World in the Grip of an Idea: 4. Russia - Old Regime and New Revolutionaries

In this series, Dr. Carson examines the connection between ideology and the revolutions of our time and traces the impact on several major countries and the spread of the ideas and practices around the world.

The Soviet rule over the Russian Empire has been one of, if not the, most oppressive and tyrannical in all of history. It reached its nadir of arbitrary oppression under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, but it has been throughout its sixty-year domination a tyranny. There has been no shortage of efforts to explain this, or to explain it away, as the case may be. One of the most common explanations is that the Soviet government inherited an autocratic regime from Czarist Russia and continued it. Another explanation, one which goes even further afield, is that the dictatorship of the Soviet Union is out of some sort of mold of Oriental Despotism. Then, there are those explanations which focus on the personality of Stalin, largely ignoring the despotism of Lenin and of Stalin’s successors. Thus, it is alleged that Stalin was paranoid and/or a megalomaniac. This focus on Stalin has been particularly popular since Stalin was debunked by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956.

The major shortcoming of these and other such explanations is that they do not come to grips with the problem. They leave us with the need for an explanation of what has supposedly been explained. Why, we need to know, would the Bolsheviks or Communists (as they came to be known) have continued the autocracy from a regime which they hated and were pledged to displace root and branch? (This is not to deny that there may have been some connections but rather to affirm the need for explaining these.) Why would European-oriented Communists have become Oriental despots? If Stalin was paranoid, how did it happen that he was able to come to power and rule for so long? Perhaps Stalin did have an inordinate love of power, but what enabled him to satisfy it? In short, why evade the issue?

Tyranny Fills the Void

There is an obvious explanation for the tyranny of communism. It is in Marxist ideology. An explanation begins to emerge when the matter is approached in the following way. Marxism has no political theory. It has a theory about politics but no political theory. Many critics of Marxism have focused on its misconceptions about economics. But at least Marx had a conception of economics, a conception derived from classical economics, however distorted it was in his formulation. By contrast, he abandoned political theory almost entirely.

The reason is not far to seek. No political theory was necessary because the state is unnecessary. Government, or the state, is an accident, in philosophical terms. It arose as an instrument for class rule. It is a figment, so to speak, of the class which controls the instruments of production and distribution of goods. Since, as Marx conceived the matter, this control always involved deep-seated and universal injustice, government, or the state, had been used to perpetuate the injustice and repress the dispossessed classes. Marx predicted that with the triumph of the proletariat the classless society would emerge and the state would wither away.

True, there would be an interval between the time of the initial triumph of the proletariat and the emergence of the classless society. During this interval, the proletariat, or the class-conscious arm of it, would take over the state apparatus and run it. This would be the period of the "dictatorship of the proletariat." But it would only be an interlude; the state would still be accidental and ephemeral; it would then wither and disappear. There was no need to trouble to devise political arrangements for something which had no future. It would be like devising means for governing ghosts when all that would really be needed would be to exorcise them.

Government Misunderstood

Marx had confused and, in effect, fused two distinct aspects of reality: government and economy. Out of his materialistic philosophy and under the deceptive lure of the potential perfection of economy as viewed from the angle of economic theory, he supposed the economic system to be essential and government to be accidental. Given a just economy, government, or the state, would have no reason for being. In the real world, as contrasted with Marx’s abstract poetic world, both government and economy are essential. Economy is essential to provide us with sustenance; government is essential to maintain the peace. Nor does the economic system determine the government; on the contrary, the character of the government determines, to considerable extent, the economic system. (This is not to deny reciprocal relations between the two but to emphasize the primary role of government by virtue of its monopoly of the use of force.)

Be that as it may, the important point is that communism has no general theory (or tradition) of government. In Marxist theory, government had been an accidental instrument of class rule; it will be only a temporary expedient for consolidating the position of the proletariat. There is no theory or tradition within it of what constitutes a legitimate government. There is no formalized requirement for the consent of the governed. There is no provision for the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, checks and balances, or any means for containing and restricting government. Indeed, since all conflict is supposed to disappear, and since all limitations presuppose conflict, Marxist theory cannot accommodate any of these ideas.

Marxism is a covert blueprint for unlimited, despotic, arbitrary, and tyrannical government. It is covert because the theory posits a potential harmony which nowhere exists and the absence of government when in fact government prevails everywhere. More, Marxists in power employ the full weight of political power in drastic efforts to transform human nature, power limited only by the imagination and lack of determination of those who wield it. If it were given a theory and tradition of government, it would no longer be Marxism. Marxism is committed to a vision of the future and an explanation of the past which does not accept the reality and permanency of government. Reality ignored does not, of course, go away; instead, it grows luxuriously and smothers all else. This is precisely what has happened in all communist lands.

