Thursday, November 29, 2012
Just What Was Fundamentally Wrong with Bolshevism?
Posted By Steven Plaut On November 29, 2012 @ 12:25 am In Daily
Mailer,FrontPage | 2 Comments
I recently read the new biography of Trotsky by Oxford don Robert
Service, published in 2009 by Pan Books. It is well-written and
surprisingly interesting. The book does a great public service in
describing the life of the actual Trotsky, whose previous
"biographies" were little more than hagiographies written by his toady
worshippers (people like Isaac Deutscher). The last time that I had
taken any interest in Trotsky was when I was a teenager and had
fleeting delusions of believing in "socialism." Reading the new book
as an adult and as an economist, I found it a useful opportunity to
contemplate the rise of one of the most oppressive regimes in human
history. I have gathered some thoughts and impressions here and I
hope they will be of interest.
Hunger and starvation have so often accompanied "political revolution"
that it would be safe to suggest that they are intrinsic parts of it.
Communist revolutions have invariably produced famines and terror.
The immediate trigger for "revolutionary terror" in early Soviet
Russia was the same as in the French Revolution: the inability of the
regime to obtain food for urban residents.
The Bolsheviks had never had very much interest in the peasants in the
first place. As great believers in Marxist theology, they advocated
the imposition by the "proletariat" of urban workers of "its" will
upon the country, including upon the agricultural laborers who
constituted the bulk of the population. Even if the Bolshevik party
could seriously be thought to represent the urban "proletariat," they
would still have constituted a movement representing only a very small
portion of Russian society. Thus bolshevism's most basic operating
principles were anti-democratic.
The Bolsheviks represented a movement seeking to impose the interests
of this minority "class" over the interests of the bulk of Russian
society (and later over non-Russian populations in the Soviet empire).
The role assigned by the communists to the peasants was to sit back
and turn over food to the "revolution," either without getting paid
for it or without getting paid very much. The Bolshevik state
procurement of food operated through a state-run monopoly, preventing
peasants from seeking better prices, and increasingly turned violent
when peasants refused to cooperate. The communists considered
payment of incentives to peasants for delivering food to be
anti-revolutionary and capitalist. The most violent stages of the
French Revolution had been triggered by similar inability of the
"revolutionary state" to procure adequate food for urban "workers."
Armed gangs of Soviet foragers, like Parisian foragers before them in
the French revolution, emptied the stores of food in rural areas in a
desperate attempt to prevent their own loss of power.
The other problem for the Bolsheviks was of course that they claimed
to represent "the working class" of urban workers, but never
considered it necessary to allow those same members of the
"proletariat" a say in what they themselves considered their "class
interests" to be. The communist party leaders claimed to represent
the proletariat automatically, supernaturally, by dint of their having
studied Marx and Engels. Under their theology they could
automatically divine from the dusty 80 year old writings of Marx what
served the interests of the Russian "working class," without having to
ask any actual workers, and in most cases without having to engage in
actual work. Party leaders, led by Lenin and Trotsky, lived bourgeois
lives even in the most difficult days of the Russian Civil War, often
living in luxurious royal apartments inside the Kremlin (which had
been the royal residence before the Revolution). Soviet leaders were
attended by large numbers of servants, and Trotsky himself never went
anywhere during the Civil War without both his large flock of servants
and a 35-member military band. Bolshevik leaders (Trotsky in
particular) generally had never done a day of honest labor in their
lives in any factory or farm; their entire "careers" consisting of
The Bolsheviks believed that they could divine the answers to what the
"workers" collectively needed in much the same way that Church clergy
could conjure up the agenda of God, by reading the holy scriptures.
And like other manifestations of theology, the Bolsheviks tended to
bicker and break up into small factions over minor questions of
belief. Like in the Church, the factionalism was suppressed by means
of the proclamation of official dogma approved by the party's Pope.
It was the beginning of the thought police system, later perfected by
In the case of communists, these scriptures meant Marx and Engels, and
later Lenin. The problem of course was that Marx and Engels never
spelled out the nitty gritty details of what "workers" would need, and
basically had no understanding whatsoever of economics. They can
hardly be excused for this ignorance on grounds of writing before the
advent of modern economic understanding, because it was already well
on the course of development at that time.
As just one example of the problem, should the price of shoes in a
"workers' state" be high in order to benefit shoe workers producing
shoes, or low to benefit workers who are consumers? And if the
representatives of the proletariat cannot make up their minds about
the price of shoes, then how the Devil can they decide what
constitutes "worker interest" in thousands of other dilemmas. Asking
the workers themselves what they wanted was quickly ruled out by the
Bolsheviks as a counter-revolutionary nonstarter.
The solution of the early Soviet regime was essentially to suppress
and terrorize urban workers, not just the peasants. Before the end of
the Civil War, Lenin and Trotsky were ordering all independent labor
unions, meaning those that were not simply servile fronts for the
party, to be suppressed. Lenin and Trotsky insisted that unions
represented and promoted only the narrow interests of selected groups
of "proletarians" and not of the entire "class." Exactly!
In fact, the "alienation" of the "urban workers" by the party had
occurred even earlier. The Bolshevik coup and the storming of the
Winter Palace were uprisings of the "working class" only in party
mythology. The bulk of those rising up in support of the Bolsheviks
were soldiers in the Czarist or Kerenski armies, who supported the
party because of the promise by Lenin to surrender to the Central
powers and end all fighting and mobilization of troops.
