Marxism and the Soviet Union
For thousands of years man has mastered agriculture – the planting of crops and the use of beasts of burden – as one of the effective tools in building societies. It would have remained the same for the coming millenniums but then technology went from simple to complex. The Industrial Revolution swept Europe and continued to increase in strength through the help of capitalism. But after some time the negative impact of industrialization became more pronounced. It is at this point in the 19th century when Karl Marx wrote his criticism of capitalism. His ideas – Marxism – came at a time when Russia needed a new ideology to reform the aging empire. Yet history reveals that Marxism was a failure in the real world and there is no other country where its devastating effects were more evident than in the former Soviet Union.
It all began with the Industrial Revolution. The radical changes in society and politics could not be fully understood without considering the impact of technological breakthroughs in the 18th century. Man has finally learned a new method of production that would lead to radical changes and forever alter the course of history. But before going any further it is important to take a closer look at this new phenomenon that swept across Europe. David Landes in his study of industrial development presents an informative view of what the Industrial Revolution is really all about and he wrote:
The heart of the Industrial Revolution was an interrelated succession of technological changes. The material advances took place in three areas: 1) there was a substitution of mechanical devices for human skills; 2) inanimate power – in particular, steam – took the place of human and animal strength; 3) there was a marked improvement in the getting and working of raw materials … Concomitant with these changes in equipment and process went new forms of industrial organization (Landes, 2003).
This new technologies and new systems of producing materials and organizing labor force started a chain reaction of events that would transform sleepy towns into booming cities. As the productive unit grew – as factories began to improve – it is now possible to concentrate manufacturing capabilities in one location. Since there is standardization in the process of making goods it is now possible to produce products faster and cheaper. Thus the inevitable increase in demand would require a steady supply of the same type of goods desired by the public. Soon factories require more workers to cope up with increasing work load. The result was the exodus of workers from rural areas and they began to settle into cities where the factories are located.
The Industrial Revolution started in England (Landes, 2003). But the ripple effects were felt thousands of miles away. As Great Britain began to be transformed by the Industrial Revolution, many are also seeing the negative impacts of rapid industrial growth. Workers began to complain about squalid living conditions and inequality between business owners and laborers. These events happened at a time when Russia was in the middle of social and political upheavals.
At the latter part of the 19th century, more and more people are disillusioned with the monarchial system of government. The masses are now well aware of the hardships brought upon by the well-entrenched and self-serving elites. The patriots are not only wary of the elites but they are also concerned about the effects of the Industrial Revolution. By the end of the 19th century a significant number of Russian intellectuals were already influenced by Marxism. They are now convinced that capitalism is coming their way and they are not happy about it. Capitalism and industrialization are perceived to be the twin evils that will destroy their way of life.
By the time Marxism began to spread in Russia, many are also 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). As a result, “The anguished outcry of Populism was largely an effort to save Russian virtues and the Russian soul from the evils of capitalism” (Wesson, 1978). The people are ready; the only thing needed is an ideology that will galvanize their efforts. Russian patriots and student activists turned to Karl Marx for inspiration.
While Europe was reeling from the impact of rapid industrialization and modernization, Russian intellectuals were encouraged to talk more about socialism. In a nutshell socialism is not only about saving traditional Russian values but it is also about changing society so that it instead of having a government that serves the rich and powerful it will instead serve the whole community. But no one can articulate a systematic thought that can unite the people. Karl Marx a German philosopher who lived in London was a staunch critic of capitalism. His genius allowed him to crystallize the major criticism on capitalism and wrote it down so that it can be replicated and studied all over Europe even in counties as far away as Russia.
Marx was greatly influenced by Hegel and in fact he borrowed extensively from Hegel’s dialectics in order to build a starting point from which Marxism was the byproduct (Popkin & Stroll, 1993). Hegel on the other hand borrowed from Plato who proposed that in order to create a better idea one must use the dynamics between thesis and antithesis. The thesis would be the original idea and then the antithesis would run counter against the thesis and the resolution will result in a synthesis an idea that is far superior to the thesis and antithesis.
Hegel based his dialectics on this premise and he proposed that the same is true when it comes to international relations. One nation having one set of ideals will find another nation with a different set of ideals; these two will come into conflict and the victor will create a much better civilization (Popkin & Stroll, 1993). Marx believed in the same thing but his idea is based on what is happening within nations – at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Marx was convinced that instead of nations struggling with each other it is actually social classes that are in conflict with one another.
Marx used Hegel’s ideas to correctly identify the interaction or struggle between rulers and subjects, landlords and tenants. To these groupings he was able to add a new category; Marx explained that during the time of his writing European societies are slowly evolving into a simpler class gradation – the Bourgeoisie vs. the Proletariat. This phenomenon will be further explained below:
The historical king-state society, according to Marxists, broke down into its opposites – the king-rulers, on the one hand and the dispossessed and slaves on the other hand. From the struggle between these opposite, a synthesis was formed, and the feudalistic society came into being. Feudalism then broke down into its opposing forces, the lords and serfs; and this struggle was synthesized and modern capitalism was born. And, now the Marxists claim that capitalism has broken down into its opposites; the employers, on the one hand and the employees, on the other hand (Popkin & Stroll, 1993).