Rule by Gangsters

In fact and in practice, communism is rule by gangsters who seek to give legitimacy to their governments and acts by Marxism. That they have been gangsters does not stem merely from the fact that they were outlaws and exiles before they seized power, though they were. Nor does it stem merely from the fact that they operate in a conspiratorial manner, though they do. It is more deeply a part of their mode of operations and reason for being than these things imply. They are gangsters, in the first place, because they are thieves. They take the property of others and use it for their own purposes. They are gangsters, in the second place, because they operate by force and violence on those under their sway. They are gangsters, finally, because their rule is not legitimate, and the very ideology by which they would give legitimacy to their rule makes them gangsters.

But why call them gangsters? Why not despots? Or dictators? Or usurpers? These latter terms are, of course, to some extent appropriate, but they do not adequately describe the phenomenon with which we are dealing. There are despots and despots, dictators and dictators, usurpers and usurpers. They are relative terms. "Gangster," by contrast, is precise; it describes a possibility of a type of ruler for which the perversions implied by dictator, despot, and usurper do not prepare us.

Every communist regime appears capricious so long as we employ the usual terminology for the rulers. It is something to be accounted for by the peculiarities of a Stalin, or a Mao Tse-tung, or a Castro. But once they are conceived of as gangsters tied to Marxist ideology, any capriciousness becomes a secondary characteristic. There is a pattern to their behavior, a pattern that persists from Lenin to Stalin to Malenkov to Khrushchev to Brezhnev. It is a pattern of secrecy, terror, purges, rulers surrounded by henchmen, of expropriation (theft), of violence, and of fear. It is not that there are not variations from one set of rulers to another, nor that there are not peculiarities of individual rulers. Obviously, there are. It is rather that communist regimes must be explained by what persists, not by what changes from one to another. What persists is gangsterism tied to Marxism.

The Problem Is Political

It is customary to write about communist regimes as if their main problem were economic. But their economic problems follow from the abuse of political power. To grasp the basic problem of communist regimes, it is necessary, first, to imagine what the basic problem of gangsters would be if they were to gain control of the political apparatus. It should be obvious what that problem would be. It would be legitimacy.

If ordinary, non-ideological gangsters were to seize a government, the problem could probably be solved over a span of time. They would probably regularize procedures, as all governments tend to do. They would probably consolidate their regime by giving favors to influential individuals and groups. At some point, they would probably cease to be gangsters and become politicians, or something of the sort. Transformations similar to this have occurred many times when armies composed of little better than bandits have seized power over a people.

The problem for communist regimes to establish legitimacy, however, may well be insuperable. Marxism provides no handle to grasp with which to legitimize a regime. If it regularizes the government, it is on the way to making permanent what is supposed to be temporary. Marxism does not recognize the legitimacy of the motives of self-interest, the appeal to which would enable a regime to consolidate its power. Communist rulers are committed to erasing all those conflicts which make politicians necessary rather than becoming politicians.

Reliance on Marxism

A communist regime attempts to establish its legitimacy by its adherence to Marxism. The more gangster-like the rulers are the more fanatically they proclaim their Marxism. Indeed, theirs must be the only true, correct, and orthodox Marxism, else how can they justify the atrocities they commit? Marxism cannot legitimize their government, or any government, but it does legitimize, for them, their gangster-like rule. They may be completely cynical about the programs they advance, but they cannot tolerate the growth of any cynicism about the validity of Marxism, for if Marxism is invalid, they have no reason for being.

Gangsterism cannot, of course, be deduced from the verbiage of Marxism. Even the phrase, "dictatorship of the proletariat," does not presuppose the rule by gangsters. Gangsterism arises in the real world from the attempt to superimpose over it the visionary world of Marxism. In the real world, men are ordinarily devoted to the pursuit of their own interests as they conceive them. If they act in concert with others, in their ordinary employments, it is to advance their own interests as over against those of others.

In reality, governments encounter not harmony but conflicts of interest. Communism does not propose machinery for resolving these conflicts as they continually arise; instead, it proposes to dissolve them. Given the perpetuity of the conflicts, communism must be imposed from above downward. It must be imposed by those who connive to do so against the will of the populace. The attempt to do this requires determination and the will to use whatever measures are necessary to enforce it, i.e., the mentality and habits of gangsters.

