Why are the Russians still so hard to get along with? Why, faced with the logic of détente and the challenge of human rights, must the Soviet authorities remain so stubborn and intractable, when the revolution that made all other countries and classes their enemies has now receded more than sixty years into history? What is the peculiar legacy of that revolution which still warps the thinking and behavior of the world’s geographically largest and potentially strongest power? These are some of the questions that point to a continuing need to reassess the Russian revolution and its results, in the context of both the Russian national past and the pattern of other great revolutionary events.
Authors of moral judgments about revolutionary activity almost always misdirect their ire. The fallacy is to blame revolutions and all their consequences on the conscious acts of revolutionaries. Revolutionaries are held responsible for resorting to violence, for advocating that the end justifies the means, for setting calamitous social conflicts in motion. But condemnations of this sort overlook the fact that great revolutions are not usually started deliberately. “A revolution can be neither made nor stopped,” remarked Napoleon after his exile. As historians are by and large aware, revolutions happen because of very complex causal patterns of situational proclivities and triggering mechanisms, or, in other words, a variety of ultimate and immediate causes. Ordinarily, intentional action by revolutionaries does not succeed in launching revolutions at all. It only leads to abortive coups and futile acts of terrorism. In the rare instances where a major revolution is actually initiated by a deliberate coup (for instance, in China in 1911 and in Portugal in 1974), the revolution runs a course that far outdistances the intentions and expectations of its initiators. The famous statement by Friedrich Engels comes to mind: “People who boasted that they had made a revolution have always seen the next day that they had no idea what they were doing. That the revolution made did not in the least resemble the one they would have liked to make.”
A revolution is not an event, it is a process. It develops over a period of years, through discernible stages. Naturally, different revolutions are not identical, but in one form or another they all display the same characteristic phases. Schematically these phases are: the breakdown of the old regime; the rule of the moderates; the dissolution in whole or in part of the old institutional fabric; the emotional mobilization and polarization of the population; and the struggle of left-wing extremists and right-wing counterrevolutionaries for power. This, of course, is the model made familiar some years ago by the late Crane Brinton in his Anatomy of Revolution, drawing in turn on the less well known but pioneering work by Lyford P. Edwards, The Natural History of Revolution.
Up to a point the Edwards-Brinton model works very well for a multitude of diverse revolutions. But for the later phases of revolution, after the moment of crisis when revolutionary extremism peaks, I find that the model needs some modification. I have argued elsewhere that the breakdown of authority and the emotional mobilization of the populace during a revolution sooner or later bring the country to a crisis whose outcome is historically indeterminate, that is, where a nation’s course may lead to left-wing dictatorship, a right-wing dictatorship, or a precarious moderate balance, and where there is substantial scope for individual action and accidental events in deciding the outcome. Here is the point where deliberate choices by revolutionaries can very definitely become decisive, where moral judgments, within the limits of a crisis situation, can indeed be applied, and where responsibility for the outcome really can be fixed on individual revolutionaries or counterrevolutionaries.
The victory of revolutionary extremism in Russia was the result of just such an indeterminate crisis situation. Bolshevik success was the outcome of personal and unpredictable circumstances, including vigorous leadership, bungling by the counterrevolutionaries, and default by the wrangling parties of the Provisional government, plus sheer accident and good fortune in the events of October 1917. To say this is not to deny the role of vast social forces among the emotionally aroused populace—the Petrograd workers, the armed forces, and above all the peasantry. Obviously it was only the process of revolution involving these forces that created so much as a possibility for the extremist seizure of power. Similarly, the fact that Russia was a relatively undeveloped and unreformed country contributed heavily to the extremists’ chances for success—Marx to the contrary notwithstanding. Underdevelopment assured a wider response of unsatisfied social elements, of workers without established organizations, of soldiers without the right to be treated as humans, and above all of peasants without land (or without enough land). Modern history shows, by and largé, that revolutions in less developed countries with a great gap between expectations and satisfaction tend to work out to the advantage of the Left. When more developed countries, where the bulk of the population has something to lose, do succumb to revolution, they will usually swing to the Right at the moment of crisis.
