Skip to comments.Just What Was Fundamentally Wrong with Bolshevism?
Posted on 11/29/2012 5:29:21 AM PST by SJackson
I recently read the new biography of Trotsky by Oxford don Robert Service, published in 2009 by Pan Books. It is well-written and surprisingly interesting. The book does a great public service in describing the life of the actual Trotsky, whose previous biographies were little more than hagiographies written by his toady worshippers (people like Isaac Deutscher). The last time that I had taken any interest in Trotsky was when I was a teenager and had fleeting delusions of believing in socialism. Reading the new book as an adult and as an economist, I found it a useful opportunity to contemplate the rise of one of the most oppressive regimes in human history. I have gathered some thoughts and impressions here and I hope they will be of interest.
Hunger and starvation have so often accompanied political revolution that it would be safe to suggest that they are intrinsic parts of it. Communist revolutions have invariably produced famines and terror. The immediate trigger for revolutionary terror in early Soviet Russia was the same as in the French Revolution: the inability of the regime to obtain food for urban residents.
The Bolsheviks had never had very much interest in the peasants in the first place. As great believers in Marxist theology, they advocated the imposition by the proletariat of urban workers of its will upon the country, including upon the agricultural laborers who constituted the bulk of the population. Even if the Bolshevik party could seriously be thought to represent the urban proletariat, they would still have constituted a movement representing only a very small portion of Russian society. Thus bolshevisms most basic operating principles were anti-democratic.
The Bolsheviks represented a movement seeking to impose the interests of this minority class over the interests of the bulk of Russian society (and later over non-Russian populations in the Soviet empire). The role assigned by the communists to the peasants was to sit back and turn over food to the revolution, either without getting paid for it or without getting paid very much. The Bolshevik state procurement of food operated through a state-run monopoly, preventing peasants from seeking better prices, and increasingly turned violent when peasants refused to cooperate. The communists considered payment of incentives to peasants for delivering food to be anti-revolutionary and capitalist. The most violent stages of the French Revolution had been triggered by similar inability of the revolutionary state to procure adequate food for urban workers. Armed gangs of Soviet foragers, like Parisian foragers before them in the French revolution, emptied the stores of food in rural areas in a desperate attempt to prevent their own loss of power.
The other problem for the Bolsheviks was of course that they claimed to represent the working class of urban workers, but never considered it necessary to allow those same members of the proletariat a say in what they themselves considered their class interests to be. The communist party leaders claimed to represent the proletariat automatically, supernaturally, by dint of their having studied Marx and Engels. Under their theology they could automatically divine from the dusty 80 year old writings of Marx what served the interests of the Russian working class, without having to ask any actual workers, and in most cases without having to engage in actual work. Party leaders, led by Lenin and Trotsky, lived bourgeois lives even in the most difficult days of the Russian Civil War, often living in luxurious royal apartments inside the Kremlin (which had been the royal residence before the Revolution). Soviet leaders were attended by large numbers of servants, and Trotsky himself never went anywhere during the Civil War without both his large flock of servants and a 35-member military band. Bolshevik leaders (Trotsky in particular) generally had never done a day of honest labor in their lives in any factory or farm; their entire careers consisting of political activism.
The Bolsheviks believed that they could divine the answers to what the workers collectively needed in much the same way that Church clergy could conjure up the agenda of God, by reading the holy scriptures. And like other manifestations of theology, the Bolsheviks tended to bicker and break up into small factions over minor questions of belief. Like in the Church, the factionalism was suppressed by means of the proclamation of official dogma approved by the partys Pope. It was the beginning of the thought police system, later perfected by Mao.
In the case of communists, these scriptures meant Marx and Engels, and later Lenin. The problem of course was that Marx and Engels never spelled out the nitty gritty details of what workers would need, and basically had no understanding whatsoever of economics. They can hardly be excused for this ignorance on grounds of writing before the advent of modern economic understanding, because it was already well on the course of development at that time.