Inherent in the System

Communist behavior does not, then, arise from the history and traditions of the lands over which its rule is imposed. On the contrary, it is implacably opposed to the history and traditions, and committed to their obliteration. It arises out of the inner necessities of the ideology. Nor is the communist conquest of power directly related to any oppression or tyranny which may have preceded it. Peoples seeking an outlet from tyranny would hardly turn to communism for that. This much needed to be got on the record before discussing the relation of the Czarist regime to the Bolshevik Revolution. It is often alleged that it was the oppression of the Czarist regime that set the stage for communism and contributed to its character in Russia . Whatever the degree of oppression under the Czars, it would not have justified communism; nor could it, except in tangential ways, have informed communism.

In fact, it was the deterioration and dissolution of Czarist rule which provided the opportunity for the Bolsheviks to come to power.

The end of the rule of the Czars came swiftly and ignominiously in the last days of February and early March of 1917. (If we follow the Julian calendar which was then in use in Russia . If not, it was in the middle of March, 1917.) This is usually referred to as the February Revolution in Russian history. On February 20, say, Nicholas II was the unchallenged Czar of the Russian Empire (except such of it as had fallen into the hands of the Central Powers). On March 2 (Julian calendar), Nicholas abdicated, and the rule of the Czars was effectively ended.

The Fall of the Czar

The events which signalled this sudden and swift dissolution could hardly have been predicted. For several days in late February there were massive demonstrations in the capitol, Petrograd (lately, St. Petersburg , and before many years to be renamed Leningrad ). Nicholas II had taken over the command of the armed forces and was away from the capitol. When he heard of the disturbances, he ordered them to be stopped. To effect his order, soldiers were called out to end the demonstrations. They fired on the crowd, and some people were killed. Following this, some of the soldiers declared that they would not again fire upon their own people. A detail mutinied against its officers, and an officer was killed. The soldiers joined the city people and, spurred on by the Petrograd Soviet and leaders of the Duma (a sort of elective legislature), took over the City of Petrograd . When the Czar attempted to return by train to Petrograd he was unable to do so and wound up in Pskov instead. There, pressured by representatives from a provisional government and most of his generals, he abdicated in favor of his brother, Michael. Michael refused to accept the throne, and the three-hundred-year reign of the House of Romanov was over.

What had happened was the dissolution of the authority of the Czar. With the dissolving of that authority went virtually all the political authority in the empire. It was this dissolution of authority—not repression, not oppression, not backwardness, not progress, not even, in the final analysis, the potent solvents let loose by World War I—that set the stage for the Bolshevik Revolution later on in the year. There were would-be rulers aplenty, but mostly they had neither the determination nor the tradition to cement authority over an empire and conduct a major war simultaneously.

Many Diverse Interests

In retrospect, how the czars ever maintained authority over the empire may be more in need of explaining than why the authority dissolved. At the beginning of World War I, Nicholas II ruled over a vast empire which extended from Finland and Poland in the west to the Bering Sea in the east. This extensive land mass constituted the largest country in Europe and in Asia . It was truly an empire, for it contained not only the Russians but also Ukrainians, Finns, Poles, Georgians, Yakuts, Buryats, Letts, Germans, and so on.

The Russian Orthodox Church provided the official religion but there were also, among the Christians, the Old Believers, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and assortment of other sects. In addition to Christians and Jews, there were Moslems and Buddhists. Among all the peoples, however, the Russians were the most numerous and the dominant ones as well, which is why it is rightfully referred to as the Russian Empire. In a similar fashion the Russian Orthodox Church was the dominant religion.

For several centuries, too, Russia had been pulled East and West. The East toward which Russia was drawn was not the Orient but the East of the Orthodox Church, the cultural East of Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire of the Middle Ages. The West was, of course, Western Europe and its culture and ways. There were Westernizers, and had been since Peter the Great, who wished to see Russia imitate and adapt to the culture of Western Europe . There were Russifiers who pushed for the Russification of the Empire. And, there was pan-Slavism, a movement, of sorts, to unite all the Slavic people under Mother Russia. There was a considerable contingent of Germans who wielded much intellectual influence. How anyone could rule over this polyglot assemblage is difficult to understand, yet rule over it the czars had done.

Diminishing Powers

The czars ruled the Empire by the hold they had over the Russian people, by conquest of the outlying provinces, by repression, by tradition, and by concessions. The great bulwarks of the regime historically had been the Orthodox Church, the nobility, the bureaucracy and the landlords. The most repressive of czars in recent times had been Nicholas I (1825-55). The repression was abated by Alexander II (1855-81), under whom the serfs were freed, and the economic complexion began to change. Nicholas II (1894-1917) was almost certainly the least repressive of the czars of modern times, much less so than his father, Alexander III (1881-94). He granted major concessions in 1906 and further relaxed the repression thereafter.