There is one aspect of the Russian revolution, shared by other Communist revolutions but nowhere else, that deviates altogether from the pattern of earlier revolutions. This is the ability of the regime created by the revolutionary extremists to keep itself in power indefinitely, and avoid a Thermidorean counter-coup or a Restoration. Of course, it was touch and go for many months in the Russian civil war, but the Bolsheviks adapted quickly enough in the direction of bureaucratic organization and military methods to avoid the decisive defeat that past revolutionary dictatorships had sooner or later suffered. On the other hand, the Bolsheviks did not, as some have suggested, institutionalize “permanent revolution” at this point. The Bolsheviks only managed to maintain the continuity of their regime by a series of flexible responses to events—the party dictatorship in the civil war, the retreat to state capitalism after the crisis of 1921, the Stalin revolution of collectivization and five-year plans resolving the contradictions of the New Economic Policy (NEP). Thanks to this series of responses to practical social and economic challenges, the Soviet regime all along reflected the continued unfolding of the revolutionary process, even though in muted form, without further explicit overturns in the political system.
Thus the NEP of 1921-28 involving the suppression of the idealist ultra-Left organized as the Democratic Centralists and the Workers’ Opposition, as well as conceding a partially free economy to the general population, clearly represented the Thermidor of the Russian Revolution. Following the characteristically extremist regime of War Communism (1918-21), the Russian Thermidor was a timely retreat executed by the Communist leadership itself to escape its own overthrow. Seven or eight years later, Russia shifted gears again without any abrupt break in the government, when the NEP yielded to the Stalin revolution. Stalin’s enemies were on firm ground when they called the new phase “Bonapartism.” A bit more impersonally, the Stalin revolution might be described as the phase of post-revolutionary dictatorship in which revolutionary slogans were synthesized with traditional methods to mobilize new national energy in the pursuit of a dictator’s grand ambition.
Russia obviously had no Restoration comparable to the return of Charles II or Louis XVIII. However, a Restoration in some sense might well have been accomplished if Hitler had been more adroit in World War II and Stalin’s government had been toppled. But even without this eventuality, developments took place in the era of the Great Purge which in some respects could be regarded as the functional equivalent of a Restoration. These changes included the recrystalization of a permanently hierarchical and authoritarian society with conservative and nationalistic norms in its social and cultural policies, as well as (in the physical sense) the incredible number of old revolutionaries liquidated in the most extreme and still baffling episode of the Purge, the Yezhovshchina.
The foregoing sketch demonstrates that it is easy to track Soviet developments with the classical model of revolution. On the other hand, the Soviet experience retains an element of distinctiveness that must not be lost sight of. In spite of abrupt changes in policies and personnel and the great discrepancy between the original intentions of the revolutionaries and the outcome that their efforts led to, the continuity of the Communist regime has allowed certain aspects of the early extremist dictatorship to be perpetuated. This is notably the case with the regime’s revolutionary ideology and its need to rationalize everything it does in terms of Marxism-Leninism, to justify the outcome of the revolutionary process in terms of the original intent, despite the divergence between the two. Thanks to its political continuity, the Russian revolution has bequeathed a sort of fabricated legitimacy to its heirs. This circumstance is responsible in substantial part for the Soviet government’s compulsion to maintain total control over public communication, and the self-defeating cruelties that this commitment has entailed.
Much of the literature comparing and contrasting various revolutions has distinguished two basic kinds. One, up to the French revolution or alternatively up to the Russian, is represented as the political revolution: creative, liberating, good. The other, starting with the French revolution for some authors, with the Russian for others, is the social revolution: destructive, repressive, bad. Though overly simplistic and judgmental, this sort of typology does recognize that different revolutions represent different demands, different programs, and different motive forces. It recognizes also that there is a certain temporal sequence from one revolution to the next in the development of new aims, as the achievements of one revolution become the starting point for the next.
