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?

Nationalism in a Multiethnic Country

Karl Marx writes on how the revolution of the proletariat will bring down national boundaries, and that class will unite and bring people together in the same way that nations did in the past. With a land mass as extensive as the Soviet Union had, the number of cultures, languages, and traditions are nearly infinite. However, the problem that the Bolsheviks faced was that they needed to unite the peasants in some manner to get them to overthrow the tsarist regime, so they attempted to unite under a common Russian identity. The major ethic groups such as the Tatars, Chuvash, and Caucausian peoples wanted to keep their traditions which had been in place for centuries if not more. ((Slezkine, 421)) Clearly they wanted to stand up against this, but the nationwide reforms the Soviets sought to put into place required some basic language or national unity for efficiency’s sake.

This quickly deteriorated into a very pro-Russian ethnic idea. It was epitomized by a man who was Georgian by birth, Stalin. The people who were not Great Russians were the victims of tsardom, and were backwards, and in order to reverse this backwardness, they needed to be educated by the party in all aspects of life. They would have to, “Develop and strengthen their own Soviet statehood in a form that would correspond to the national physiognomy of these peoples.” ((Slezkine, 423)) The Soviets met all of these cultures at the middleground, they allowed them to preserve their languages in things such as their courts and arts, but bow down to Soviet dominance in other aspects of life.

This is not to say that the Soviet Union made it easy for these cultures to survive, the process for a language to become official was extremely arduous. The failure to go along with Stalin’s policies or the party line would end in harsh punishments for that group.

With the large groups of nationalities, controlling them according to the needs of Stalin and the party was always going to be a harder task, especially when some of them do not feel the need to contribute back to Moscow.

Yuri Slezkine, “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethical Particularism,” Slavic Review, 53, 2, 414-452

A Nation Divided

The early nineteen twenties were a challenging time for the leaders of the new Soviet Union. Not only were they trying to learn how to lead a country while already being in control, they were also trying to find balance between all their internal contradicting ideas. The six main leaders were Lenin, Stalin, Bukharian, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev. Because of their different backgrounds and skill sets their ideas regarding the future of Soviet Union were very diverse. The two most powerful were Lenin and Stalin. One of Lenin’s last main writings detailed his feelings regarding his fellow associates strengths and weaknesses, specifically Stalin. Lenin feared Stalin would cause issues for the Soviet Union because he would abuse power.

Stalin and Lenin had contrasting ideas of how to create their new nation. This was especially true in their ideas regarding national policy.

In Stalin’s Concerning the Presentation of the National Question Stalin looks at the smaller nations that made up the Soviet Union and explored the idea of the National Question. Stalin believed that a nation was a group of people who had similar idea, a common language and way of life. Thus he believed that the smaller nations that made up the Soviet Union should have these things in common and more specifically that they should be like the big Russia.

In contrast Lenin’s On the Question of the Nationalities or of Autonomization in December of 1922. Lenin believed that big nations historically oppressed small nations and thus as a large nation Russia should create equal footing with its smaller counterparts by giving them more power. He thought they should let them control themselves to a certain extent. He thought Stalin was incorrect and that he should be publically punished.

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.

Lenin, What is to be Done

Lenin asserted five points regarding what a successful revolution needs. Firstly, he stated that no movement could succeed without “a stable organization of leaders to maintain continuity.” Secondly, that revolutionary organization becomes more important “as the masses are spontaneously drawn into the struggle,” which basically means that the larger the movement is, the more cohesive it must be. Thirdly, that the revolutionary organization must “consist chiefly of persons engaged in revolutionary activities as a profession.” Fourthly, that in countries with autocratic governments, the revolutionary organization would be harder to catch if it restricted people “who have been professionally trained in the art of combating the political police.” Fifthly, that if the revolutionaries “professionally trained in the art of combating the political police” were restricted, a larger amount and a wider variety of people would support the revolution.

What is to be Done?

In Vladimir Lenin’s What is to be Done?, he articulated his views regarding the composition and organizational structure of the SocialDemocratic Party. He believed that a proper revolution required a small, tightly knit, highly select, and politically well-versed group of individuals at the top to lead the party in the manner they saw most fit. He argued that a true revolutionary is somebody whose profession is that of a revolutionary. This true revolutionary is somebody who can commit their wholehearted time, energy, and passion to the cause, without being simultaneously hampered by the responsibilities of a “regular” job. Lenin asserted that, as the movement gained momentum and increased participation, the need for leadership was evermore present because certain factions may splinter off. He also noted that this group of “true revolutionaries” would be capable of thwarting the opposition’s attempts to undermine the cause because they have been “professionally trained in the art of combating police.” He criticized the Social Democrats who lumped the political struggle in with the “economic struggle against the employers and the government.” He viewed these two movements as important, yet distinct. Lenin believed that the majority of the labor force consisted of people who were uneducated and intellectually incapable of devising, organizing, and implementing the party’s strategic vision. He proposed that a “dozen” experienced revolutionaries should formulate initiatives that allow the other organizations intended for a wide membership to grow and prosper, thus accomplishing the party’s overall goals.