Those who are members of the Bourgeoisie class are the capitalists – businessmen who have the resources to build factories and other means of producing goods and services. These capitalists are then able to hire laborers. The members of the Proletariat on the other hand are the workers – those who do not posses the means to build manufacturing plants and do not have enough money to put up a business that can offer services and so they become hired hands who will sell their time, skills and labor to the highest bidder.
Promise of Utopia
In one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern history, the First World War showed the Russian people that their form of government is no longer capable of guiding the nation to the next level. It is time for radical changes, specifically the need for a new form of government that in turn can propel the nation forward. Many will concur with the following statements, “At the time of the 1917 Revolution, Russia was a relatively poor peasant land. One of the principal aims of the Bolshevik leadership was to transform her into a highly industrialized community, free and untainted by exploitation” (Matthews, 1989). Russia needed a new form of government.
Adherents to Marxism were fully convinced that capitalism was simply a phase and that Russian society will experience the inevitable because capitalism will, “…present a picture of two classes highly opposed to each other – a small but very wealthy class (the Bourgeoisie) and a large but indigent working class (the Proletariat). Tension and hatred will develop between these classes, and finally a revolution will take place, one that will lead to a classless society…” (Popkin & Stroll, 1993). Lenin accepted the challenge to lead the revolution and then Stalin came later to establish communism.
A great leader will always strive to bring his followers to a land flowing with milk and honey. It must be expected that whenever a revolutionary hero will arise, he will usually promise utopia – a better life for his countrymen. Lenin and Stalin were such leaders. They had great hopes and probably had good intentions for Russia. Their desire was to use Marxism in such a way that it will bring prosperity and progress to their motherland. Just like the other revolutionaries with them who believed in the Marxism, their rhetoric may have sounded like the following,“The application of Marxist doctrine would ensure an egalitarian distribution of the wealth produced by the willing hands, while socialist planning would make the country the envy of the capitalist world” (Matthews, 1989). Moreover, Lenin and Stalin believed that, “…they are working for a world that is better than anything that has ever existed” (Popkin & Stroll, 1993). But these things will not come to pass.
He was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulianov (1870-1924) but when he started to initiate and organize a revolutionary party he used the pseudonym Lenin and from that time on he was popularly known by that name. In 1887 shortly after the death of his father, his older brother was arrested and then later hanged for charges of conspiracy to assassinate the tsar of Russia. Lenin was devastated and later on he was expelled from the University of Kazan apparently because he was the brother of a hanged conspirator, “Retiring to the family estate, the future Lenin had ample time to brood bitterly on the injustices of the tsarist state and the narrow, hypocritical, and cruel society of those who considered themselves his betters” (Wesson, 1978). While studying to become a lawyer Lenin began to focus his energies in radical writing, especially those of Karl Marx.
Lenin is in agreement with Marx especially when it comes to the tyranny of the elite and the need to replace them. But they differ in one important aspect, while Marx suggested that a revolution is the natural byproduct of class struggle, Lenin cannot wait for that time to come. Therefore, Marxism evolved into Leninism, one of its basic characteristic was to organize the Proletariat and educate them and to make them think and react like an intellectual fed by a steady diet of Marxism-Leninism – one who is ready for a revolution.
As mentioned earlier, Marx asserted that capitalism will not be the last stop in the evolution of European societies and the following statement will show how he saw the end of the Bourgeoisie: “…the capitalistic system will inevitably produce periodic depressions and will finally culminate in the accumulation of wealth by the owners of the means of production, and in the increasing misery of the workers” (Popkin & Stroll, 1993). And since the workers had the strength in numbers they will successfully carry out a revolution that will change a country like Russia into a socialist state.
Based on what happened to European societies in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution it was surprising to find out that things did not go from bad to worse. In fact defenders of capitalism are quick to say that, “Instead of producing lower standards of living and instead of exacerbating the relation between employer and employee, capitalism has produced both higher standards of living and better relations between owner and worker … Such developments as the growth of trade unions, antitrust laws, and social security measures have all proved beneficial in contributing to the economic stability of capitalistic societies” (Popkin & Stroll, 1993). In an ironic twist of fate it was communist Russia that imploded and instead of creating utopia Marxism led to the rise of tyrants as brutal and as repressive as Stalin.
One of the more accurate descriptions of what really happened with the former Soviet Union’s failed attempt to adapt Marxist ideals and build a counter-argument against capitalism can be seen below:
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. Only after the death of Stalin in 1953 did a more humanitarian spirit prevail and the well-being of the people received due attention (Matthews, 1989).
Without a doubt the failed experiment with regards to changing a capitalistic Russian society into a socialist state has proven once and for all that Marxism does not work in the real world. Not only did the former Soviet Union and the Russian people suffered from the negative consequences of adopting Marx ideas but the USSR and its government was instrumental in spreading the communist gospel to many nations around the world including East Germany, China, Vietnam, and North Korea. Each of these nations suffered terribly as dictators or central planning acted like heavy chains inhibiting innovation, creativity, and progress. Compared to the United States and other highly industrialized nations such as Japan, West Germany, and France the Soviet Union lagged behind in economic development.