Revolutions up through the French revolution were primarily religious and political, aiming at freedom of conscience and rights of political participation. In Marxist terminology this is the “bourgeois” revolution, though neither in France nor anywhere else was it the exclusive accomplishment of this class. In mid-19th-century Europe, revolutionary activity began to take on a new dimension of social and economic demands, challenging the economic dominance of the property-owning classes. This, of course, is the movement which Marxism articulated as the “proletarian” revolution—even though its actual accomplishments have no more than in the bourgeois revolutions been the achievement of a single class.
The working-class pressures and socialist ideas involved in a potential revolution against capitalist private property were by no means uniquely Russian, even though Russia was the first place where they succeeded. They were bound to constitute the main thrust of any revolution that might have broken out after the development of capitalist industry and its antithesis in socialism in the 19th century. However, socialist thought in pre-revolutionary Russia was particularly accentuated by the utopianism and extremism of the Russian intelligentsia, some of whom appeared to hate the old native petty bourgeoisie and kulaks as much as they hated the new Western-style bourgeoisie. Liberal capitalism had practically no native defenders.
What was above all unique to Russia in this respect was that it happened to be the scene of the first great successful revolution with a socialist inspiration. It is quite true, as the Soviets say, that the Russian revolution opened a new epoch in history, as the prototype of the economic revolution against the power of private property. This was one kind of power that the revolution clearly did destroy, no matter what abuse of other kinds of power it might in practice condone. Thanks to its total elimination of the capitalists, the Russian revolutionary experience came to represent for the world at large the natural form of the economic revolution that had been brewing for a couple of generations in Europe. Socialism and Russia were identified in many minds, both sympathetic and hostile. Socialism made Russia look good or Russia made socialism look bad, depending on the proclivities of the viewer.
The Bolsheviks assimilated the principle of the anti-capitalist revolution very deeply. Anti-capitalism was reinforced not only by their Marxist heritage but by the long-standing biases of both the intelligentsia and the populace in Russia against the meshchanstvo, the trader class. The anti-capitalist principle has been upheld right down to the present day, and upheld with striking fidelity, considering the changeability of almost everything else in Soviet thinking. Private property in the means of production is nonexistent in the Soviet Union. Private employment of one individual by another is “exploitation,” an economic crime. Private trade—even so much as purchase and resale of a shirt or a pair of shoes—is “speculation,” an equally heinous offense. In this respect, Soviet practice contrasts even with the East European Communist countries where varying degrees of compromise with individual enterprise are observed. In Soviet Russia, anti-capitalism is a moral absolute. It is a fundamental commitment that is stubbornly maintained, not because it is practical for political or developmental reasons or whatever, but in the face of great impracticalities and great sacrifices which have persistently arisen from extreme application of the principle. In pursuit of the anti-capitalist absolute, the Communists have committed great cruelties and jettisoned the heritage of earlier revolutions in human liberation. Anti-capitalism is the one distinctive quality of Russian revolutionary extremism which has survived undiminished with the perpetuation of the revolutionary government, and it has naturally contributed its share toward the compulsive enforcement of revolutionary ideology.
Internationally, anti-capitalism was the principal element in the sensational political impact of the Russian revolution during its early days. In both hemispheres, beneficiaries of the status quo were shocked and panicked over the possible effect of Russian propaganda and example on their own laboring classes. Some countries yielded and allowed non-revolutionary reformers to inoculate their body politic with small doses of welfare-state socialism. Others, in their anxiety to curb the Communist challenge, went the route of coercive counterrevolution—in other words, fascism. But one way or another, the main focus of political debate in the Western world during the third and fourth decades of this century was the basic economic issue posed by the Russian revolution, namely, the issue of curtailing or destroying the power exercised by the owners of property over non-owners.