What Makes a Revolution

In Lenin’s What Makes a Revolution, he discussed the differences between the economic and socialist view of a revolutionary. His friend, an economist, discussed revolutionaries in terms of trade unions and mutual aid societies. However, a true revolutionary, in the eyes of Lenin, is far more than a union member. Unions, while they may be illegal, still have certain standards they must uphold. In addition, unions have goals such as improving wages or working conditions, but they do not seek to change to system entirely. Revolutionaries, seek to create radical change, and must operate in secrecy. Revolutionaries are not simply men who are angered by current conditions. Rather, they are men trained in the art, so to speak, of revolutions. They have practice in spreading the revolutionary message, while keeping the organization itself as secretive as possible. Revolutionaries need the support of the working class, although revolutionary leaders are necessary to organize the outrage and make the revolution a success. Choosing specific leaders may seem undemocratic, although Lenin believed establishing a core group of leaders was needed to accomplish the goals of a revolution. A revolutionary may be involved in labor politics, but union organizers are not necessarily revolutionaries. Revolution, not factory work, must be a revolutionary’s full-time occupation. Training is necessary in establishing an effective revolution because outrage needs to be harnessed and exploited in order to affect change. A worker who protests the long working conditions will be appeased by a ten-hour workday. A true revolutionary, however, cannot be appeased by minor changes, and will continue to protest until the system has been dramatically changed.


Shhhh…It’s a Secret Speech

Khrushchev’s secret speech, given to party officials but not published for the general public, showed his desire for de-Stalinization.  Basically, Khrushchev has the same criticisms about Stalin that the rest of the world had: he was paranoid, rude, and killed too many people. Khrushchev believed that Stalin had given the world a bad example of socialism.  He also stated that many innocent lives had been lost.

When Khrushchev is speaking, he is careful to maintain the language of the party.  He emphasizes the point that Lenin didn’t like Stalin.  If Lenin, who cannot be wrong, disliked Stalin, than logically this must mean that Stalin was a bad person. Since Lenin expressly stated he did not want Stalin to be the next leader of the USSR, then Stalin’s reign could be viewed as a mistake and a break away from communism.  Khrushchev makes it seem as though a communist must choose between Lenin and Stalin.  And a good communist will always choose Lenin.

My questions after reading the speech were these: Did Khrushchev dislike Stalin because Lenin disliked him? Or was this speech, as I suspect, a cleverly designed mask for deeper feelings? Did Khrushchev dislike Stalin for the obvious, ethical reasons? Or personal reasons? Whatever the reason, conditions in the Soviet Union began to improve under de-Stalinization.

The USSR as a Communal Apartment

Author Yuri Slezkine poses an interesting view of the USSR in the late 1920’s and early 30’s in his chapter “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism” in the book Stalinism: New Directions. The chapter details the “Great Transformation” of 1928-1932, during which ethnic diversity was highlighted and celebrated; it then explains the “Great Retreat” during the 1930’s, when nationalism as a whole was discouraged except those select nationalities that reinforced socialist ideas and contributed to the overall success of the USSR.

The promotion of ethnic distinctions seemed strange to me at first, considering the Communist goal of eliminating classes and the inequalities that came with them. I assumed that defining and strengthening different ethnic identities would only lead to more inequality and struggle. It seems that at first, ethnic particularism was a way to accept the inevitable differences that arise between people but in a manner that avoids classes. Towards the end of the chapter, however, the author alludes to the fact that certain nationalities were seen as more worthy, therefore superior to others. It may not be along class lines, but the people of the Soviet Union were still divided. This promotion of nationalism most likely created more problems for the Soviet government in the long-term as nationalism grew stronger and threatened the Soviet’s unity and control. These struggles would also plague the Russian government after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Socialism and Battleship Potemkin

While watching the film, Battleship Potemkin (1925), directed by Sergei Eisenstein, I found it so interesting how it mimicked the Russian Revolution on a small scale. One of the first lines of dialogue was “We must stand in front of revolution”. This line came from one of the sailors and, in my opinion, was the most defining line in the movie. It represents the crucial role the working class played in not only this movie, or even in the revolution itself, but in socialism as a whole. With this, I can completely understand why this movie goes down in history as one of the best propaganda films of all time.

The movie centered around sailors uprising against the unfair treatment by the captain and his men and the disastrous aftermath in the town of Odessa. There we see the Tsarist regime massacring the city after coming together to pay their dues to the dead soldier. It is also really interesting to me how the film represented the Tsar relinquishing power. At the end, when the enemy could’ve fired at the sailors, they did not. It’s almost as if they knew there was nothing more they could do to suppress the inevitable. Similarly, in “Abdication”, the Tsar is relinquishing his power because the people are revolting due to concerns for their own welfare and disdain for the regime. With the way the Tsar was portrayed in the film, it seems absolutely reasonable that the people are calling for a revolution and moving towards communism. Grand Duke Mikhail, who accepts power from the Tsar, explains how he will rule based on “desire of the people”. It’s intriguing to see the progression of not only the people’s want for socialism, but the leader’s eventual move towards it as the revolution grows.

The entire film is about the revolution coming from the working class. Lenin’s “What Have I Done?”, is also entirely about how the revolution will come from the working class. Several times in the film we hear things like “All for one, one for all!”, and even more appropriate, “All against one, one against all”. The movie so cleverly encompassed very important aspects of socialism.

In Dark Continent, Mazower speaks about an end to “lawlessness and social anarchy through decisive state action” (p.11) , as seen in the film. The people do not want to be prisoners of their own government. I thought the main theme was portrayed perfectly of how the bourgeoisie would be no more, and that the working population will be invested in in order to unify the nation. Mazower agrees on page 12, where he talks about how priority was now given to the masses. Socialism seemed to work in Russia, as portrayed by both Mazower and the Battleship Potemkin, because the Tsarist regime (and liberal regime) failed to work. 

An aspect of the film I found really very compelling were the subtle religious references. The first being the biblical inscription on the plate a sailor smashed, which I think may have represented socialism’s disdain for religious because it divides a nation. Perhaps it could’ve also represented the class division, since they were not fed off of those plates.  The second was a anti-semmetic comment which fits the time period. However, the crowd was outraged at the comment further insuring that there is no room for inequality.