Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Steinberg on the Nature of Bolshevism

Who were the Bolsheviks and why did they outsmart, outplay, and outlast their socialist competitor parties? And why indeed was this small party able to prevail in the country's civil war?  According to Mark Steinberg, the Bolsheviks were a party that offered clear solutions to their beleaguered country, including strong, unified government and firm authoritarian solutions to complex problems.  They were also a party that offered wildly popular slogans to garner a great deal of popular support, including calls to create a bread monopoly to help the common people, plans to inaugurate worker councils to end exploitation at the factories, and a decree to institute land redistribution to improve the lot of the peasantry. The land redistribution was the Bolshevik's most popular program.  The 26 October 1917 Decree on land offered landowners no compensation.  Hired labor was ended.  Everyone who worked the land, not excluding former landowners, were entitled to a plot of land.

The Bolsheviks also originally offered all national minorities in the Russian Empire the right to self-determination.  Finland and Poland were granted total independence.  At first, government was decentralized and localized.  The Bolsheviks were anti-religious but they weren't above using the sacred language of resurrection to explicate their Marxist creed to the masses.  As Steinberg reminds us, they depicted their cause as a moral struggle to deliver the country from the greed, egoism, and moral turpitude of the ruling classes, who had, they said, repeatedly insulted the virtue and dignity of their fellow countrymen.  Bolsheviks were especially popular with rank-and-file soldiers, who were fed up with the tsarist officer class.

The Bolsheviks were a complex phenomenon but the Party embodied many of the trends in Russian Utopianism.  Even more than other Russian radical groups, the Bolsheviks were supremely self-confident about their abilities to learn to govern on the job.  Lenin had taught them that a tiny group of dedicated, heroic, professional revolutionaries could change the world.  The Bolsheviks had a touch of Nietzsche in them.  In Steinberg's words, they believed they could channel the creative energy of the lower classes, creating organizational miracles by their energy, daring, willpower, and general decisiveness.

Some analysts have argued that the Bolsheviks were cynics who used the vocabulary of the Enlightenment to obscure dark motives. Steinberg argues the contrary:  Bolsheviks were true-believers.  They believed in Utopia and were therefore willing to do almost anything to bring that Utopia about.  Censorship, dictatorship, authoritarianism, and almost anything else was permissible if it was in the service of radical social transformation.  Revolution, Lenin argue, was the most authoritarian phenomenon on earth. Everything was justified that served the goal of socialist liberation.  And the Soviet leadership used this logic to nationalize banks, create a master plan of economic regulation, and institute disciplinarian approaches even to factory governance and union management.

But of course the Bolsheviks didn't stop there.  They moved inexorably toward violent solutions of political problems.  By Steinberg's reckoning, at least 13,000 Russian were executed by the Cheka without trial between 1918 and 1920, including some who died for their social origins or political sympathies.

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