My review, “Russian politics has always been patrimonial,” for Russia Direct of J. Arch Getty’s new book Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition:
What is striking about J. Arch Getty’s excellent new book, Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition, is how little Stalin is in it. Sure, he’s there, but he mostly stands above the fray acting as an arbiter over rival Bolshevik clans that all curry his favor. Indeed, Stalin’s personal presence isn’t felt until the last third of the book, when Getty investigates how the dictator sought to wrangle the competing clans the Stalinist system begat.
In many ways, however, Practicing Stalinism is a misnomer. While Getty’s focus is on the 1920s and 1930s, the text isn’t about Stalinism as much it is about the tenacity of what the preeminent historian Edward Keenan has called “Muscovite political folkways.”
Despite their efforts to create a modern rule-bound depersonalized state, the Bolsheviks were victims of the deep structures of Russian culture as much as they were its destroyers. Using the early Soviet period as a case study, Getty argues that from the first tsars to the commissars to Putin, Russian politics has always been patrimonial.
As Getty’s former graduate student (full disclosure), I’ve been hearing about Stalinism as patrimonial politics for a while now. Though he isn’t the first to suggest this, he is the only one to date to devote a sustained study of clans in the early Soviet period. I’ve always remained skeptical, though. I view the approach of extending Muscovy’s politics into the modern period and treating the state as merely a shell containing a network of personal relations as reductionist.
As Getty states in his introduction, we are all followers of Max Weber in that we buy into the idea of a reified state. I suffer from the same affliction and find the Weberian syndrome difficult to shake. Ultimately, Getty’s text alleviates my fears of reductionism as he inserts a sufficient number of caveats. In the end, his references to Muscovy are illustrative rather than attempts at similitude.
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It is no surprise that the imminent ninetieth anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia has become the object of widespread attention. The events of October 1917 were, indeed, an earthquake that shook the world, altering its economic, social and cultural foundations.
Many media sources depict this world-historic phenomenon as a mere coup d’état, carried out by a handful of conspirators and adventurists with the help of Western security services. All sorts of things are circulated — outright lies, distortion of the facts, and malicious slanders about the participants in and leaders of this mighty event. The old fables to the effect that the “October coup” was provoked by the “German agent” Lenin and the “Anglo-American spy” Trotsky are still being repeated, despite having been rejected by distinguished scholars from various countries. Meanwhile, the Russian people are portrayed as unwitting toys in the hands of “revolutionary extremists”, even though the revolution could neither have begun nor triumphed without the population playing a decisive role.
Not a Conspiracy, But a Social Revolution
The October Revolution was not sparked by conspirators or by agents of foreign powers. It was a social earthquake, a hurricane, a tsunami, which no-one could ever have called forth by mere appeals. The revolution arose out of the internal logic of events, when a multitude of sources of popular discontent converged into a single, all-powerful stream. To interpret it as the product of a conspiracy is strange, to say the least. If this were true, why was a new governing authority set up in place of the old in a gigantic country and in a short time, and why did the Russian people not only support this government, but defend it with arms in hand during the Civil War?
For some reason, the critics of the “October coup” forget the profound crisis into which Russia had been plunged by the tsarist monarchy and the Provisional Government which succeeded it. Mesmerised by the slogan, “War until Final Victory!”, the authorities refused to take account of the real needs of the population. Critics also forget the spontaneous disintegration of the monarchy on the eve of the revolution, despite the direct evidence in the form of the endless intrigues and conflicts within the tsar’s court, the military defeats at the front, and finally, the outright abdication of Nikolai II, the autocrat and commander-in-chief of the Russian army. The bourgeois government that replaced the monarchy also proved impotent, failing to meet the great challenges of the time — stopping the war and giving land to the peasants.
October 1917 marked the culmination of the great Russian social revolution of the twentieth century. It was led by revolutionary social democrats who earlier than others, had recognised the needs and hopes of ordinary people — the pressing problems to which the Russian society of the time required solutions. Among the leaders, it was of course Vladimir Ulyanov-Lenin and his closest collaborators who played the key roles.