As just one example of the problem, should the price of shoes in a workers state be high in order to benefit shoe workers producing shoes, or low to benefit workers who are consumers? And if the representatives of the proletariat cannot make up their minds about the price of shoes, then how the Devil can they decide what constitutes worker interest in thousands of other dilemmas. Asking the workers themselves what they wanted was quickly ruled out by the Bolsheviks as a counter-revolutionary nonstarter.
The solution of the early Soviet regime was essentially to suppress and terrorize urban workers, not just the peasants. Before the end of the Civil War, Lenin and Trotsky were ordering all independent labor unions, meaning those that were not simply servile fronts for the party, to be suppressed. Lenin and Trotsky insisted that unions represented and promoted only the narrow interests of selected groups of proletarians and not of the entire class. Exactly!
In fact, the alienation of the urban workers by the party had occurred even earlier. The Bolshevik coup and the storming of the Winter Palace were uprisings of the working class only in party mythology. The bulk of those rising up in support of the Bolsheviks were soldiers in the Czarist or Kerenski armies, who supported the party because of the promise by Lenin to surrender to the Central powers and end all fighting and mobilization of troops.
The Bolshevik banner may have featured the hammer of the urban worker with the sickle of the peasant, but at the time of the Revolution it was little more than a party of disgruntled soldiers and sailors, most from rural background, reluctant to be sent back to the World War I front to defend Russia. Their opportunistic support for the Bolsheviks largely vanished in thin air as soon as the party tried to mobilize them and send them out to fight the whites during the civil war. Trotsky was forced to recruit ex-czarist officers to serve as commanders in the Red Army.
The main groups of soldiers supporting the party with enthusiasm were non-Russians desiring the end of Russian domination over their native lands, like the brigades of Latvian riflemen who served as Lenins praetorian guards. By 1921, the same Kronstadt sailors who had been critical in bringing the Bolsheviks to power in 1917 were shooting them and organizing a massive mutiny, brutally suppressed by the communists. The suppression of the rebellion led Whittaker Chambers to label bolshevism a form of fascism, and persuaded many of those who contributed later to the book, The God that Failed, to abandon communism. As in the French Revolution, all opposition was automatically attributed by the Revolutionaries to foreign conspiracies. Dissent was a form of treason.
Bolshevik thinking in the early days carried strong features of theology. The Bolsheviks believed that if they were to follow the precepts of Marx to the letter, and pronounce the correct incantations, then magic would take place and socialist revolutions would spring up all over the world like adorable leprechauns. This voodoo Marxism eventually led to the rise of Stalin and totalitarian socialism in one country. And an ice pick in the skull of Trotsky.
Most Bolshevik leaders had no skills or experience in government administration, management, business, or anything else. Their only claim to legitimacy was their assertion that they understood the needs of the proletariat. Trotsky believed in command control and central planning of the economy until his last breath, and he was hardly alone. Within days of seizing power in their coup detat, the Bolshevik leaders were seeking to impose their dictatorship of the proletariat, by which they meant the dictatorship of those party officials, more often than not from middle class backgrounds, claiming to represent the proletariat. The Russian economy imploded under their rule. Output of Russian factories and mines in 1921 was only a seventh of what it had been under the Czar in 1913.
Their understanding of foreign powers and diplomacy was even more pathetic than their ignorance of economics, and was also dominated by belief in magic. During the first years of the Soviet regime, its leaders quite seriously expected communist revolutions to break out all over Europe. And they were truly surprised when none did, except pathetic attempts quickly suppressed to install bolshevism in Germany and Hungary.
Part of their problem was that Marx and Engels were themselves wrong with regard to just about everything. They were wrong, first and foremost, with regard to the claim that there exists some sort of monolithic working class with some sort of uniform set of class interests. Urban workers share no common interest, as the above example involving shoe prices illustrates. Urban workers indeed were a class with a common interest only in the most tautological sense, only in the sense that all those assigned to any class would favor increases in the incomes and wealth for all members of that class. By the same token, people with curly hair constitute a class, because any proposal to raise incomes for all those with curls would be supported by them. But regarding any other issue that would arise, the curly headed would have no common interest. Ditto for urban workers. And in the exact same sense, there is no capitalist class. An assembly of the capitalist class would similarly be incapable of agreeing over whether shoe prices should be high or low.