In many ways, Nicholas II was an exemplary monarch. He loved the German princess, Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, well, if not always wisely and was a beloved and devoted father to his four daughters and only son. He liked hunting especially, though he also appears to have enjoyed in general the trappings of royalty in the last halcyon days of royalty in the modern era. If he was not himself a man of great vision, he used two vigorous and far-seeing ministers, Sergei Witte and Piotr Stolypin, to good effect. Under the leadership of these men, Russia began to make considerable industrial progress, and Stolypin, before his assassination in 1911, did much to develop independent farming. (So heady was Stolypin’s early success that some of the socialists began to despair of appealing effectively to the peasants.) The fact that some 15 million troops could be mustered, with little complaint, for World War I appeared to indicate widespread loyalty and acceptance of the regime.

But Nicholas II was hoist by his own petard, indeed, hoist by changes which had been made in the power structure, some of which went back to the time of Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century. Nicholas II was a proud and unrepentant autocrat, proclaimed his autocracy, and appears to have been determined to preserve and pass on his powers undiminished to his frail and sickly son. This was the case, even though the Constitution of 1906 indicated that he was to share his powers with the elected Duma. In fact, he proceeded through Stolypin to alter the constituency of the Duma to suit himself and to adjourn it or dismiss it when its actions became inconvenient.

Weakening the Supports

Autocracy, in and of itself, did not cost him his throne. What did was that in solidifying their autocracy the czars had cut away the independent and responsible supports to monarchy. The Orthodox Church was surely a most important potential bulwark of monarchy. Yet Peter the Great had abolished the Patriarchate by which the church might have been in-dependently and responsibly ruled. Some great cities still had Metropolitans, but their authority over the church in general was minimal t6 non-existent. In effect, the church had only a political director over it, a director who could hardly command the religious allegiance that was wanting.

Following the abolition of serfdom, the nobility and landlords lost much of their power. In general, there was an increasing tendency throughout Russia to have local rule by committees. This not only violated the principle of monarchy but also of responsible government. The result was that when the authority of the czar was challenged, there were no responsible independent leaders to come forth to support it who carried the weight of traditional authority. Nicholas II’s regime was isolated by its own autocracy. When challenged, the authority crumbled and dissolved.

Events in the years just prior to March, 1917 contributed much also to the dissolution of Nicholas II’s authority. It is most difficult for an autocratic regime, indeed, any government, to survive military defeat. The more personal the power, the more dependent it is upon its effective exercise. Russia had been humiliatingly defeated by Japan in the war of 1904-05. Nor did matters improve in World War I; the Russian armies suffered crushing losses in major battles with millions of casualties. These defeats undoubtedly contributed to the deterioration of support for the regime.

The Role of Rasputin

On top of this, there was the bizarre affair of Grigori Rasputin. Rasputin was a gross, illiterate, and dissolute adventurer posing as a holy man who managed to worm his way into the confidence of Czarina Alexandra (as Alix was called after she married Nicholas II). His influence was gained because he was able to stop the bleeding, probably by hypnosis, of her only son, the Crown Prince Alexis. The boy suffered from hemophilia. The family lived in constant fear that the boy would bump or bruise himself so as to set off another bout with the affliction. It happened often enough, and the suffering was such that it was all the family could do to bear it. Physicians could do little but allow the affliction to run its course. Rasputin was able, on occasion, to attend the boy and reverse the course of the affliction. This earned for him the gratitude of the Czarina, gratitude which it pleased him to use to influence policy and appointments.

Rasputin was killed in 1916—stabbed, shot, and finally drowned, so vigorous was the life in him—,but the damage had already been done. The damage was done in this way. The Czarina exercised often decisive influence on the Czar’s appointments in his last years. At a time when the regime needed strong and resolute ministers, and particularly prime ministers, ineffective and weak men occupied the posts. They were often the choice of Rasputin who may have had little more motive than rewarding the husbands of women with whom he was engaged in sexual dalliances. To be associated with such a man could hardly help the reputation of the Czarina either, for though they were ill-founded there were rumors of illicit relations between Rasputin and Alexandra. This was the more devastating because the Czarina was German by birth, and Russia was at war with Germany . There is no reason now to question the loyalty of the Czarina to the Czar or to Russia , but the tales of machinations at court were sufficient at the time to damage greatly the prestige of the royal family.

Intellectuals and Reform

There was yet another element in the erosion of the authority of the czars. There is no way of measuring such things, but it may have been the most important. Certainly, it was the most important for what lay in store for the Russian Empire in the future. It was the role of the intellectuals. Intellectuals have played an increasingly important role in the modern world, particularly in the spread of socialism.

