The sharp contrast that Alexis de Tocqueville drew in 1835 between the United States and Tsarist Russia—”the principle of the former is freedom; of the latter, servitude”—became much sharper after 1917, when the Russian Empire was transformed into the Soviet Union.
Like the United States, the Soviet Union is a nation founded on a distinct ideology. In the case of America, the ideology was fundamentally Lockean liberalism; its best expressions are the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution. The Ninth Amendment, in particular, breathes the spirit of the worldview of late eighteenth-century America. The Founders believed that there exist natural, individual rights that, taken together, constitute a moral framework for political life. Translated into law, this framework defines the social space within which men voluntarily interact; it allows for the spontaneous coordination and ongoing mutual adjustment of the various plans that the members of society form to guide and fill their lives.
The Soviet Union was founded on a very different ideology, Marxism, as understood and interpreted by V. I. Lenin. Marxism, with its roots in Hegelian philosophy, was a quite conscious revolt against the individual rights doctrine of the previous century. The leaders of the Bolshevik party (which changed its name to Communist in 1918) were virtually all revolutionary intellectuals, in accordance with the strategy set forth by Lenin in his 1902 work What Is to Be Done? They were avid students of the works of Marx and Engels published in their lifetimes or shortly thereafter and known to the theoreticians of the Second International. The Bolshevik leaders viewed themselves as the executors of the Marxist program, as those whom History had called upon to realize the apocalyptic transition to Communist society foretold by the founders of their faith.
The aim they inherited from Marx and Engels was nothing less than the final realization of human freedom and the end of the “prehistory” of the human race. Theirs was the Promethean dream of the rehabilitation of Man and his conquest of his rightful place as master of the world and lord of creation.
Building on the work of Michael Polanyi and Ludwig von Mises, Paul Craig Roberts has demonstrated—in books that deserve to be much better known than they are, since they provide an important key to the history of the twentieth century— the meaning of freedom in Marxism. It lies in the abolition of alienation, i.e., of commodity production, production for the market. For Marx and Engels, the market represents not merely the arena of capitalist exploitation but, more fundamentally, a systematic insult to the dignity of Man. Through it, the consequences of Man’s action escape from his control and turn on him in malign ways. Thus, the insight that market processes generate results that were no part of anyone’s intention becomes, for Marxism, the very reason to condemn them. As Marx wrote of the stage of Communist society before the total disappearance of scarcity,
freedom in this field can consist only in socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature.
The point is made most clearly by Engels:
With the seizure of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and with it the dominion of the product over the producers. Anarchy of social production is replaced by conscious organization according to plan. The whole sphere of the conditions of life which surround men, which ruled men up until now comes under the dominion and conscious control of men, who become for the first time the real, conscious lords of nature, because and in that they become master of their own social organization. The laws of their own social activity, which confronted them until this point as alien laws of nature, controlling them, then are applied by men with full understanding, and so mastered by them. Only from then on will men make their history themselves in full consciousness; only from then on will the social causes they set in motion have in the main and in constantly increasing proportion, also the results intended by them. It is the leap of mankind from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.
Thus, Man’s freedom would be expressed in the total control exercised by the associated producers in planning the economy and, with it, all of social life. No longer would the unintended consequences of Man’s actions bring disaster and despair—there would be no such consequences. Man would determine his own fate. Left unexplained was how millions upon millions of separate individuals could be expected to act with one mind and one will—could suddenly become “Man”—especially since it was alleged that the state, the indispensable engine of coercion, would wither away.
Already in Marx and Engels’s day—decades before the establishment of the Soviet state—there were some with a shrewd idea of just who it was that would assume the title role when the time came to perform the heroic melodrama Man Creates His Own Destiny. The most celebrated of Marx’s early critics was the Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin, for whom Marx was “the Bismarck of socialism” and who warned that Marxism was a doctrine ideally fitted to function as the ideology—in the Marxist sense: the systematic rationalization and obfuscation—of the power urges of revolutionary intellectuals. It would lead, Bakunin warned, to the creation of “a new class,” which would establish “the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant, and contemptuous of all regimes” and entrench its control over the producing classes of society. Bakunin’s analysis was extended and elaborated by the Pole Waclaw Machajski.