None of the leaders of the October revolution were flawless, but it is just as wrong to demonise as to idolise them. The calumnies that are heaped on them nowadays have no real basis. They were not in the service of anyone, only of their revolutionary ideals. None of the earthly temptations, such as money or the other accompaniments of a philistine prosperity, had any meaning for them. They measured their lives against the supreme standard of selfless service to the freedom and happiness of the oppressed and dispossessed.
Revolutions Cannot be Reduced to Violence
The October Revolution is often termed a “violent overthrow”. Yet the actual “overthrow” in Petrograd passed off almost without human victims. While we are not advocates of violence, we recognise that it is inevitable at particular stages of historical development, when it is bound up with the presence of class and national antagonisms. Revolution is indeed associated in many respects with violence, as was clearly evident, for example, in the bourgeois revolutions in the Netherlands, England, France and so forth. The ending of slavery in the United States was accompanied by the bloodiest conflict of the nineteenth century, the American Civil War. In Russia, the ending of feudalism was also accompanied by wars and revolutions.
These developments, meanwhile, were not called forth by the machinations of political intriguers, but by the crisis of the old system and by the impossibility of solving age-old problems by evolutionary methods. People resort to revolutionary violence in specific circumstances, when the ruling classes, blinded by thirst for their own enrichment and for the maintenance of their privileges, neglect the well-being of the population. The dispossessed classes then have no choice except to take their fates in their own hands. This is the main lesson of the Russian Revolution of the twentieth century.
At the same time, social revolution cannot be reduced to violence, and especially armed violence. Its ultimate goal is to lay the basis for a new world, to create better conditions of life for everyone, not just the social elites. In this sense, such revolutions really are the locomotives of history, accelerating its progress.
What the October Revolution Yielded
The history of different countries has always included numerous struggles by workers against capitalism. Only in Russia, however, have these actions taken on so far-reaching a character. This made twentieth-century Russia the epicentre of world development, where all the main questions of the contemporary world intersected, and where the fundamental sickness of capitalism, the conflict between labour and capital, was resolved. It was only the Russian workers who had the will and decisiveness to find a way out of this conflict, not only overthrowing capitalism, but also beginning the transition to a more progressive social system — socialism.
Like the Paris Commune before it, the October Revolution placed power in the hands of the lower orders of society — the workers and peasants, and those elements of the intelligentsia that reflected their interests. The revolution affirmed the soviets as the most democratic form of political power, granting the war-weary population the long-awaited peace and land, along with the opportunity for national self-determination. By raising millions of workers to the point where they could exercise social creativity, the revolution showed clearly that it is not only the “elites” that are capable of being the subject and demiurge of history.
As a result of the October Revolution two socially counterposed systems appeared in the world, a circumstance which did much to determine the subsequent development of humanity. Thanks to the influence of October, national liberation movements arose, and reforms began in the capitalist system itself. Under the impact of the Russian Revolution the colonial empires disintegrated, while long-outdated monarchical regimes suffered total collapse.
The October Revolution set in motion a supra-national and supra-confessional unifying idea, the idea of social liberation and justice. On the basis of this idea, there arose for the first time in history a voluntary union of peoples with equal rights, the USSR. The ideas and initiatives of October were in accord with the goals and vital purpose of many titans of science and the arts — of Timiryazev and Vernadsky, Platonov and Mayakovsky, Sholokhov and Eisenstein. The progress toward the socialist future that was instigated by the October Revolution was actively supported by such outstanding twentieth-century figures as George Bernard Shaw, Picasso, Einstein and Tsiolkovsky.
Soviet History Was Diverse
The October Revolution marked the beginning of Soviet history, which did not take the form of advancing along a smooth Nevsky Prospekt. Soviet history included both great achievements and appalling tragedies. We know very well that after the peaceful transfer of power to the workers in most of the provinces of Russia, a bloody civil war began, accompanied by foreign intervention and by White and Red terror.