And just why were urban workers even considered to be politically superior to everyone else in society? Marx, Engels and the Soviet leadership had great difficulty conceiving of anyone doing productive work unless they were making things. And heavy things were more valuable, important, and productive than light things. Certainly producing services was not understood by them as productive labor, explaining why the quality of services of all sorts in the Soviet block remained abysmal all the way down to the fall of communism.
But just what was a worker? Do not bankers and teachers and dentists and engineers and pharmacists work? In many cases, they work longer hours than factory workers. Marx and Engels had insisted that urban factory workers must seize political control of society, and they must do so by means of a dictatorship by the party claiming to speak in their name. In any case, Marx and Engels were pretty sure that peasants did not really provide important work. After all, they just produce food. So they need not really be part of any revolutionary regime.
Peasant reluctance to deliver food products to the urban masses without getting paid was counter-revolutionary and could be resolved by starving them to death, terrorizing them, and locking them up in non-productive collective farms. There food production would prove too low even to feed the peasants themselves, let alone export food to the cities. The Bolsheviks were truly surprised when it turned out that their policies had driven the bulk of the peasants to support the whites and other opposition forces in the Civil War. While agrarian collectivism was relaxed briefly under the New Economic Policy of Lenins last days, it then became an instrument of genocide under Stalin.
The other problem of the Bolsheviks was that, at least in the early stages of the Revolution, they were truly captivated by utopian delusions. The problem of all utopians is that they advocate systems and ideas that can only work with imaginary idyllic humans, but never with real human beings. When they discover that real human beings refuse to knuckle under and behave according to utopian expectations, the utopianists respond with violent rage. The greatest strength of capitalism is that it actually works with real human beings, people who are lazy, base, narcissistic, self-indulgent, foul-smelling, mean-spirited, and unsophisticated. Capitalism does not require idyllic fictional humans in order for it to work.
The most violent terrorists and oppressors of others have always been the utopians. The French Revolution turned violent and the guillotine was introduced to attempt to terrorize actual humans into behaving according to the expectations of the utopianists. The leaders of the Soviet Revolution were no slower or more squeamish in following the same route.
It is contrary to human nature. It will only work by force. That is what is wrong with it.
While this is what the murder weapon is commonly called outside USA, in this country we call it an ice axe.
It's a climber's tool, not a spike for chipping off chunks of ice.
In both cases the "inability of the regime to obtain food" was the completely predictable and well understood result of government price controls.
Economics in socialism is simply giving control of everything to giant national bureacracies.
These bureacracies can never deliver because of ineffciency, bureaucratic ignorance,non-responsibility to consumers, and inevitably corruption.
Same delusion as in the last century or 19th cent. when it was thought it was possible to invent a perpetual-motion machine. Inventors did not calculate friction into the equation.
Bureacracies are self-imploding, and that’s really about all socialism is.
I don’t think that argument will convince any leftist.
They believe that human nature is inherently good (THE basic wrong assumption),
and that with the right structure (ie, force) in place,
that inherently good human nature will flourish.
So, your argument is actually SUPPORTIVE of the left’s view of communism.
The real problem with Bolsevism is this:
Classical economics is not a “system” but an accurate description of how people interact on a daily basis. In other words, Classical Economics (capitalism, or supply side capitalism) is a description of how people make daily decisions on how much money or goods or services to give up to procure things or services or power which they perceive to have marginally more value than the money or goods in their hand. That is economics.
When you depart from this classical model you no longer have an economic system, but a political system. When you start to centrally plan the value producing activities and their distribution you have decreased the economy because economics is nothing more than people making decisions and trading values. In essence the less the masses have decisions in value and its production, THE LESS ECONOMY YOU HAVE.
The Soviet economy at its height during Brezhnev’s reign never produced anymore than 1/4 of the US living standard on a per capita basis. Miserable performance because it was a political system that had nothing to do with economics.