Prior to the eighteenth century, most of what we now call intellectuals had church vocations of one sort or another. Following the Protestant Reformation, some of them were no longer under the strenuous discipline of a strong church and, at any rate, had the opportunity to follow and advocate their own particular views. With the spread of religious liberty, such activity by churchmen became common. But it has been with the decline of the power of churches in the last two centuries, coupled with the growth of secular education and a secular press, that intellectuals, many of them with a reformist bent, assumed such an important role.

The intellectuals owed their rise, too, to the spread of liberty and the much greater economic productivity which accompanied it. In the nineteenth century, they were most apt to subscribe to a liberalism in support of liberty. In Russia , however, such liberalism was mostly thwarted. The failure in 1825 of those of this inclination to wrest power from the hands of the czars turned them, according to some accounts, to more revolutionary inclinations. One writer describes the development this way:

In the early nineteenth century there was taking shape a group of men and women . . . which called itself and was called by others the Russian intelligentsia. . . . The Russian intelligentsia was bound together not by class origin or wealth or economic function but by commitment to certain ideas. . . . The group may be defined as the politically-oriented portion of the educated class—that portion which was preoccupied with ideas concerning what state and society were like and what they ought to be like, in Russia as well as the rest of the world. . . .

An air of dedication—which, carried to its logical extreme, would prompt Lenin to declare that he would not listen to Beethoven because it made him feel soft and weak—and a sense of risk pervaded the Russian intelligentsia. . . . The Russian intelligentsia developed a fervor and fanaticism of their own, but applied them to the advancement of a stock of ideas which were largely imported from England , France , and Germany .’

It was of such people that Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in his novel, The Possessed.

It was such intellectuals who formed the backbone of the revolutionary parties which sprouted and spread in Russia in the late nineteenth century. These revolutionists did not believe in or hope for peaceful and gradual change in Russia ; they believed that there would have to be a drastic transformation. As one scholar puts it:

Until the very end of the tsarist regime the spokesmen for the radical opposition groups all belonged to the so-called intelligentsia. They were a motley assortment, consisting of "penitent nobles" and the sons of priests, merchants and peasants, who went among the people to preach their new doctrine, in which the main emphasis was placed on political and social revolution.2

Revolutionary Parties

These revolutionary parties were generally small before 1917, but they exercised influence far beyond their numbers. There was the Socialist Revolutionary Party which contained a considerable corps of anarchists at the outset. It was anarchists, mainly, who were so active in the large number of assassinations and assassination attempts in the last decade or so of the nineteenth and the first decade of the twentieth century. A veritable reign of terror against government officials occurred in 1906-07. The Socialist Revolutionaries aimed their appeal toward the peasants as they settled down somewhat and were the prime movers for the nationalization and redistribution of the land.

There was the Russian Social Democratic Worker’s Party, which was the Marxist party. It broke into two factions almost at the outset: the Mensheviks (minority) and the Bolsheviks (majority). The Bolshevik was the party of Lenin; it generally stood for an early proletarian revolution as opposed to the generally held Menshevik view that such a revolution must await the full development of capitalism.

There was a Labor Group Party which sought to advance the political role of industrial workers. There were also the Constitutional Democrats (Kadets) who may have been more liberal (in the old sense) than left, but they did advance the idea of some sort of land distribution.

United in Opposition

The revolutionary parties had one thing in common: their determined and continued opposition to the government of the czar. They propagandized, campaigned (when they could), and attempted in whatever ways they could to undermine it. The central authority must go. The nationalities must become self-governing as must the peasants and the industrial workers. This campaign bore fruit. When the authority of the Czar dissolved in early 1917, there was no recognized authority to take its place. There was a multitude of factions and parties, each with its extensive program, attempting to gain or influence power. When Nicolai Lenin arrived at the Finland Station in Petrograd in April, 1917, he found the situation ripening for him to grasp the power. The time was already nearly past when anyone but the most resolute and iron-willed could control events in the Russian Empire. Every change that was made was greeted by the revolutionaries with clamor for ever more radical change. Radical democracy had penetrated the armed forces with the enlisted men controlling their officers, had penetrated the factories, and was spread throughout the provinces. Czar Nicholas II and his family were in custody; the old regime was by now not even a very lively memory. The day of the new revolutionaries was at hand.

Next: 5. Russia : The Revolution Commences.


‘Donald W. Treadgold, Twentieth Century Russia (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964, 2nd edition), pp. 33-34.

2Erwin Oberländer, "The Role of the Political Parties," in Oberländer, et. aL, Russia Enters the Twentieth Century (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p. 61.

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