Lacking the relevant historical experience, the Soviet authorities naturally made many mistakes. One particular error was the policy of “war communism”, a product of the general national crisis. To their credit, the Bolsheviks decisively rejected it, and made a deliberate shift to the New Economic Policy — the first historical model in which the principles of socialism and capitalism were successfully combined. Many features of NEP were later reproduced in the context of the development of several European countries and of modern China. NEP also allowed the wounds of war to be rapidly healed, and production in the Russian economy to be raised to its pre-war level.
Relying on the experience of the New Economic Policy, Lenin worked out a plan for the further development of the Soviet state, a plan which included radical economic and political changes. These transformations were aimed above all at achieving breakthroughs in the development of energy generation, culture and education — areas which were decisive in the twentieth century and which remain so in the twenty-first. These changes presupposed democratising the political system through drawing workers into running the state, and through the renovation of the party. Here, one of the moves which Lenin projected was removing Josef Stalin from the post of general secretary. Even then, Stalin was manifesting his traits of disloyalty, boorishness and the abuse of power.
These plans, however, were fated to go unrealised. While declaring socialism to be its goal, the authoritarian regime which consolidated itself after Lenin’s death did a great deal that was incompatible with socialism. The political liberties of citizens that had been proclaimed by the revolution were comprehensively violated. The price paid for industrialisation and forced collectivisation was exorbitant. In sum, the popular power of the initial years of the revolution degenerated into rule by the bureaucracy and its leader Stalin. We consider the massive Stalinist repressions, along with the violation of the rights of the individual and of whole nationalities in the USSR, to have been a crime. All this discredited the ideals of the revolution and of socialism.
While acknowledging these facts, we do not accept scholarly-sounding lies and stupefyingly one-sided propaganda with regard to the whole of Soviet history. This history was diverse; within it, democratic and bureaucratic tendencies engaged in conflict with and replaced one another. Hence, the freedoms of the NEP years were replaced by Stalinist totalitarianism, which in turn gave way to the Khrushchev “thaw”. Later, the Brezhnev authoritarianism was replaced by perestroika, which proclaimed as its goal the creation of a humane, democratic socialism.
The history of every country is subject to argument and debate. The cruelties of the British and French colonial wars, and of slavery in the US, were scarcely better than the Soviet gulag. However, this did not negate the social and cultural achievements of these countries. Why then should such achievements be denied in the case of the Soviet people, who achieved a great victory over fascism, created an inimitable culture and literature, set up a broadly accessible system of social welfare for the population, and were the pioneers of space travel? It must not be forgotten that October unleashed an unprecedented creative energy. It set in train the founding by masses of people of a new society; it brought to realisation many of the ideas of internationalism; and it acquainted the formerly most oppressed layers of Russian society with the heights of national and world culture. Nor should one strike out from Soviet history the enthusiasm of the masses that was demonstrated in the mastering of the newest achievements of science and technology. The revolutionary romanticism and heroism of millions of Soviet citizens was clearly manifested here.
Why the Soviet Model Collapsed
It should be noted that we have a range of views on the nature of the social system that existed in the USSR. We are agreed, however, that neglect or rejection of the principles of popular power, internationalism, justice and humanism that were born out of the October Revolution will sooner or later result in catastrophe for a society that is building socialism. This is what happened in the Soviet Union.
The fetters placed on the creative initiative of the population under the totalitarian regime dramatically restricted the opportunities for the growth of the Soviet economy. A shortage of consumer goods was one of its characteristic features. As a result, we did not manage to raise the level of well-being of the working people to that found in the world’s developed countries, and this served as one of the causes of the downfall of the Soviet system. Another vital cause was the lack of real economic and political democracy, which became especially intolerable when technological and information revolution was unfolding in the world. One of the consequences of this was the complete alienation of the bureaucratic authorities and the ruling party from the workers. The attempt to overcome this alienation during perestroika did not yield the required result. In sum, the collapse of the USSR and of the Soviet government became a reality. This was seized upon by the political forces which dissolved the USSR and directed Russia along the road of installing a savage oligarchic capitalism, marked by mass joblessness, falling living standards for the population, profound social stratification, rampant nationalism and growing crime.
