans at the factory level and in the workplaces of the party, and in union and state administration, are “power to a collective organ”, “collective will”, “common deliberation”, “collective management."364 The millenarian expectations for the disappearance of “mine” and “yours” again makes its appearance in the economic sphere, with the subsequent condemnation of more than just a determined system of production and distribution of wealth, but the condemnation of the “money economy”, the market as such, and private property, no matter how limited and restricted it may be. In all these cases, the universalism that’s aspired to is that which immediately appears in its uncontaminated purity, without being mediated by or interlinked with particular concerns. It is this cult of abstract universalism which yells treason every time particularity has its rights or power recognized.


The Dialectic of the Revolution and the Genesis of Abstract Universalism

308. Maistre (1984), book 12, pp. 59-60.

309. Marx, Engels 1955-89, vol. 12, p. 682.

310. Werth (2001), p. 50.

311. Werth (2001), pp. 53, 59-60 and 74-75.

312. Schmid (1974), pp. 17 and 293.

313. Kerensky (1989), p. 415.

314. Kerensky (1989(, pp. 340 and from 328 on.

315. Figes (2000), p. 399; Werth (2007a), p. 27.

316. Figes (2000), p. 400.

317. Werth (2007a), pp. 28-29.

318. Figes (2000), p. 481.

319. Werth (2007a), pp. 41-42.

320. Figes (2000), p. 463.

321. Werth (2007a), p. 31.

322. Werth (2007a), pp. 63, 52-53 and 55.

323. Werth (2007a), pp. 53 and 51.

324. Werth (2007a), p. xv.

325. Werth (2007a), pp. 27 and 37-38.

326. Werth (2007a), pp. 38-39 and 43.

327. Lincoln (1994), p. 147.

328. Figes (2000), p. 448

329. Figes (2000), pp. 407, 507, 447, and 486.

330. Figes (2000), pp. 407, 507, 447,486.

331. Figes (2000), p. 909.

332. Figes (2000), p. 903.

333. Ibid.

334. Figes (2000), pp. 877-878.

335. Figes (2000), p. 122.

336. Figes (2000), pp. 814-815.

337. Werth (2007a), p. 26.

338. In Werth (2007a), pp. 53-54.

339. In Flores (1990), p. 41.

340. Lenin (1955-1970), vol. 31, p. 74

341. Figes (2000), pp. 840 and 837

342. Benjamin (2007), p. 44.

343. Cf. Werth (2007a), pp. 51 and 510, note 43.

344. Kautsky (1977), p. 121.

345. Kautsky (1977), pp. 129-131.

346. Kautsky (1977), p. 113.

347. Kautsky (1977), pp. 119 and 121.

348. Kautsky (1977), pp. 120-21.

349. Trotsky (1988), p. 848 (= Trotsky, 1968, p. 143).

350. Kautsky (1977), p. 129.

351. Ibid.

352. Kautsky (1977), p. 100.

353. In Flores (1990), pp. 41 and 53.

354. Flores (1990), pp. 32-33.

355. In Furet (1990), p. 127.

356. Carr (1968-1969), vol. 1, p. 31.

357. Agosti (1975-1999), vol 1, 1, p. 30.

358. Dimitrov’s report to the Seventh Congress of the Communist International is relayed in De Felice (1973), pp. 101-67 (the citation is on page 155).

359. Trotsky (1969b), pp. 21 and 72.

360. Herzen (1994), pp. 176-77; cf. Losurdo (2002), ch. 22 & 1.

361. Stalin (1971-1973), vol 13, pp. 33 and 36 (= Stalin 1952, pp. 409 and 412).

362. Stalin (1971-1973), vol. 13, p. 38 (= Stalin, 1952, p. 414).

363. Mao Tse-Tung (1969-1975), vol. 2, p. 218.

364. Carr (1968-1969) vol. 1, p. 31; Kollontai (1976), p. 200.

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