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Power and powerlessness of the utopias

The recently ended 20th century can be described as the age of the triumphant triumph of totalitarian utopias and their subsequent total failure. I would like to briefly describe this process of the rise and decline of Utopias using the example of Russia.

Lenin inspects general troops of the Red Army on Red Square in Moscow together with commanders (May 25, 1919)

“Heresy” of utopianism?

In October 1917, the Bolsheviks established the first totalitarian modernist Regime in Russia. “The utopia came to Power” – so this process, referred to the Russian historians Mikhail Geller and Alexander Nekritsch. The Russian philosopher Simon Frank defines utopianism as classical heresy, as an attempt to redeem the world with the help of human will alone. Since the utopianist violates the structure of creation and the nature of man, his project is doomed to failure from the outset. Thus he declares war on both creation and human nature and transforms himself from a supposed Redeemer into a fierce enemy of the human race.

This frank Definition can largely be applied to the proponents of the Russian Revolution of 1917, but also to their French predecessors of 1789. The parallels between the Russian and French revolutions are indeed striking. Both had a “philosophical prologue”. “Man Is Born Free, and everywhere he lies in chains, “wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1762 in his” social contract, " and this suggestive sentence, which reflected the essence of the philosopher’s revolutionary writing, became the guiding principle of many French revolutionaries, especially the Jacobins. The Jacobins wanted to put an end once and for all to the “unnatural” state lamented by Rousseau. Their” educational dictatorship “resorted to ever harsher means to return the unruly human nature to its” original goodness " in the sense of Rousseau. Without Success. Terror began to develop a momentum of its own that could not be contained. Finally, on 9 Thermidor 1794, he directed himself against his Jacobin originators.

Lenin’s " new type party”

The Bolsheviks, constantly thinking in parallels with the French Revolution, were convinced that they would succeed in avoiding the mistakes of the Jacobins. In Marxism, unlike their Jacobin predecessors, they finally had a closed ideological concept that laid the claim to” science”.

The “Communist Manifesto” of Marx and Engels was a kind of “philosophical prologue” of the Bolshevik Revolution. Here the classics of Marxism laid out the Vision of a future classless society and at the same time described the path the Communists had to take in order to realize this Vision:

Formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of bourgeois rule, conquest of political power by the Proletariat.

Seventy years, however, were to elapse before these postulates were translated into reality. In the meantime, the “Communist Manifesto” was seen more as a utopian blueprint, less as a guide to action. The Proletariat, with which Marx and Engels linked their chiliastic hopes, has not proved itself a revolutionary class. Instead of striving for the establishment of a classless paradise on earth, European industrial workers merely contented themselves with the modest raising of their standard of living and the gradual improvement of working conditions. Such events as the uprising of the Paris workers in June 1848 or the Paris commune only remained symptoms. Lenin had this development in mind when he published his programmatic paper " what to do?“which was to have as groundbreaking a significance for the history of the labour movement as the"Communist Manifesto”. In his writing Lenin had stated that social-democratic consciousness could only receive the workers from outside. Only the avant-garde of the theoretically and politically trained professional revolutionaries could give to the proletarians, the socialist ideas. By its own power, the proletarian Mass only reaches the trade-unionist consciousness. Thus, for Lenin, not the Proletariat, but the party became the actual subject of history, a demiurge who was to create the new world. “Give us an organization of revolutionaries, and we will throw Russia off its feet,” Lenin wrote in " what to do?". This task was entrusted to the Bolshevik party founded by Lenin in 1903, which, because of its centralized and rigorously disciplined character, was a novelty in the history of the Workers ' Movement. In view of the paradigm shift carried out by the Bolsheviks, the question of the respective relations of production or class, which had been so important for the orthodox Marxists, played rather a secondary role. The party’s decisions have now become an absolute priority. The party alone now decided whether the respective country was ripe for a proletarian Revolution or not.

