The Importance of Organization

Vladimir Lenin was born into a wealthy upper-middle class family in 1870. His parents were monarchists who supported the tsarist regime. When Lenin was 16, his brother was executed for joining a revolutionary group dedicated to assassinating Tsar Alexander III. Lenin was influenced by his brother’s left wing ideas and became involved in a socialist revolutionary cell at Kazan University. Lenin was one of the first to translate Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto into Russian and became interested in Marxism. The influence of Marx and Engels is apparent in Lenin’s What is to be Done?. In this piece, Lenin goes even further than Marx did by describing the type of organization necessary to succeed in a revolution. He writes that a successful revolutionary organization will have dedicated leaders and will be experienced professional revolutionaries. These people must be steadfast and dedicated to their cause and well organized to make a change in Russia ((Lenin, Vladimir. What is to be Done?. 1902)).

Lenin wrote this piece in 1902, fifteen years before he would be instrumental in the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. He was able to implement many of his organizational ideas and strengthen the revolutionary party in a way that made them able to have a successful takeover of the Russian government in 1917. Once Lenin was in power he implemented many of the ideas discussed by Marx and Engels and strengthened communism in Russia.

The revolution in Russia took place in the middle of World War I, did that contribute to the success of Lenin’s ideologies? Was he able to take advantage of the turmoil throughout Europe to strengthen his political position? Why didn’t many other countries have similar working class revolutions?

Same Party, Different Views

Despite being of the same political party, Stalin and Lenin express very different opinions on the Soviet Union’s issues. Stalin’s document “Concerning the Presentation of the National Question” from May 8th 1921 describes the differences of the national questions as given by the Communists in relation to the national question adopted by the leaders of the Second and Two and-a-Half Internationals, Socialists, Social-Democrats, Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, and other parties. He explains that they differ in four points, then goes on to explain those points. First, Stalin explains the merging of the National question with the general question of the liberation of the colonies as a whole. Secondly, Stalin determines the vague slogan of “the rights of nations to self-determination” to mean a nation’s right to autocracy. Thirdly, he explains a connection between national and colonial questions of the rule of capital. He explains that in order to “win the war” there is a need to revolutionize enemies. Lastly, Stalin describes the need for equality of nations and not just “national equality of rights”.

Lenin criticizes Stalin’s Presentation of the National Question in his own writings “On the Questions of the Nationalities or of Autonomization” on December 30th of 1922. He declares the question of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics to be the question of autotomizing. He outwardly criticizes Stalin’s want for autonomization and claims it to be “wrong and untimely”. He also questions Stalin’s explanation behind the want for autonomization. Lenin goes on to explain that Stalin did not show enough concern in taking measures to defend those from other nations, and outwardly declares the Soviet’s fatal role to be Stalin and his preoccupation with the administrative aspect and by his rage against social-nationalism.

One common thread in both documents is that both Stalin and Lenin declare imperialism as the common enemy. However, other than having a common enemy, Lenin throughout his writing makes a great effort to show his disagreement with Stalin’s actions and opinions. He even goes as far as questioning Stalin’s understanding of “nationalism”.  Lenin also seems to find Stalin’s actions and explanations behind his actions to be unsound. With that, Stalin’s document provide some insight into his arguably irrational mindset in some areas, as Lenin points out. Lenin sheds light on these issues by asking why Stalin believes autonomy to be the best option, and why then? Also, Lenin’s outward disapproval of Stalin and of his positions and actions acts as a harbinger to Stalin’s abusive years ahead. If the epitome of the Communist party was feeling weary about Stalin, that should have been warning enough for his turbulent years ahead in power.

Terror and Surveillance

“Surveillance means that the population is watched; terror means that its members are subject on an unpredictable but large-scale basis to arrest, execution, and other forms of state violence.” ((Fitzpatrick, Sheila. “A Time of Troubles,” in Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. (Oxford University Press, 2000), 190.)) This is the theme of Chapter 8 of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism, in which the modes of Soviet public repression and purging are explored in detail.

The development of the Communist “Great Purges” in the 1930s was a self-propelling loop of suspicion, witch-hunts, and above all else, terror. Initially, excessive disfranchisement of Communist party members led to large amounts of ex-Communists, who were all assumed to be enemies of the state. At first, there was no method of integration by which these ex-members might become respectable citizens once more- the “black marks on the record could not be expunged”. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 193.)) Because of their inability to operate in a country under such intense surveillance and suspicion, many of these blacklisted individuals assumed new identities, oftentimes forging passports and moving and changing their names. This caused the Soviet regime to perceive an even greater threat of disguised corruption, resulting in more purges.

Soviet officials frequently attacked their “enemies” with hypocritical claims. Despite possessing these characteristics themselves, they accused party enemies of engaging in favoritism, the creation of cults, and luxurious lifestyles. The accusers were no different in this regard than the accused, but they painted the victims in such a light as to use them as scapegoats, providing an outlet for the regime. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 197.)) Newspapers even “carried a wealth of startling information about the sins of leading Communists”, creating even more unrest and suspicion among the masses. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 195.)) This particular notion seemed odd to me at first; wouldn’t this cause people to lose faith in the party? However, upon further reading, I came upon the surprising fact that there existed a great deal of resistance to Communist rule during the 1930s- a particular quote regarding taking revenge during World War II (apparently much anticipated) bridged that gap of continuity. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 205.))

“Show trials” were also characteristic of the Great Purges. However, because of the amount of Communist officials that were placed on trial outside of Moscow, these had a distinctively “populist” aspect, which furthers the idea of resistance to the regime. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 203)). These shows of public resistance intrigue me. How did the Soviet regime deal with the deposition of their leaders in rural areas? Perhaps it makes sense that entire villages were emptied and their inhabitants sent off to the Gulags.

A Soviet official crushing the snake of deceit.

One final thought: the fact that most, if not all, of these Purges were state-instituted and not publicly supported, as Fitzpatrick seems to suggest, implies that much of the violence rampant in Stalinist Russia was primarily implemented by the state. Where was the public support that Beyond Totalitarianism tells us was necessary for such violence to exist?