Some aspects of the Russian revolution in its early days that were equally shocking to the bourgeois world proved to be more ephemeral. There were great hopes for a new era in social relations—equality of the sexes, equality of the skilled and unskilled, and liberation of the individual from all the constraints of traditional institutions of authority ranging from the family to the school and the jail. But these dreams of utopian anarchism were soon dashed in practice, much to the chagrin of protesting groups of idealistic ultra-revolutionaries. They were up against the realities of the workaday world, complicated by Russia’s underdevelopment, the disruption of war and revolution, and the one overriding ideological commitment of the Communists to root out capitalist enterprise. These priorities made social change in other directions a liability rather than an attraction, and not only for the authorities. What value, after all, is liberated education for the illiterate, or the postcard divorce for the peasant wife? In short, the Communists clung to the economic revolution and forsook the social revolution. Social revolution was left as a lingering ideal to be revived two generations later by the Western New Left and the Cultural Revolution in Communist China.
This rejection of the social revolution by the Communists was more than a pragmatic maneuver. One of the signal aspects of the Stalin revolution—of Soviet Bonapartism—was the systematic repudiation of the social ideals of the liberation and equalization of individuals, given up in practice and very often in words as well. Stalin signaled the new orientation in his famous remark dismissing “uravnilovka”—leveling—as un-Marxist, and in his reaffirmation of social controls through school, family, and law. His social conservatism, in fact, was so profound, and so firmly accepted by his surviving lieutenants and heirs, that one is compelled to seek deep cultural factors. This leads naturally to the broader question of whether Russia as a whole was culturally and economically mature enough for the kind of revolution that the Communists attempted.
It has been common ever since 1917 to explain the deficiencies and disappointments of the Russian revolution by pointing out that the revolution was premature for the conditions of the country in which it took place. Up to 1917, Marxists of all stripes concurred in Marx’s prophecy of proletarian revolution in the most mature capitalist countries, based on the proposition that “No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed.” Mature capitalism would, on the one hand, provide the technological and organizational basis to produce the material abundance required for the reorientation of human attitudes on socialist lines. On the other hand, capitalism would simultaneously assure its own demise thanks to its advanced internal contradictions. This consensus of expectation set the scene for the Russian paradox: a supposedly proletarian revolution occurring and holding out in a country where everyone had acknowledged that the preconditions for rule by the workers were lacking. From this anomaly, according to the social-democratic argument of anti-Communist determinism, there followed all the distortions and injustices of a post-revolutionary society in which the material resources were insufficient to sustain the humanistic-socialist aspirations of the revolution.
Actually, at the moment of seizing power, not even the Bolsheviks professed to be attempting to establish socialism in Russia alone, immediately, under the existing circumstances. Before 1917, both Lenin and Trotsky had tried to rationalize their hopes for an immediate revolutionary role for the Russian working class (as against the Mensheviks’ reliance on historic evolution), but Lenin’s expectation was only that the workers could somehow lead the bourgeois revolution (according to his theory of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”), while Trotsky thought they could take temporary advantage of it (according to his theory of “permanent revolution”). The workers’ regime would then have to wait for the subsequent internal maturation of industrialism (according to Lenin) or foreign revolutionary aid (according to Trotsky) to support a truly socialist program in Russia.
When the revolutionary opportunity came in 1917, Lenin and Trotsky could both explain it as the result of the war then still going on; they could also agree (until they signed a separate peace with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk) that the war’s greatest significance was the chance it gave them to inspire the international revolution in the West. In this respect, in their stress on the war, the Bolshevik leaders were of one mind with the school of thought that saw the Russia of the parliamentary Duma period (1906-17) on the track of liberal capitalist evolution until the war intervened and caused the revolutionary crisis. At that moment, while cautious Bolsheviks like Zinoviev and Kamenev sounded the alarm of prematurity, warning that Russia was unready for socialism, Lenin called for the armed seizure of power on the ground that the war offered a unique chance, never to be repeated, for Russia to strike the first blow for international revolution. Banking on foreign revolutionary support, the Bolsheviks struck successfully for power, and then found themselves stranded on their barren and isolated island of proletarian revolution when the anticipated rescue from abroad failed to materialize.
