Was communism a Russian phenomenon?

This week in the course ‘Russia and the West’ we will be examining the Soviet Union between the Revolution and the Second World War, including the question of whether communism should be seen as a sharp break in Russian history, with the imposition of a Western ideology (Marxism), or whether communism is better seen as a continuation, or even accentuation, of traditional Russian ways of government.

To this end we will read parts of Nikolai Berdyaev’s 1937 book The Origin of Russian Communism, which is what I want to discuss here.

berdyaev

 

Berdyaev (1874-1948) is one of Russia’s best known philosophers. Originally a Marxist, he later became something of an Orthodox mystic, while still retaining some links to socialism. In this regard, he was part of a complex Russian liberal-conservative tradition which defies easy categorization.  In The Origin of Russian Communism, he had this to say:

Russian communism is difficult to understand on account of its twofold nature. On the one hand, it is international and a world phenomenon; on the other hand it is national and Russian. … it was Russian history which determined its limits and shaped its character. A knowledge of Marxism will not help in this.

Communism, Berdyaev maintained, was built on the foundations of Orthodox ‘messianism’ and the tradition of Russian autocracy. Thus, he concluded, ‘Russian communism is more traditional than is commonly thought and is a transformation and deformation of the old Russian messianic idea.’

Is he right? For sure, one can see features of continuity between Imperial and Soviet Russia: state-led modernization, the ideology of collectivism, not to mention much of communist iconography (such as the ubiquitous portraits of Lenin and Stalin which replaced the saints of yore). But Berdyaev ignores, I think, all the decisive differences between pre- and post-revolutionary Russia. The totalitarian nature of Soviet communism, which sought to infiltrate itself into every aspect of social life, was quite new and extraordinary. The modernizing drive was more than just a larger scale version of state-led modernization under leaders such as Peter the Great. It was allied to an altogether different ideology.

So to go back to the original question – Was communism a uniquely Russian phenomenon? I am open to being swayed either way in this debate.

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2 thoughts on “Was communism a Russian phenomenon?”

  1. Dear Paul,

    In a discussion like this, there’s always the possibility to consider that Soviet leaders consciously linked elements of Communist ideology to incidents in Russian history or to certain Russian traditions and customs so as to create a continuity from earlier forms of government to Communist government and justify Communist totalitarianism.

    If, say, the Bolsheviks had been defeated in the Russian Civil War by the Whites, and the Whites had been able to successfully install a free-market ideology and structured a society based on lip service (at least) to democratic values around that, they too would have cherry-picked particular incidents or traditions in Russian history to justify and legitimise their rule. In particular they might have harped on about how Russia helped the US during the American Civil War by preventing a potential British invasion of California in stationing ships in San Francisco in the 1860s and how Russian settlement helped to open up eventual US settlement of the Pacific coast by preventing by further Spanish / Mexican expansion. This could be used to justify forced American-Russian interactions and eventual American corporate infiltration into the Russian economy and stripping the country’s natural resources.

    Such a government could also have carried out a strongly centralised modernisation drive under joint govt-corporate ventures, with all the sacrifices the citizenry would have to make implied, and linked that to past modernisation drives by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

    So if Communism was a Russian phenomenon, I could argue that’s because past Soviet leaders deliberately made it so.

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  2. Good point, Jen. As far as I can recall, there was something of a debate in the early years of Soviet rule between those who wanted to build a new proletarian culture rejecting Russia’s past, on the Marxist grounds that nationality was a construct of the bourgeoisie to divide the working class, and those e.g. Culture Minister Lunarcharsky. who wanted to preserve what was seen as the best of Russian culture. The latter won, and Marxist ideology lost out. So to some extent this was a conscious decision.

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