The failure of the Soviet model of society does not signify that the ideals of October were false. Just as the ideas of Christianity were not to blame for the practices of the Inquisition, Stalinist totalitarianism could not destroy the ideals of the revolution. Socialism as a historic cause cannot be brought to realisation all at once. A new generation of young people is now appearing, people who do not accept capitalism as a system. There is every reason to hope that this generation will be able to breathe new life into the ideals of the October Revolution.
What the Greatness of Modern Russia Depends on
The ideas of the October Revolution united not only proletarian internationalists, but also supporters of strengthening and developing the Russian state. These ideas opened the way for people who wanted to bring the national culture of Russia to the country’s borderlands and to other countries — for people who shared in patriotic sentiments and who were prepared to defend the Soviet homeland from potential aggressors. The strength of this feeling was shown clearly during the Great Patriotic War, when the sovereignty of the USSR and the conquests of October were defended.
The October Revolution showed the greatness of spirit of the Russian people, who proposed an alternative, non-capitalist road to national development. To view the revolution as a conspiracy by extremist forces is also dangerous because it provides grist to the mill of the anti-Russian interpretation of history according to which Russia, because of its unpredictability, is said to pose a constant threat to the world. From Russia, adherents of this view maintain, only unfavourable developments are to be expected; hence, the country has to be kept under tight rein, and its natural wealth, its energy potential and intellectual resources, have to be controlled and exploited.
Modern-day Russia needs to soberly assess such provocative statements, and to hold firmly to its own course. Russia’s greatness does not lie in the blind copying of foreign examples, still less in national conceit with regard to other peoples, but in relying on the talents and creative strengths of its own population, as well as in the thorough assimilation of the knowledge and experience developed by world civilisation and culture.
Russia is capable of once again becoming a great power, whose adversaries will be forced to take it into account. But this will only happen if the country overcomes the poverty and deep social stratification of its population, qualitatively improves the lives of its citizens, broadens their social and democratic rights, and retains everything that is best from its historic past.
* * *
The historic importance of the October Revolution is difficult to overestimate. Its positive consequences are obvious. A third of humanity travelled part of the way along the road which the revolution opened up. Many countries are continuing this progress today, drawing lessons from the defeats and tragedies of the past. October proved that another, more just world is possible. A range of social and political forces, countries and peoples, are now striving for this new world. This is shown by a new wave of revolutionary transformations, manifesting itself with particular force in a number of countries of Latin America and Asia.
The October Revolution was and remains our fate, and we cannot reject this crucially important part of Russian history. Always and everywhere there have been mistakes, and the great revolutions of the past did not avoid them either. Nevertheless, the anniversaries of these revolutions are celebrated in all countries, including at the state level. Only in Russia is this not the case. In Russia, the denigration of the country’s revolutionary past continues.
On the eve of the ninetieth anniversary of the October Revolution, we raise our voices against this practice. The people must have their revolutionary holiday and the truth about October returned to them. It must not be forgotten that we belong to a country whose history includes its own great revolution. We can and should be proud of it.
- Arslanov V., Dr. of art, professor, Russian Academy of Education
- Bagaturiya G. Dr. of philosophy, professor, Lomonosov Moscow State University
- Buzgalin A., Dr. of economics, professor, Lomonosov Moscow State University
- Dzarasov S., Dr. of economics, Russian Academy of Science
- Galkin A., Dr. of history, professor, Russian Academy of Science Istyagin L., Dr. of history, Russian Academy of Science
- Kelle V. Dr. of philosophy, Russian Academy of Science
- Kolganov A., Dr. of economics, Lomonosov Moscow State University
- Loginov V., Dr. of history, professor, Russian Academy of Education
- Medvedev R., Dr. of history
- Rudyk E., Dr. of economics, Russian Academy of Labor
- Serebrykova Z., Dr. of history
- Shatrov M., writer
- Slavin B., Dr. of philosophy, professor, Moscow State Pedagogical University
- Smolin O., Dr. of philosophy, professor, MP
- Voeikov M., Dr. of economics, Russian Academy of Science
- Vorobiev A., academician, Russian Academy of Science