If the October uprising was indeed a premature proletarian revolution, the fact that it could succeed under the circumstances then prevailing in Russia immediately calls into question the Marxian premise that revolution does not take place until after the full flowering of the old society and the exhaustion of its development possibilities. But a broader look at the major revolutions of history, such as the English and the French, suggests that Russia was not alone in its prematurity.
Revolution does not typically come after the complete maturation of a given social system, and certainly not of capitalism. The Marxian assumption that revolution naturally comes only after a given social system has exhausted its potential is not only wrong for the Russian case; it is wrong altogether. Revolution, as has been widely noted, is a natural accompaniment of the modernization process, yet it typically occurs not at the end of the process but at an early middle stage, that is, at the time of the most rapid change and the greatest accumulation of tension between a changing society and rigid institutions. Marx to the contrary notwithstanding, revolution is not a clear-cut battle between a rising class and an obsolete class, but a structural crisis in the development process that always involves a mixture of dissatisfied social elements, with the particular mix depending on the times and circumstances.
Societies which have successfully negotiated the passage to mature industrial capitalism without a revolutionary upheaval seem to develop an immunity to violent revolution. Revolutions occur most naturally in any society when they are “premature,” both in the incompleteness of the processes of change which bring them on, and in the aspirations which such change arouses. The time when a society is most vulnerable to revolution is the time when rising expectations run farthest ahead of the development of resources to meet those expectations. When a revolutionary breakdown occurs at this point, illusions run riot about the possibility of achieving everyone’s aspirations immediately. This is the mood that elevates the revolutionary extremists to power. Unfortunately, reality will not sustain the revolution in this spirit. The new rulers must resort to expediency and coercion, or go down fighting. Faced with such choices, the extremists typically split between the power-oriented and the ideal-oriented elements. Inevitably the idealists fail; only the people who are both ruthless and flexible enough have a chance to keep the idea of revolution going.
The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents. . . . He is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whose domination the movement is then ripe. In the interests of the movement he is compelled to advance the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises. . . .
Engels was warning of an exceptional pitfall; what he seems not to have realized is that the extremists’ accession to power before conditions are “ripe” is a natural law of revolution. Hence, the frustration or deception of the revolution’s followers is inevitable. The conditions that create the opportunity for revolutionary action preclude the realization of revolutionary aspirations. Conversely, where conditions are sufficient to realize these aspirations, there need be no revolution. Lenin was basically correct in warning, contrary to Marx’s expectations, that peaceful progress and economic gains would deaden the revolutionary consciousness of the workers and leave the proletarian revolution as he conceived it forever unachieved.
As things actually turned out, revolution interrupted Russia’s development at an early stage of industrialization when the country’s economic base was still woefully inadequate to support the distributive justice that socialism was supposed to represent. Instead of sharing the country’s meager wealth, the more compelling challenge faced by the revolutionaries was to pick up where capitalism had left off and apply the political and economic institutions of socialism toward the objective of continued rapid economic growth.
This was the case de facto from 1918 on, and it garnered Stalin’s theoretical blessing as “socialism in one country” from 1924 on. The question then naturally arose in Marxist minds as to whether the post-revolutionary government surviving in Russia could still remain truly a workers’ state, when the socioeconomic base for such an advanced superstructure was inadequate. Consequently, was the Soviet government subtly evolving, despite its rhetoric, into something different in terms of its class essence? The potential social degeneration of the Communist dictatorship was, of course, the main underlying theoretical issue in the polemics between the Left opposition and the ruling party leadership during the mid-20’s, though the oppositionists hesitated to push the argument to a firm conclusion. In part their problem was the lack of a clear theoretical alternative. If the Soviet Union was not a workers’ state, what in fact was it, when it was obviously not capitalist, and what became of the whole Marxist theoretical perspective? The problem has a number of interesting implications.
