Nationalism vs. Ideology

Russia’s Failed Revolutions: From the Decembrists to the Dissidents.
by Adam B. Ulam.
Basic Books. 453 pp. $18.95.

The Rise of the Gulag: Intellectual Origins of Leninism.
by Alain Besançon.
Continuum. 329 pp. $19.50.

As Adam B. Ulam acknowledges in his preface to Russia’s Failed Revolutions, “This book does not purport to be a systematic history of the Russian revolutionary tradition. Rather it seeks an answer to the question: what was it that at decisive moments has flawed the libertarian intentions of Russia’s revolutionaries and reformers?” The seven skillfully argued case-studies that comprise Ulam’s impressive book, each of them a well-documented self-contained essay, span a period of one and a half centuries, from the abortive Decembrist coup of 1825 down to the present, with heavy emphasis on the two decades that preceded the Communist takeover of November 1917. And while the results are therefore strongly skewed, Ulam’s collection of seemingly disjointed brief studies acquires a significant degree of cohesion through the common denominator of the author’s thesis which is apparent in each of the essays.

Briefly, Ulam, who teaches history and political science at Harvard, believes that Russia’s successive revolutions have failed to move that country toward a more humane form of government primarily because such an aim has traditionally been regarded as incompatible with Russia’s national interests. In a multinational state, the idea of greater tolerance toward ethnic minorities was genuinely unpopular, not least because it unavoidably imparted a degree of legitimacy to demands of some ethnic groups for independent statehood. Thus, revolutionary programs of whatever hue could be viewed as blueprints for the ultimate dismemberment of the Russian empire. It did not avail, Ulam recalls, that quite a few of the revolutionaries, from the Decembrist Pestel onward, were themselves “quintessential Russian nationalists.”

In addition to the barrier of nationalist concerns, the progress of liberal values was also hindered by a “psychological barrier”: “National pride bridled at the idea that Russia should merely learn from and imitate Europe.” Hence, according to Ulam, during the second half of the 19th century it was the liberal who was “conspicuous by his absence in [the] cast of main characters of the drama of Russian history.”

That this is a considerable exaggeration is convincingly if indirectly attested by the ferocity of the attacks on liberals that were mounted at that time both from the Left and from the Right. Neither radical camp—neither that of Lenin nor the one personified by Pobedonostsev, the head of the Holy Synod—would have expended so much energy and effort on nonexistent political dangers, nor would Dostoevsky have troubled, in The Possessed, to satirize two leading liberals, the historian Granovsky as well as Turgenev. Ulam’s underestimation of Russian liberals is compounded by his tendency to view Russian liberalism as a variety of Westernism alone. In fact, liberalism and Slavophilism were not entirely mutually exclusive (two examples come to mind: the novelist Nikolai Leskov and the theologian Vladimir Soloviev).

Nevertheless, Ulam’s central thesis is essentially sound. Nineteenth-and early 20th-century Russian liberalism was indeed too weak to fight off enemies from both sides of the political spectrum, and Russian nationalism was and continues to serve as the ideological glue of that repressive state:

It is mainly by draping itself with the national interest, appealing to Russian nationalism (and Soviet patriotism is but its synonym in an ideological guise), that autocratic regimes from Nicholas I’s to Brezhnev’s have sought to withstand pressures for liberalization and the demand for freedom.

Here it might be objected that the one successful Russian revolutionary upheaval, the Communist seizure of power in 1917, succeeded in spite of its anti-patriotic stance. Ulam concedes the point, but with reservations:

In Lenin in Zurich, Solzhenitsyn portrays the father of the Communist state as possessed by an obsessive hatred of his own nation, a view which is both oversimplified and unjust. Once in power Lenin would amply demonstrate, even if unconsciously, that he was one of those Russian Communists of whom he himself said, “Scratch them and you will find Russian chauvinists.”

Indeed, Ulam argues, of the various pre-Soviet revolutionary movements, “the Bolsheviks were the most ‘Russian,’” more so than the Mensheviks or the Socialist Revolutionaries. (This may be one reason, he suggests, why the latter two parties had a higher percentage of Poles, Jews, and Georgians.) Still, the precise relation between Communism and Russian nationalism had to be worked out to insure the latter would not rule the former. Even if, “from the 30’s on, the Soviet rulers would, under the euphemism of ‘Soviet patriotism,’ make [Russian nationalism] the main psychological prop and title deed of their power,” this was a nationalism that was “their servant and not master.”

The above implies that Communism’s interests do not coincide with those of the Russian nation; in that case Solzhenitsyn is not altogether wrong, and tensions between Russian nationalism and Communist policies are a major vulnerability of the Soviet state. And this in turn would suggest that Western-oriented democratic dissenters and the various activist groupings from among the ethnic minorities which are incapable of attracting an appreciable Russian following constitute much less of a threat to Soviet authorities than Russian nationalists and Russian religious sectarians.