The librarian Karl Marx was a good politician and a really horrifyingly bad economist. He and his illiterate minions were responsible for the deaths of 140 million people in the 20th century and Socialism can be counted as the largest disaster to have happened in Mankind’s history.
well, that's communism as a whole.
Bolshevism is the creation of a party of "elite" "elect" (but not elected) folks on top -- Bolshies are an oligarchy, which is according to human nature. The policies they tried to implement on the lower masses (communist policies) including utter control of supply and demand was communism and THAT is contrary to human nature.
Only in a monastery or a kibbutz or to some extent a university can free sharing of resources occur. It doesn't work outside this rarefied world and even the monasteries, kibbutzes and universities interact with the capitalist economy, but as a united group of individuals. Communism is a failure and hard socialism that is practised by the democrats of today is also going to be a failure...
I thought about the push for secession we saw after the election, many articles about it here on FR. The mostly agricultural midwest and the south going their way, let the northeast and left coast go theirs. "We'll have the food supply, we'll starve out the northeast and left coast" were typical comments we heard.
But the northeast and left coast are Marxists. They are not going to sit back and let the "peasant" lower classes of "flyover country" starve them out anymore than the Bolshevists did in the article. Marxists impose their will by force.
If secession were to work here, it would have to defeat the Marxists militarily. Which the "White army" in revolutionary Russia failed to do in their war against the "Reds." Military confrontation would be inevitable. If secession has any chance it will be by people who are willing to fight and die for their freedom...and to prevail in it. Most don't have the stomach for it.
One of the other aspects of Marxism that is only tangentially discussed it this:
The belief that any number of experts can control and direct an economy is a direct result of hubris, a belief that one group is so expert at what they do that they can make decisions that are always correct in directing an economy. Oddly enough there is no known example in world history which would support that view as national and regional economies are simply too complex to be managed by a few.
In the case of the Soviet Union, the political system was enforced by guns and blood and the result was that the economy never developed as it would have normally. It was reduced and the potential for growth was reduced by this hubris of the Apparatchiki, the elite who fancied themselves the experts (they weren’t).
As we adventure through the next four years keep this in mind:
It simply is not possible for a centralized government to direct an economy. They can make some activities less desirable by taxing them or regulating them out of existence but the market (the economy, the people) will eventually redirect efforts that they cannot foresee. As we saw in the Soviet Union in the nineties when the Soviet flag was taken down. That was a decision by the market that the cost of the political regime was too high for the goods and services and resulting lifestyles delivered.
The best path for us in the future is to elect leaders in all arms of government who will do as little as possible to bother people so that they the people will be free to create the economy that they wish. A light hand in government, a hand that rarely touches the decision making capacity of the people is economically the best.
Ah has spoken. Buffaloguy.
Whenever ever I hear a leftist described as bright, I wonder how someone supposedly bright could fall for something as obviously foolish as socialism.
Thank you. I spend an inordinate amount of time explaining to people that "capitalism" (a term I really don't like, much preferring "free markets") is not so much a "system" as it is simply the natural means by which civilized people satisfy their needs.
If you go back to the basest caveman existence, there are three means by which an individual can satisfy their needs and wants:
1. Kill a deer (produce for one's self).
2. Trade half your venison for a room in a cave and a place at the fire (free exchange of goods and services).
3. Kill the cave owner and take everything for yourself (taking by force or guile).
Every economic interaction between individuals, organizations and nations has ultimately been some variation of one of the above three. As much as governments are instituted to prevent and limit #3, there really is no "economic system" until government tries to become involved in #1 and #2.
bump for later
The wanton slaughter of people comes to mind real quick.
The Bolsheviks understood that simple wealth redistribution wouldn't work....the rich would get all their money back within a few short years, so nothing would change....therefore the only way to achieve the change would be to simply murder them en masse. Deep down all true Communists believe that this is the only to bring about the Revolution, they will deny it, but they all truly think that way.
You’re welcome. This needs to be taught to every child at some point.
The system you talk about (with government intervention in #1 AND #2) is nothing more than decreasing the the rate of trading of values for perceived gain and should be undertaken with care and skepticism.