The Marxist doctrine was at the heart of the party, and the realization of this doctrine became the categorical imperative of Bolshevism. But the Bolsheviks were not only unrealistic Doctrinal. If this had been the case, they would not have been able to achieve their stunning successes. The secret of the success of the Bolsheviks was that they were able to combine dogmatic intransigence with an astonishing sense of reality. Despite their contempt for the so-called” fickle masses, " they masterfully mastered the populist art of mass influence. This became apparent especially after the fall of the tsar in February/March 1917. when Lenin called the Russian soldiers to Desertion and the peasants to the violent expropriation of the landowners, he violated all the rules of the newly established democratic system in Russia. But even the Russian soldiers, workers and peasants did not want to know about these rules of the game. The Russian philosopher Fyodor Stepun, who was one of the sharpest critics of the Bolsheviks, wrote: Lenin’s openness to all the storms of the Revolution had come together with the dark destructive longings of the Russian masses.

This circumstance, described by Stepun, certainly contributed to the unprecedented rise of the Bolsheviks in the course of 1917.

“Utopia in Power”

Immediately after the Bolshevik seizure of power, however, the paths of the Bolsheviks and the Russian lower classes began to separate. For as political doctrinaires, the Bolsheviks tried overnight to adapt Russian reality to the communist utopia. Lev Trotsky, in his memoirs of Lenin, quotes a statement made by the founder of the Bolshevik party about January 1918:

After half a year, we will have socialism and be the most powerful state on Earth.

The Bolsheviks, however, tried to realize their utopia in a country which, from the point of view of the orthodox Marxists, was quite unsuitable for such experiments. For the overwhelming majority of its population consisted of the so-called peasant “Petty proprietors” whom Lenin himself described as determined enemies of the proletariat.:

Their weapon is the undermining of everything that the Proletariat decrees and seeks to realize in the construction of an organized economy.

Since mid-1918, the Bolsheviks in Russia began to establish a system that is regarded as the embodiment of Bolshevik utopianism and voluntarism: the system of War communism based on unfettered Terror. War communism meant the extension of state control to the most important areas of life, to all political, social and economic events. The Russian society, which had completely liberated itself from state patronage in 1917, was now again disenfranchised, in a way that did not exist even before the abolition of serfdom in 1861. Many Bolsheviks considered war communism not only an emergency, but a desirable state, a System that corresponded to socialist ideals. The far-reaching devaluation of money, the nationalization of industry and banks, the centralization of the economy, the obligation to work and the abolition of private trade included. The state took control of the production and labor force, as well as the distribution of all important products. The party believed that with this policy it was on the way to the realization of the classless paradise on Earth. War communism symbolized the party’s attempt to adapt the social reality to political doctrine.

The widespread disenfranchisement and nationalization of Russian society, which took place in the period of War communism, provoked stubborn resistance among the population. The freedom frenzy of 1917 continued for a long time and caused the Bolsheviks great problems for many years. Unlike in Germany after the National Socialist seizure of power, the totalitarian Regime in Russia was not established as a result of an extremely rapid process of Gleichschaltung, but only after a three-year civil war. The fact that the Bolshevik seizure of power on October 25, 1917, went rather smoothly did not say too much about the true internal condition of Russian society. Their backbone was far from broken at that time, the resistance potential was certainly present. Not least for this reason, a cruel civil war could begin in a war-weary country immediately after Russia’s withdrawal from the World War, which demanded far more victims than the first World War. The overwhelming majority of the population turned against the Bolsheviks during the civil war, fought them or remained in passive resistance. In view of this, the Survival of the regime looks like a miracle. This was all the more so as those strata in whose name they ruled also turned away from the Bolsheviks.

To a particularly hazardous challenge for the Bolsheviks at the time of the civil war, the attitude of the most numerous population group in the country. The Bolshevik decree of 26 October 1917 made the Russian peasants practically the greatest beneficiary of the October Revolution. The expropriation of the landowners, which had already been carried out illegally in many regions before the Bolshevik seizure of power, was now legalized. From now on, the overwhelming majority of Russian peasants were hardly interested in integrating themselves into the overall economic fabric of the state. This was all the less so since the shattered Russian industry produced fewer and fewer goods and was unable to offer the peasants a corresponding equivalent for their products. Thus the food situation of the cities became more and more catastrophic. Not least for this reason, on 11 May 1918, the Bolsheviks renewed the law on a state monopoly of grain, which had already been passed by the Provisional Government on 25 March 1917.

