Wednesday, November 11, 2009
The West's Love Affair with Stalin
It may seem odd that this blog is devoted to one year in the whole of human history. Why is one moment more or less important than any other moment? Walter Laqueuer observes that historians seem to agree that some moments are more important than others, and probably a plurality of historians would agree that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 is the single most important moment in modern world history, if not in the whole of human history.
This was of course the rhetoric of Revolution, but, strangely, historians have, by and large, endorsed this view. Even so, they don’t agree about anything beyond that. They condemn the purges, but disagree about almost every other detail of the revolutionary experience. One things historians still debate is why the West failed to come to terms with the nature of Soviet tyranny for so long. Laqueuer analyzes this dilemma in his essay, “Russia and the West” in The Fate of the Revolution, arguing that the reasons for Western naiveté are diverse and complicated.
Laqueuer begins the analysis by reminding readers that most contemporaries fundamentally misunderstood the French Revolution too. Even Burke and Paine—despite their genius for analyzing the philosophical significance of the Revolution—got it wrong in many fundamental aspects. Burke thought that revolutionary violence sprang from the actions of a small conspiracy of morally corrupt and evil men. He did not think the Revolution had sprung up as a reaction or byproduct of a host of societal structural flaws and social pressures. Paine, for his part, thought the Revolution was long overdue, but made no serious effort to explain how reform could coexist with revolutionary oppression and capricious murder.
The Russian Revolution naturally met with similar misunderstanding, made worse by the fact that the Russian people were cut off from contact with the West throughout the Revolution and afterward. In London and Paris, most people initially reacted to the Bolshevik takeover with abuse, although Western anger had as much to do with the fact that the West had lost an important ally in the war against Germany. As Laqueur reminds us, the British papers regularly ran articles that sensationalized Bolshevik actions, accusing them of making women the common property of men, nationalizing parenthood, outlawing God and religion, and murdering countless innocents. The attacks were intertwined with virulent anti-Semitism.
Later, the rhetoric was toned down, but sophisticated intellectuals such as the Webbs came to admire Stalin. It’s ironic that the West actually disliked Lenin more than they disliked Stalin. (Note: The Americans were less outraged by the defection of Russia in World War I, and assumed, wrongly, that the Bolsheviks would become more moderate over time. After all, they confidently reminded themselves that Communism removed the incentive of pay differentials and was therefore doomed to failure if left unreformed).
On paper, Lagueur tells us that Stalin’s Constitution was one of the best the world had ever produced, and in person Stalin could be as affable and modest and charming as anyone. Many visitors wrongly assured their constituencies at home that Russia was no less democratic than their homelands. Even Russian justice was lauded. And, if Stalin wasn’t always charming, he was at least powerful: and power, as we all know, is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
Stalin had something else going for him: he wasn’t Hitler. This fact must have helped many people to overcome their scruples about the severity of his rule. If he was eliminating opponents, he was at least preparing Russia to meet the crisis Germany was bound to provoke. One is tempted to go further than Laqueur and say that frenzied Nazi propaganda attacks against the Soviet Union must have made it tempting to assume that Stalin’s Russia had something to recommend it. If Hitler hated Russia, maybe the Bolsheviks couldn’t be all bad. Needless to say, the triumph of the Soviet Union in World War II made it that much harder to believe the worst about Bolshevism. And soon after that, Russian industrial growth became the envy of the world.