It so happens that this line of reasoning was followed a century ago by the Czarist authorities who persecuted Old Believer peasants with greater ferocity than they did revolutionary radicals, and banned the publication of Tolstoy’s religious parables while permitting the appearance of Das Kapital. The rest is history.

Perhaps, in this connection, it is worth pointing to two political demands raised in imperial Russia, both cited in Ulam’s book and both recently resurrected. The first, voiced in the 1860’s, was the demand for glasnost (“openness”). It implied a government which, even if autocratic in form, would “operate in full view of society and with due regard for public opinion rather than having its policies formulated in secrecy by a small clique of officials, in its own way a sort of conspiracy.” The second, raised in 1847 by Vissarion Belinsky, Russia’s most influential literary critic of all time, appealed for a “strict observance of at least those laws which already exist.” The first demand, as Ulam notes, has been revived by Solzhenitsyn. The second is a creed of those democratic dissenters still in the USSR.



As the subtitle of his book suggests, Alain Besançon, the French historian and sociologist, has set himself the formidable aim of establishing the “intellectual origins of Leninism.” Of that task he acquits himself with much distinction. His erudite volume, which draws on a dazzling array of sources ranging from theology to political journalism, is gracefully written, and while openly polemical is never really unfair toward those whose views it opposes.

Besançon defines ideology as “a system of interpretation allowing the justification of particular social situations, and allowing them to be perpetuated, according to the political power of class.” Soviet ideology, which Besançon considers “incredibly simple,” consists of two “intimately united” parts: “on the one hand it is a faith, on the other, a theory rationally argued and allegedly proved.”

Concerning the religious, or “faith” component of Soviet ideology, Besançon writes that it shows several of the characteristics of gnosticism:

A locked encyclopaedic system of cosmology and soteriology; the overinterpretation of history; a morality deriving from the doctrine, and taking its criteria from it; self-criticism as a way of reviewing understanding of the interpretative system; the relativization of man to his contribution to salvation; the division laid down between the militants and the masses; the militant, custodian of knowledge, ascetic, professional, freed from the ordinary tasks of life; and the geo-historical dualism between regions which are ontologically damned and regions which are saved.

Other religious elements within the Leninist creed are, in Besançon’s view, of Eastern Orthodox origin, particularly the emphasis on liturgy rather than ethics, the glorification of sentiment and emotion as opposed to intellect, and the “maximalist” predilections. The latter trait helps explain the ambivalent attitude toward revolutionary excesses taken by such a committed adherent of Eastern Orthodoxy as Dostoevsky. (Besançon also suggests that the anti-rationalist, mystical, and visionary streaks in the Jewish religious tradition may have contributed to the attraction which Leninism held for many Jews.)

Among Leninism’s secular elements Besançon singles out the German intellectual tradition, particularly Hegelian philosophy, and the French political model of the ideologue:

Sincere, disinterested, loving neither women, wine, nor money, without friends, an indefatigable member of societies, good at maneuvering, believing all that he said, seeing traps and plots everywhere, the high priest of language, above all impersonal and abstract. Robespierre irresistibly prefigures Lenin.

What has become of Leninist ideology? As anyone can testify who is familiar with what now passes in the USSR for ideological debate, there is scant interest there in doctrine as such, except as a device to impart theoretical respectability to current practices and policies. In a statement that unwittingly echoes a passage in George Orwell’s 1984, Besançon writes: “The substance of the Leninist ideology, when it is in power, is that power itself.”

Entrenchment and consolidation is one application of power; expansion is another. Beginning with the outbreak of World War I, Lenin’s writing contains references to Clausewitz’s famous dictum that war is “a continuation of politics by other means.” As Besançon notes, Clausewitz’s implication is that the ultimate purpose of war, as of politics, is “a negotiated sharing or division between autonomous subjects.” By contrast, Leninism denies legitimacy to its ideological foes:

In Lenin . . . war, by its very nature, aims at the total defeat, the elimination, the extermination of the enemy, and is necessarily accompanied by a hatred which Clausewitz judged unnecessary. This is precisely because Lenin’s war was a continuation of a politics which, in essence, aimed at the total defeat of the enemy and his extermination. Lenin’s intention would have been clearer if he had turned the Clausewitz formula ’round the other way: politics is the continuation of war by other means.

Most aggressive and expansionist movements and their leaders conceal their true intentions. Not so the Leninists. Like the Nazis, they are remarkably sincere, and those who ignore their openly proclaimed aims do so at their peril.



In a curious way, these two books complement each other. Besançon traces the convoluted ancestry of the Soviet Union’s political doctrine, while Ulam describes a number of challenges to that doctrine during its more than six decades as the official faith of the world’s largest country. Ulam’s book helps explain the failure of those challenges so far, while Besançon’s suggests why, past defeats notwithstanding, we can expect similar challenges in the future. In view of the fragile balance between the components of Russian nationalism and messianic Marxism within Soviet ideology, such challenges may be all but inevitable.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link