The Bolshevik banner may have featured the hammer of the urban worker
with the sickle of the peasant, but at the time of the Revolution it
was little more than a party of disgruntled soldiers and sailors, most
from rural background, reluctant to be sent back to the World War I
front to defend Russia. Their opportunistic support for the
Bolsheviks largely vanished in thin air as soon as the party tried to
mobilize them and send them out to fight the "whites" during the civil
war. Trotsky was forced to recruit ex-czarist officers to serve as
commanders in the Red Army.
The main groups of soldiers supporting the party with enthusiasm were
non-Russians desiring the end of Russian domination over their native
lands, like the brigades of Latvian riflemen who served as Lenin's
praetorian guards. By 1921, the same Kronstadt sailors who had been
critical in bringing the Bolsheviks to power in 1917 were shooting
them and organizing a massive mutiny, brutally suppressed by the
communists. The suppression of the rebellion led Whittaker Chambers
to label bolshevism a form of fascism, and persuaded many of those who
contributed later to the book, "The God that Failed," to abandon
communism. As in the French Revolution, all opposition was
automatically attributed by the "Revolutionaries" to foreign
conspiracies. Dissent was a form of treason.
Bolshevik thinking in the early days carried strong features of
theology. The Bolsheviks believed that if they were to follow the
precepts of Marx to the letter, and pronounce the correct
incantations, then magic would take place and socialist revolutions
would spring up all over the world like adorable leprechauns. This
voodoo Marxism eventually led to the rise of Stalin and totalitarian
"socialism in one country." And an ice pick in the skull of Trotsky.
Most Bolshevik leaders had no skills or experience in government
administration, management, business, or anything else. Their only
claim to legitimacy was their assertion that they understood the needs
of the "proletariat." Trotsky believed in command control and
central "planning" of the economy until his last breath, and he was
hardly alone. Within days of seizing power in their coup d'etat, the
Bolshevik leaders were seeking to impose their "dictatorship of the
proletariat," by which they meant the dictatorship of those party
officials, more often than not from middle class backgrounds, claiming
to represent the proletariat. The Russian economy imploded under
their rule. Output of Russian factories and mines in 1921 was only a
seventh of what it had been under the Czar in 1913.
Their understanding of foreign powers and diplomacy was even more
pathetic than their ignorance of economics, and was also dominated by
belief in magic. During the first years of the Soviet regime, its
leaders quite seriously expected communist revolutions to break out
all over Europe. And they were truly surprised when none did, except
pathetic attempts – quickly suppressed – to install bolshevism in
Germany and Hungary.
Part of their problem was that Marx and Engels were themselves wrong
with regard to just about everything. They were wrong, first and
foremost, with regard to the claim that there exists some sort of
monolithic "working class" with some sort of uniform set of "class
interests." Urban workers share no common interest, as the above
example involving shoe prices illustrates. Urban workers indeed were
a "class" with a common interest only in the most tautological sense,
only in the sense that all those assigned to any "class" would favor
increases in the incomes and wealth for all members of that "class."
By the same token, people with curly hair constitute a "class,"
because any proposal to raise incomes for all those with curls would
be supported by them. But regarding any other issue that would
arise, the curly headed would have no common interest. Ditto for
urban workers. And in the exact same sense, there is no capitalist
class. An assembly of the "capitalist class" would similarly be
incapable of agreeing over whether shoe prices should be high or low.
And just why were urban "workers" even considered to be politically
superior to everyone else in society? Marx, Engels and the Soviet
leadership had great difficulty conceiving of anyone doing productive
work unless they were making "things." And heavy "things" were more
valuable, important, and productive than light "things." Certainly
producing services was not understood by them as productive labor,
explaining why the quality of services of all sorts in the Soviet
block remained abysmal all the way down to the fall of communism.
But just what was a "worker"? Do not bankers and teachers and
dentists and engineers and pharmacists work? In many cases, they
work longer hours than factory workers. Marx and Engels had insisted
that urban factory workers must seize political control of society,
and they must do so by means of a dictatorship by the party claiming
to speak in their name. In any case, Marx and Engels were pretty sure
that peasants did not really provide important "work." After all,
they just produce food. So they need not really be part of any
Peasant reluctance to deliver food products to the urban "masses"
without getting paid was "counter-revolutionary" and could be resolved
by starving them to death, terrorizing them, and locking them up in
non-productive collective farms. There food production would prove
too low even to feed the peasants themselves, let alone export food to
the cities. The Bolsheviks were truly surprised when it turned out
that their policies had driven the bulk of the peasants to support the
"whites" and other opposition forces in the Civil War. While agrarian
collectivism was relaxed briefly under the "New Economic Policy" of
Lenin's last days, it then became an instrument of genocide under
The other problem of the Bolsheviks was that, at least in the early
stages of the "Revolution," they were truly captivated by utopian
delusions. The problem of all utopians is that they advocate systems
and ideas that can only work with imaginary idyllic humans, but never
with real human beings. When they discover that real human beings
refuse to knuckle under and behave according to utopian expectations,
the utopianists respond with violent rage. The greatest strength of
capitalism is that it actually works with real human beings, people
who are lazy, base, narcissistic, self-indulgent, foul-smelling,
mean-spirited, and unsophisticated. Capitalism does not require
idyllic fictional humans in order for it to work.
The most violent terrorists and oppressors of others have always been
the utopians. The French Revolution turned violent and the guillotine
was introduced to attempt to terrorize actual humans into behaving
according to the expectations of the utopianists. The leaders of the
Soviet Revolution were no slower or more squeamish in following the
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