Despite this analysis—or perhaps as a confirmation of it—the Marxist vision came to inspire generations of intellectuals in Europe and even in America. In the course of the vast, senseless carnage that was the First World War, the Tsarist Empire collapsed and the immense Imperial Russian Army was fragmented into atoms. A small group of Marxist intellectuals seized power. What could be more natural than that, once in power, they should try to bring into being the vision that was their whole purpose and aim? The problem was that the audacity of their dream was matched only by the depth of their economic ignorance.
In August 1917—three months before he took power—this is how Lenin, in State and Revolution, characterized the skills needed to run a national economy in the “first phase” of Communism, the one he and his associates were about to embark upon:
The accounting and control necessary for this have been simplified by capitalism to the utmost, till they have become the extraordinarily simple operations of watching, recording and issuing receipts, within the reach of anybody who can read and write and knows the first four rules of arithmetic.
Nikolai Bukharin, a leading “Old Bolshevik,” in 1919 wrote, together with Evgeny Preobrazhensky, one of the most widely read Bolshevik texts. It was The ABC of Communism, a work that went through eighteen Soviet editions and was translated into twenty languages. Bukharin and Preobrazhensky “were regarded as the Party’s two ablest economists.” According to them, Communist society is, in the first place, “an organized society,” based on a detailed, precisely calculated plan, which includes the “assignment” of labor to the various branches of production. As for distribution, according to these eminent Bolshevik economists, all products will be delivered to communal warehouses, and the members of society will draw them out in accordance with their self-defined needs.
Favorable mentions of Bukharin in the Soviet press are now taken to be exciting signs of the glories of glasnost, and in his speech of November 2, 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev partially rehabilitated him. It should be remembered that Bukharin is the man who wrote, “We shall proceed to a standardization of the intellectuals; we shall manufacture them as in a factory” and who stated, in justification of Leninist tyranny:
Proletarian coercion, in all its forms, from executions to forced labor, is, paradoxical as it may sound, the method of molding communist humanity out of the human material of the capitalist period.
The shaping of the “human material” at their disposal into something higher—the manufacture of the New Soviet Man, Homo sovieticus—was essential to their vision of all the millions of individuals in society acting together, with one mind and one will, and it was shared by all the Communist leaders. It was to this end, for instance, that Lilina, Zinoviev’s wife, spoke out for the “nationalization” of children, in order to mold them into good Communists.
The most articulate and brilliant of the Bolsheviks put it most plainly and best. At the end of his Literature and Revolution, written in 1924, Leon Trotsky placed the famous, and justly ridiculed, last lines: Under Communism, he wrote, “The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.” This dazzling prophecy was justified in his mind, however, by what he had written in the few pages preceding. Under Communism, Man will “reconstruct society and himself in accord with his own plan.” “Traditional family life” will be transformed, the “laws of heredity and blind sexual selection” will be obviated, and Man’s purpose will be “to create a higher social biological type, or, if your please, a superman.” (The full quotation can be found in the article on Trotsky in this volume.)
I suggest that what we have here, in the sheer willfulness of Trotsky and the other Bolsheviks, in their urge to replace God, nature, and spontaneous social order with total, conscious planning by themselves, is something that transcends politics in any ordinary sense of the term. It may well be that to understand what is at issue we must ascend to another level, and that more useful in understanding it than the works of the classical liberal economists and political theorists is the superb novel of the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength.
Now, the fundamental changes in human nature that the Communist leaders undertook to make require, in the nature of the case, absolute political power in a few directing hands. During the French Revolution, Robespierre and the other Jacobin leaders set out to transform human nature in accordance with the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This was not the only cause but it was surely one of the causes of the Reign of Terror. The Communists soon discovered what the Jacobins had learned: that such an enterprise requires that Terror be erected into a system of government.
The Red Terror began early on. In his celebrated November 1987 speech, Gorbachev confined the Communist Reign of Terror to the Stalin years and stated:
Many thousands of people inside and outside the party were subjected to wholesale repressive measures. Such, comrades, is the bitter truth.