On January 11, 1919, a decree was issued on the agricultural obligation to deliver grain, in which the state clearly defined its needs. Each Region now had to deliver the amount of grain and other food mentioned by the state. The peasants were brutally punished for not complying with the obligation to surrender. The rebellion of the rural population against this policy was inevitable. Militarily, of course, the poorly organized and insufficiently armed peasants did not stand a chance in the confrontation with the Bolshevik terrorist organs and with the regular units of the Red Army. The revolt of the peasants against the Regime was primarily a moral setback for the Bolsheviks. For within a very short time they had lost the support of the very group of people who had benefited most from the October Revolution.

Doctrinal rigorism vs. sense of reality

Thus, at the time of the “Red Terror”, the Bolshevik Regime was basically rejected by all sections of the Russian population, it was in a far-reaching social Isolation. What then enabled the Bolsheviks to survive this Isolation and ultimately end the Civil War as superior victors? Mass terror alone would not have been sufficient. The success of the Bolsheviks was probably also due to other no less important factors. So e.g. by their already described ability to reconcile doctrinal rigorism with an amazing sense of reality. Characteristic in this context was, for example, their attitude towards peasant property.

Thus, the abolition of private property was one of the most important pillars of the war communism. Only in one area did the Bolsheviks curb their drive for a total nationalization of the means of production. In 1919, when the war-communist System was already fully established, about 97% of the agricultural land was in peasant hands. This state of affairs was untenable for many Bolshevik purists. They regarded the socialization of the soil as an indispensable component of the new economic system.

However, the leading forces within the Soviet leadership, not least Lenin, rejected these demands during the Civil War. They wanted to take the so-called surpluses from the peasants, but not the soil. And in doing so, they showed that the peasant Psyche was much more familiar to them than to their critics. Because they knew that any attempt to make the results of the land reform from October, 1917, in question, would reinforce the already desperate resistance of the peasants against the Bolshevik policy many times.

A tactical retreat? The New Economic Policy

The extremely brutal system of War communism probably enabled the Bolsheviks to win the Civil War. But it was precisely after this victory that new problems arose, no less dangerous for the Bolshevik maintenance of power. For the continuation of the previous course was now without any justification in the eyes of the majority of the population. The last warning the Bolsheviks received was the uprising of the Kronstadt sailors, which broke out on March 1, 1921. Kronstadt had been repeatedly called the most loyal Bastion of the Revolution by the Bolsheviks since 1917. But now, after the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, this “most faithful Bastion of the Revolution” rose up against the Bolshevik dictatorship in the name of Soviet democracy. Although the insurrection was crushed by the Bolsheviks with extreme brutality, it clearly contributed to the end of the untenable policy of War communism. Even during the uprising, Lenin proclaimed that the dictatorial measures in the economy were justified only during the Civil War. But now the Civil War is over and therefore the continuation of this policy is no longer justifiable. The speech also announced the principles of the new economic policy, the core of which was the liberation of the peasants from the state system of coercion.

However, the new course was clearly too late, it was not able to prevent the famine that began in 1921. 5 million people fell victim to it. Nevertheless, already in 1922 there was a fairly rapid reconstruction of Russian agriculture.

The Stalinist Revolution from above

Although the attempt of the Bolsheviks to realize their social utopia failed in the first attempt, this utopian Vision by no means ceased to inspire the party. Stalin now appealed to these utopian energies. He knew that the pro-peasant course was very unpopular with most Bolsheviks, for he condemned the party to inaction and adaptation to the elemental forces of Soviet society. But this contradicted Lenin’s conception of the party as an avant-garde, which was to convey and even impose its will on the masses. Thus, Stalin, with his program of collectivization of Agriculture, which began in 1929-30 and turned into a campaign against the entire Soviet peasantry, took up the most important features of the war-communist system. Once again the Bolshevik leadership tried to adapt social reality to the doctrine by means of mass terror. However, with the difference that she now sought to snatch from the peasants not only their products, but also their entire property. This is one of the most important results of the Bolshevik Revolution, the radical land reform of October 1917, undone.

