The Soviet Union, as it existed under the principles of Marxism-Leninism, ceased to exist on December 25, 1991, ending what Ken Jowitt calls the “phenomenon of Leninism” and the great Soviet social experiment. The collapse, however, was not a freak phenomenon brought on my sudden shocks to the system. While perestroika, glasnost, and other Gorbachev-era reforms may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, the very founding of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, and the later Soviet Union, was predicated on flawed principles that created inherent, irrevocable contradictions in the Soviet system that made it susceptible to weakness and, ultimately, downfall.
Marxism-Leninism, the official ideology of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, merges both Marxist principles on organizing the means of production with Leninist theory on organizing political power. This corruption of the original doctrines of Marx to fit the conditions of the October Revolution and the Russian state led to a contradiction between principle and practice. Lenin separates the idea of the state into two stages: pre and post revolution. While the bourgeois state is destroyed by the revolution, in its steps follows the development—and eventual ‘withering away’—of a new proletarian state. To Lenin, the state and freedom were mutually exclusive, and therefore in this first phase of communism, justice and equality do note develop; only the exploitative labor condition is eliminated. “Bourgeois right” becomes the “regulator,” something even Marx recognized as a flaw, and one that would only be rectified until the imposition of full communism, an ideology aspired to but not realized in the Soviet Union. Marx and Lenin both recognize that communism emerges from the “womb of capitalism,” but in Lenin, this initial state of communism still suffers from the “taint” of capitalism. To regulate this transitional phase and to prevent a capitalist counterrevolution, Lenin would rely on a class of “professional revolutionaries” in the form of the Bolshevik party to effect change under the theoretical functioning of vanguardism. As these theories were put into practice in the years following the October Revolution, they would be used to justify an increasingly authoritarian new class, and the previously inextricable link between Marxism and Leninism would begin to break down.
When Lenin returned to the Russia after the February Revolution, he encountered a number of immediate problems. There was no overabundance of capital as seen in Western Europe and a lack of class consciousness, as the population—still 80 percent peasants—had been brutally suppressed by the Imperial government. The revolution occurred, ironically, because capitalism was underdeveloped, not overdeveloped. This clear contradiction of Marxist theory was justified by Lenin in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Lenin noted that countries that should be experiencing increasing class consciousness and revolutionary waves were instead content in their capitalist exploitation, as expansion into new markets allowed the bourgeois to subvert proletarian furor by “splitting the workers, strengthening opportunism among them and causing temporary decay in the working-class movement.” Thus, Lenin decide it was necessary to force revolution and destroy capitalism in the country in which it was least developed: Russia. This “weakest link” theory presented the emerging Soviet government with a host of problems. The Bolsheviks used Russian tradition to gain support, enforced through the use of terror. This did not secure political support or a stable foundation on which to build a stable government. The vanguard party continued to use force, violence, and threat as the conditions for progress in the post-revolution period, isolating itself form the masses instead of eliminating class structures and “withering away.”
To the chagrin of true Russian Marxists, the Revolution did not accomplish one of its main goals: the abolition of classes. Instead, a new class developed, the bureaucracy. Milovan Djilas, in his milestone dissident work The New Class, explains how Soviet dictatorship of the proletariat turned into the dictatorship of party leaders. Much in the sense that in Catholicism, church leaders are considered the only ones who can interpret the meaning of God, Soviet leaders elevated their position to being the only ones who could interpret Marxist-Marxist-Leninist theory. Dictatorship of the proletariat, rather than distributing the means of production amongst the proletariat, concentrated the state’s economic power. Such a system was based on inherent contradictions on the basis that workers were actually driven out of political leadership. However, Soviet leadership was only following the principles of Lenin, who argued that, in order to pursue the rapid industrialization required for raising the Soviet Union parity with the Western world, the communist party could only function in the “most centralized manner.” As the realities of governance set in following the revolution, it became increasingly difficult for the Communist party to reconcile the differences and contractions in Marxism-Leninism, leading to a state which professed an ideology that it could not possibly implement.
Soviet leaders were placed in the impossible position of maintaining the doctrine of official state ideology—the complete destruction of class—while their own power necessitated de facto use of classist power structures under the thin guise of democratic centralism and vanguardism. Thus, the nomenklatura began to separate the ideologies of Marx and Lenin, abandoning the former in practice while continuing to espouse it publicly. Leninism was the reason for fashioning and continuing the regime, and the apotheosis of the eponymous, while against his wishes, was signs of a governing class using what Jowitt calls “charismatic impersonality” to establish legitimacy. In other words, there was no state loyalty to the principles on which governance was executed but rather the leader through which they were. Ideology became routine, beliefs were hollowed out, so as long as stability was ensured in the name of the Revolution.
As the Soviet Union continued to divorce its policies from Marxist principles, increasingly it relied on the Leninist bureaucratic structure, that, despite the leader in whose hands power was placed, was immovable, inflexible, and increasingly archaic as it inevitably expanded. From the early days of Soviet leadership, in order to maintain the “high degree of centralization” required for rapid industrialization, the state bureaucracy ballooned into a massive, tangled web of overlapping responsibility reliant on patron-client relations and operating separate from the laborers it was intended to serve. Industrial planning for an entire economy resulted in delays caused by poorly thought out and politically motivated orders from the top. Ministries and central planning organizations employed tens of thousands of analysts who, in an age before computers, had the task of sifting through economic data for a country of over 200 million. By 1964, the system had reached a saturation point of “economic irrationality, political immobility, and cultural sterility.” Centralization to the “highest degree” had made the system unresponsive to grassroots input, leaving the party elite no feedback to indicate economic troubles. Unlike the communist economy envisioned by Marx, there was no economic dynamism and bending to the will of the people; ironically, the people bent to the will of the state.
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