But by no means is this the whole of the bitter truth. By the end of 1917, the repressive organs of the new Soviet state had been organized into the Cheka, later known by other names, including OGPU, NKVD, and KGB. The various mandates under which the Cheka operated may be illustrated by an order signed by Lenin on February 21, 1918: that men and women of the bourgeoisie be drafted into labor battalions to dig trenches under the supervision of Red Guards, with “those resisting to be shot.” Others, including “speculators” and counter-revolutionary agitators, were “to be shot on the scene of their crime.” To a Bolshevik who objected to the phrasing, Lenin replied, “Surely you do not imagine that we shall be victorious without applying the most cruel revolutionary terror?”
The number of Cheka executions that amounted to legalized murder in the period from late 1917 to early 1922—including neither the victims of the Revolutionary Tribunals and the Red Army itself nor the insurgents killed by the Cheka—has been estimated by one authority at 140,000. As a reference point, consider that the number of political executions under the repressive tsarist regime from 1866 to 1917 was about forty-four thousand, including during and after the Revolution of 1905 (except that the persons executed were accorded trials), and the comparable figure for the French Revolutionary Reign of Terror was eighteen to twenty thousand. Clearly, with the first Marxist state something new had come into the world.
In the Leninist period—that is, up to 1924—fall also the war against the peasantry that was part of “war communism” and the famine conditions, culminating in the famine of 1921, that resulted from the attempt to realize the Marxist dream. The best estimate of the human cost of those episodes is around 6 million persons.
But the guilt of Lenin and the Old Bolsheviks—and of Marx himself—does not end here. Gorbachev asserted that “the Stalin personality cult was certainly not inevitable.”
“Inevitable” is a large word, but if something like Stalinism had not occurred, it would have been close to a miracle. Scorning what Marx and Engels had derided as mere “bourgeois” freedom and “bourgeois” jurisprudence, Lenin destroyed freedom of the press, abolished all protections against the police power, and rejected any hint of division of powers and checks and balances in government. It would have saved the peoples of Russia an immense amount of suffering if Lenin—and Marx and Engels before him—had not quite so brusquely dismissed the work of men like Montesquieu and Jefferson, Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville. These writers had been preoccupied with the problem of how to thwart the state’s ever present drive toward absolute power. They laid out, often in painstaking detail, the political arrangements that are required, the social forces that must be nurtured, in order to avert tyranny. But to Marx and his Bolshevik followers, this was nothing more than “bourgeois ideology,” obsolete and of no relevance to the future socialist society. Any trace of decentralization or division of power, the slightest suggestion of a countervailing force to the central authority of the “associated producers,” ran directly contrary to the vision of the unitary planning of the whole of social life.
The toll among the peasantry was even greater under Stalin’s collectivization and the famine of 1933—a deliberate one this time, aimed at terrorizing and crushing the peasants, especially of the Ukraine. We shall never know the full truth of this demonic crime, but it seems likely that perhaps 10 or 12 million persons lost their lives as a result of these Communist policies—as many or more than the total of all the dead in all the armies in the First World War.
One is stunned. Who could have conceived that within a few years what the Communists were to do in the Ukraine would rival the appalling butcheries of World War I—Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele?
They died in hell,
They called it Passchendaele.
But what word to use, then, for what the Communists made of the Ukraine?
Vladimir Grossman, a Russian novelist who experienced the famine of 1933, wrote about it in his novel Forever Flowing, published in the West. An eyewitness to the famine in the Ukraine stated,
Then I came to understand the main thing for the Soviet power is the Plan. Fulfill the Plan….Fathers and mothers tried to save their children, to save a little bread, and they were told: You hate our socialist country, you want to ruin the Plan, you are parasites, kulaks, fiends, reptiles. When they took the grain, they told the kolkhoz [collective farm] members they would be fed out of the reserve fund. They lied. They would not give grain to the hungry.
The labor camps for “class-enemies” had already been established under Lenin, as early as August 1918. They were vastly enlarged under his successor. Alexander Solzhenitsyn compared them to an archipelago spread across the great sea of the Soviet Union. The camps grew and grew. Who were sent there? Any with lingering tsarist sentiments and recalcitrant members of the middle classes, liberals, Mensheviks, anarchists, priests and laity of the Orthodox Church, Baptists and other religious dissidents, “wreckers,” suspects of every description, then, “kulaks” and peasants by the hundreds of thousands.