At the end of 1933, the Soviet state was able to celebrate its victory over the defenseless rural population. The task, which many observers considered impracticable, had been accomplished. A part of the party leadership no longer considered the extension of the state of emergency imposed in 1929/30 to be meaningful. In doing so, however, they completely misunderstood the intrinsic dynamics of the processes they triggered. The System, established in the early 1930s, constituted a permanent state of emergency and, during the so-called “Great Terror” of 1936-1938, evicted those forces that resisted its “logic,” including a large part of the Bolshevik power elite.

Despite their tragic fate, however, the Bolshevik victims of the Great Terror must not be released from their responsibility for Stalinist despotism. They wanted to build a socialist paradise on earth with the help of unfettered violence. Instead of a paradise, however, they created a System that the Russian philosopher Butenko described as a “hell on Earth” at the time of Gorbachev’s Perestroika.

The German-Soviet war and the “spontaneous de-Stalinization”

The Stalinist Revolution from above, which led to a far-reaching alignment of both Soviet society and the ruling party, seemed to have finally stifled the urge for freedom in Russia and in the USSR. All parts of society seemed to have been transformed into wanton “shearers” of a smoothly functioning totalitarian mechanism.

All the more astonishing was the behaviour of the population subjugated by the Regime after the Hitler raid on the Soviet Union. After the disastrous debacle of the Red army in the summer and autumn of 1941, the fate of the Soviet state seemed to be sealed. What then made it possible for the Soviet forces to stop the Wehrmacht, accustomed to victory, first at Moscow and then at Stalingrad, and to launch a counterattack that only ended in Berlin? “Willless shearers” would not have been able to do this. Without the initiative of the society, without the “spontaneous de-Stalinization”, the conquest of the Third Reich would not have been possible. Above all, however, the desire of countless Soviet citizens for a dignified, free life, which was to begin after the war, contributed to this.

Society, which had practically broken the backbone of the Stalin ranks in the 1930s, had now regained at least a little of its dignity in the hour of mortal threat not only to the Stalinist Regime, but also to its own state as such.

The dusk of the Soviet Empire

After the victory over the Third Reich, Stalin quickly succeeded in disciplining the nation so proud of its victory. Those observers who thought that after the return from Berlin the Soviet soldiers would behave in the same way as their predecessors had done when they returned from Paris to St Petersburg after the defeat of Napoleon saw themselves disappointed. A new edition of the Decembrist uprising did not take place in the Soviet Union. The longing for freedom and for a dignified life, which had been part of the victory over the Nazi state, seemed to be extinguished. In reality, however, it had by no means disappeared from the social consciousness. This longing was met by the successors of Stalin when, just a few days after the tyrant’s death, they began dismantling the system he had established. Although this dismantling remained timid and half-hearted, although it was carried out in a bureaucratic manner, the death of Stalin represented one of the greatest caesura in the recent history of Russia. This turning point put an end to the nearly 40-year spiral of violence that had marked the country’s development since the outbreak of the first World War, with a brief interruption in the 1920s. The rulers began to observe certain rules of the game both in their dealings with each other and in their dealings with society. Their approach became more predictable. Only the dissident behavior was now punished, while the faithful and conformist behavior was rewarded. Under Stalin, there were no such rules.

Only in such a milder political atmosphere was the emergence of the civil rights movement possible, which openly advocated human rights and fundamental rights. Although the civil rights activists were unable to influence broader sections of the population. Nevertheless, they managed to fundamentally change the political culture in the country. In an unfree country, civil rights activists would have behaved like free people, according to one of the leading representatives of the movement Andrej Amalrik.

The civil rights movement was not able to achieve its goals directly, all its organizational structures were already destroyed in the late 1970s / early 1980s. However, the fact that Gorbachev’s “new thinking” in some respects, consciously or unconsciously, was based on the models of thought developed by the civil rights activists can be seen as its subsequent victory. And thus the general secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU unintentionally triggered one of the greatest upheavals in the history of the 20th century. Because the “class struggle morality”, which is at the heart of the Communist ideology, not with the Gorbachev advocated “the absolute priority of General human values” – an unconscious reference to the program of the Soviet civil rights activist – agreed. The former communist hierarchy of values was blown up and with it the entire building based on it.