For many years after the revolution, the premises of Marxism made it difficult for adherents of the doctrine to recognize the emerging realities of Soviet society. Yet there is a basic proposition in the Marxian sociology of revolution that should readily open the door to such awareness. Past revolutions were recognized as the process by which new social elements controlling new means of production—not the downtrodden peasant masses-rose to positions of rule. By extension, the anticipated revolution under industrialism should not be expected to bring the entire working-class majority to power, but rather a new ruling minority of leaders basing themselves on the newest means of production in large-scale industrial and technical organizations. This would obviously be the organizers, managers, and technologists. Such, indeed, were the beneficiaries or creatures of the Russian revolution. The type was not unique to Russia, but because of the revolutionary crisis in Russia they were thrust to power much more abruptly and nakedly than in areas of more gradual development where the appearances of private capitalism survived. Ultimately, the emergence of this “New Class” of bureaucrats in a “managerial revolution” was recognized by a series of neo-Marxist writers, starting with Trotsky’s friend Christian Rakovsky in the early 1930’s, and later popularized by the American ex-Trotskyist James Burnham and the Yugoslav ex-Stalinist Milovan Djilas.
The rule of the New Class in Soviet Russia is a phenomenon that evolved in the course of the revolutionary process. It took shape particularly under Stalin in the phase of post-revolutionary dictatorship, as the heirs of revolutionary extremism sought to address the problems of incomplete industrialization. The New Class subscribed without too much question to the dictatorial methods and the anti-capitalist commitment forged in the revolution, and found its raison d’être in the distinctive Soviet approach to development through bureaucratic socialism. In terms of results, the method was no more efficacious than capitalism in its periods of most rapid development (notably in Japan). But the Soviet method of totalitarian socialism was not chosen for the sake of optimum development—it was the product of revolution, a given, originally institutionalized in the Communist party and then applied to hitherto unrecognized or avoided problems of economic development. Soviet totalitarianism was a means, created by Lenin, to achieve the goal of revolution and looking for a new goal to pursue after the flush of revolutionary idealism had faded. Stalin’s contribution was to bring together the old means of dictatorship and the new goal of development.
The New Class became the social base of the Russian post-revolutionary dictatorship, Marxism became the ideological “false consciousness” legitimizing these arrangements. And culturally some of the most deeply-rooted and primitive habits of the old regime emerged to be integrated with the system of bureaucratic socialism. Notable among these were the autocratic principle according to which the dominant class served rather than ruled; the hyper-centralized police state; and the obsession with rank and hierarchy in the one exclusive structure of power.
I have noted already that the revolutionary crisis that Russia entered in the early years of the 20th century was similar to earlier revolutionary situations elsewhere; it was a structural crisis in the development process, produced by an impasse between changing society and rigid government. At the same time, this crisis impinged on a unique, specifically Russian, cultural situation. This was the cultural bifurcation of the Russian nation resulting from two centuries of Westernization that was still partial and superficial, affecting mainly the upper and middle classes, the privileged, educated, and property-owning elements. These were the same people against whom the main force of the revolution was directed when it finally broke out. Thus in Russia the political and economic conflict of diverse class elements that characterizes the revolutionary process became in part also a cultural conflict of the non-Westernized (or less Westernized) masses against the Westernized landowning and bourgeois classes, the burzhui. This cultural factor undoubtedly contributed to the deep social polarization of the immediate pre-revolutionary years, documented in numerous recent studies. However, the confrontation was not yet clear-cut, since the bulk of the revolutionary leadership, even in the extremist stage of the process, were Westernized intellectuals—whose political success, ironically, struck at the cultural sources of their own identity.
Because of the peculiar cultural stratification of Russian society on the eve of the revolution, and the particularly bitter character of the civil war following the extremist takeover, the net effect of the Russian revolution was to deprive the country of much of its internal cultural resources of a Westernized type. Emigration, if not physical liquidation, of much of the old landowning and bourgeois elements, and elimination of the remainder from positions of influence (unless they were revolutionaries themselves) decimated the Westernized culture-bearing class. The surviving Westernized contingent of Old Bolshevik intellectuals soon found itself under a cloud in the Communist party, and in the Great Purge this element was virtually annihilated. The purge, opening the path of advancement to thousands of young officials newly risen from the ranks of the workers and peasants, represented for the time being the complete triumph of the old Russian cultural substratum over the veneer of Westernization that had superficially characterized Russian society since the 18th century.