During the Great Purge of the middle 1930s, the Communist bureaucrats and intellectuals themselves were victims, and at that point there was a certain sort of thinker in the West who now began to notice the camps, and the executions, for the first time. More masses of human beings were shipped in after the annexations of eastern Poland and the Baltic states; then enemy prisoners of war, the internal “enemy nationalities,” and the returning Soviet prisoners of war (viewed as traitors for having surrendered), who flooded into the camps after 1945—in Solzhenitsyn’s words, “vast dense gray shoals like ocean herring.”
The most notorious of the camps was Kolyma, in eastern Siberia—in actuality a system of camps four times the size of France. There the death rate may have been as high as 50 percent per year and the number of deaths was probably on the order of 3 million. It goes on and on. In 1940 there was Katyn and the murder of the Polish officers; in 1952, the leaders of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union were liquidated en masse—both drops in the bucket for Stalin. During the Purges there were probably about 7 million arrests, and one out of every ten arrested was executed.
How many died altogether? No one will ever know. What is certain is that the Soviet Union has been the worst reeking charnel house of the whole awful twentieth century, worse even than the one the Nazis created (but then they had less time). The sum total of deaths due to Soviet policy—in the Stalin period alone—deaths from the collectivization and the terror famine, the executions and the Gulag, is probably on the order of 20 million.
As glasnost proceeds and these landmarks of Soviet history are uncovered and explored to a greater or lesser degree, it is to be hoped that Gorbachev and his followers will not fail to point an accusing finger at the West for the part it played in masking these crimes. I am referring to the shameful chapter in twentieth-century intellectual history involving the fellow travelers of Soviet Communism and their apologias for Stalinism. Americans, especially American college students, have been made familiar with the wrongs of McCarthyism in our own history. This is as it should be. The harassment and public humiliation of innocent private persons is iniquitous, and the US government must always be held to the standards established by the Bill of Rights. But surely we should also remember and inform young Americans of the accomplices in a far different order of wrongs—those progressive intellectuals who “worshiped at the temple of [Soviet] planning” and lied and evaded the truth to protect the homeland of socialism, while millions were martyred. Not only George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Harold Laski, and Jean-Paul Sartre, but, for instance, the Moscow correspondent of the New York Times, Walter Duranty, who told his readers, in August 1933, at the height of the famine:
Any report of famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda. The food shortage which has affected almost the whole population in the last year and particularly in the grain-producing provinces—the Ukraine, North Caucasus, the lower Volga region—has, however, caused heavy loss of life.
For his “objective” reporting from the Soviet Union, Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize.
Or—to take another fellow traveler virtually at random—we should keep in mind the valuable work of Owen Lattimore of Johns Hopkins University. Professor Lattimore visited Kolyma in the summer of 1944, as an aide to the Vice President of the United States Henry Wallace. He wrote a glowing report on the camp and on its chief warden, Commandant Nikishov, for the National Geographic. Lattimore compared Kolyma to a combination of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the TVA. The number of the influential American fellow travelers was, in fact, legion, and I can think of no moral principle that would justify our forgetting what they did and what they did it in aid of.
In his speech of November 2, Gorbachev declared that Stalin was guilty of “enormous and unforgivable crimes” and announced that a special commission of the Central Committee is to prepare a history of the Communist party of the Soviet Union that will reflect the realities of Stalin’s rule. Andrei Sakharov has called for the full disclosure of “the entire, terrible truth of Stalin and his era.” But can the Communist leaders really afford to tell the entire truth? At the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev revealed the tip of the iceberg of Stalinist crimes, and Poland rose up and there took place the immortal Hungarian Revolution, when they did
high deeds in Hungary
To pass all men’s believing.
What would it mean to reveal the entire truth? Could the Communist leaders admit, for instance, that during World War II, “the losses inflicted by the Soviet state upon its own people rivaled any the Germans could inflict on the battlefield”? That “the Nazi concentration camps were modified versions of Soviet originals,” whose evolution the German leadership had followed with some care? That, in short, “the Soviet Union is not only the original killer state, but the model one”? If they did that, what might the consequences not be this time?
But the fact that the victims of Soviet Communism can never be fully acknowledged in their homelands is all the more reason that, as a matter of historical justice, we in the West must endeavor to keep their memory alive.
This essay was originally published in 1988, by the Cato Institute, Washington, DC. It is collected in Great Wars and Great Leaders (2010), chap. 4: “Marxist Dreams and Soviet Realities.”
Copyright © 2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.