The only good thing that came out of it – if one can consider it as a good thing – was the realization that Marxism is not the solution to age old problem of inequality and poverty. For philosophers, they also gained something from this so-called experiment and they saw it in the following, “The possibility of transcending a capitalist economy and organizing the economy in a different manner was a theoretical one when Marx formulated it; the existence of the Soviet Union gave it some substance and historical validity…” (Gamble, 1999). Unfortunately this is the only positive thing that can be gleaned from the whole exercise and that is to disprove Marx in a real world setting. But it came at a price – the Russian people became intimate with poverty, war, violation of human rights, and totalitarianism.
It would be impossible to explain the connection between Marxism and the Russian people without first discussing the impact of the Industrial Revolution. It would also be impossible to explain Karl Marx without considering the fact that he lived in London at a time when London was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. It is while living in England where Karl Marx saw the negative impacts of rapid industrialization. It was not the growth of the industries per se that contributed to the social decline of key European nations but it is rather due to the forces that are sustaining the rapid modernization of these countries.
There is nothing new to the rhetoric concerning social inequalities; it is plain to see that in most societies there is a gap between the rich and the poor. But for Marx the gap has widened considerably in 19th century England. Marx said that there is nothing else to blame but the consequences of capitalism. Capitalism according to Marx was made possible by the presence of two social classes the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. The former had the capability to build factories or the means to produce goods while the latter is the human resources needed to make the system work. The Proletariat supplied the workers to run the factories.
Marx was influenced by Hegel, one of the greatest German philosophers of the modern era. Marx used Hegel’s idea of dialectics to argue that societies evolve not because nations go to war but mainly for the reason that social classes – existing within nations – are in constant struggle, in constant conflict. And just like the proverbial saying, as iron sharpens iron, the collision of two social classes will result in a revolution and when the dust clears the one left standing is a new social order.
Marx ideas came at a time when Russia was struggling for reform. Russia’s empire co-existed with other European behemoths such as Germany, England, and France but it is difficult to hide the truth that Russia significantly lags behind in terms of economic and political power. It is time for change but the question remains: who will lead and what type of government can successfully lead the Russian people into unprecedented growth and political success? For a nation used to being ruled by the iron fist of former tsars it is understandable why many voiced out their reservations against the highly individualistic and liberal mindset needed to make capitalism work
Thus when Marxism came into the picture, the Russian people, particularly the intellectuals were fully convinced that there is now a better alternative to capitalism. Marxism in its basic form promises not only freedom from opportunistic members of the Bourgeoisie but also the chance to create a utopian society where everyone achieves equality as poor and working class members of society can work hand-in-hand to improve their lives. There will be revolution, a radical change will occur and there will be an equal distribution of wealth. No single individual will be allowed to own vast tracts of land and in the new system peasant farmers will have access to land just like in ancient times when people learn to respect land as the property of the community.
But these are all theories and ideas, Marx formulated all of these in his head but he never got the chance to apply it in a real world setting. All of that began to change when a Russian radical by the name of Vladimir Ilyich Ulianov got hold of Marxist ideas while studying to become a lawyer. He later changed his name to Lenin and began to tinker with Marxism. Lenin was not satisfied with what he knew about Marxism and the conditions that existed in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Lenin believed that there will be a struggle between two major social classes but he cannot wait for the natural process, he could not wait for the slow development of Russian society and so he decided to fast track the evolutionary process – Lenin wanted a revolution right away in order to remove the ruling elites and replace the present form of government with a socialist state along the lines of Marxist thought. Lenin succeeded and began to build a Russian society that will prove the superiority of socialism against capitalism. But he only went as far as first base, Marxism-Leninism proved to be a defective economic theory.
It is a well-known fact how Russia suffered from the hands of the communist party. With all the radical ideas and all the beautiful speeches about a bright future for all Russian people, it all boiled down to leadership. Marxism’s major error was its inability to suggest a model of leadership that is better than democracy. Due to the revolutionary nature of the social change needed to root out capitalism Marxist adherents had to make sacrifices, temporarily giving up their freedom to the revolutionary leaders like Lenin and Stalin but they forgot the truism that absolute power does not diminish through time but in reality grows in strength and becomes corrupt.
The ruling communist party had every reason to be repressive; they were tearing the old and replacing it with the new. But when a small group of political leaders began to think that they are better and wiser than the rest of the world, things began to unravel. As fellow Russians began to show signs of unease and rebellion, the communist party began to strengthen their grip on power. It was hard for a leader to admit mistakes. This precisely the reason why democracy works, the people can see through the lies and they can act together to remove the growing tyranny before it becomes too powerful for them to deal with. But in a communist state there is no chance to correct that error. Karl Marx had a novel solution to the problems that plague the modern world but he forgot to factor in human nature and human folly.
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