What all this implies is that the Russian revolution was more a struggle of cultures than it was of classes. Combining the two concepts, Michal Reiman (formerly of the Institute for the History of Socialism in Prague) has described the Russian revolution as a “plebeian revolution,” in which to a unique degree the attitudes and values of the uneducated masses came to prevail in the new society. The concept of a “plebeian revolution,” marked by the resurgence of a narrow, nativist mentality at the expense of patrician cosmopolitanism, goes far toward explaining some of the salient characteristics of the post-revolutionary and particularly post-purge regime in Russia, when a youthful new leadership was rapidly promoted from humble origins by way of night schools and correspondence courses, and then proceeded to grow old in office down to the present time.
The post-purge plebeian elite, if that self-contradictory characterization may be permitted, is anti-intellectual, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and in large measure Great Russian chauvinist. Trained in the narrowly technical side of the Western tradition, the members of this elite are simultaneously pragmatic and dogmatic. As even some Soviet dissenters perceive them, they manifest the habits and prejudices of official Orthodoxy, though in a different language. They have no taste for the free play of ideas or art for art’s sake; they mouth the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution but reject the spirit of independent critical inquiry that underlay these fundamental achievements of Western culture. They cling to a reincarnated tradition of autocratic authority, claiming omnipotence and omniscience, and practice an elaborate game of bureaucratic rank and precedence, according to their own unwritten laws, though their unpresuming tastes and directness of style make them personally congenial to many Americans who sense in them a kinship of cultural democratization. Implicitly but systematically they evade the social revolution of personal equality among men and women, old and young, expert and non-expert, social success and social victim. They recoil in horror from the equalitarian experiments of their ideological kindred in China. With few exceptions, they exclude their wives from public life, treat their private lives as state secrets, and appear at the opera like a bunch of the boys stopping at a pub. Their revolutionary spirit, insofar as it lingers, appears above all to be the revolution against foreign influence and the sense of foreign superiority. This, perhaps, is what explains the moralistic intensity of the Soviet regime’s repudiation of any practices of private capitalism; it is a fundamentally alien mode of life.
In summing up the meaning of the Russian revolution, there is no need to belabor the old historiographical problem of the normal and the unique. Like any signal event in human affairs, the Russian revolution had features and qualities in common with other events—enough, at least, to justify the use of the word revolution as a generic term. At the same time, it was distinguished by the specific features of time and place and the particular mix of its elements. All in all, there has never been anything quite like it.
Russia obviously exemplified the successive phases of the revolutionary process, but it was the first case in which the organization and ideology set up in power by the revolutionary extremists persisted indefinitely. The phase of post-revolutionary dictatorship was thereby intensified and perpetuated in a form benefiting from contemporary technology which we recognize as totalitarianism. The revolutionary extremists were anti-capitalist and anti-foreign, two emotions that were mutually reinforcing in Russia, and they implanted these attitudes in the new regime while shattering Russia’s Westernized social veneer to the advantage of ruder elements from below. The latter, meanwhile, took the shape of a New Class of stratified bureaucrats, mobilized to address the problems of a typically premature revolution, namely, the need to continue economic development by means other than the repudiated system of capitalism, and the need to justify this effort and their own privileged existence in terms of a Utopia that could never be realized under the conditions that brought the revolution about. Finally, the catalyst to effect this combination of political instruments and social forces was furnished by the ambition and political acumen of one individual, Joseph Stalin, whose legacy lives on in the basic structure and values of the post-revolutionary society over which he once presided.
One wonders, in the last analysis, what really distinguishes the revolutionary outcome from more traditional economic systems. Under capitalism, as they say in Eastern Europe, you have the exploitation of man by man. Under Communism, it’s the other way around.