The Soviet Century

Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century, Verso, London, 2005, pp416, £25

MOSHE Lewin is best known to students of Soviet history for several original monographs on the period from 1917 to 1940. His particular interest lay in the years of 1928-34, for it was precisely here, most notably in the policies of collectivisation and industrialisation, that Stalinism was formed. Lewin had little sympathy for this project. It was, he argued, ‘audacious to the point of madness… seldom was any government to wreak such havoc in its own country’ (Russian Peasants and Soviet Power, London, 1968, pp446, 515). It was driven by a set of political decisions that were presented as truth and codified in dogmatic fashion: ‘growth rates as the ultimate criterion of progress… equated with the quantity of productive forces… priority for the needs of heavy industry’ (ibid, p374). It was a wasteful and damaging period, in which the government lacked a basic understanding of the needs of its majority peasant population, not to mention the support of the urban working class.

The Five-Year Plans were not really plans in any meaningful sense. Stalin had no conception of the likely results of his policies. Once underway, he reacted rather than led, proceeding in fits and starts. The planners were constantly taken by surprise and had to reissue targets and prices on a continual basis. The Soviet economy was out of control, in a condition of extreme disequilibrium, suffering from shortages, semi-completed projects, hidden inflation, poor quality, and low labour productivity. The consequences for the Soviet Union were severe and long-term. This was so not only in relation to the restoration of the economy. There was also a vast administrative structure, a privileged bureaucracy that stood above and to a large extent against society. Not surprisingly the political élite sought to repress freedom of expression and any signs of critical, democratic activity.

This was true above all of Marxism. Marxism was precisely a system of thought that could be applied to Stalin’s USSR in a critical manner, but it was precisely this type of Marxism that was suppressed. In its place was put an empty phraseology that failed, over time, to command allegiance or respect. In Political Undercurrents in Soviet Economic Debates (London, 1975), Lewin outlined how, in the post-Stalin period, Soviet scholarship was beginning to develop a critique of Stalinism and to offer alternatives. The scholars of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s turned to the alternatives to Stalin of the 1920s and early 1930s.

For in his earlier studies Lewin was clear that there were real alternatives to Stalin and Stalinism. In fact, Stalin represented the worst possible outcome. Lewin admitted that Bolshevism faced a fundamental dilemma in building socialism in an overwhelmingly peasant country. There would have to be modernisation and industrialisation, but how? For Lewin, Preobrazhensky, Trotsky and Bukharin, as well as a host of economists working in state economic agencies, had far more sensible, developed and rational responses to the problems of economic construction. They also offered prophetic warnings of the ills, from economic chaos to near civil war that would issue from rapid mass collectivisation and industrialisation. Lewin, for example, is fond of two quotes from Bukharin. The first with reference to over-investment and taught planning: ‘One cannot build today’s factories with tomorrow’s bricks.’ The second in relation to rapid and mass collectivisation: ‘[Stalin]… will have to drown the risings in blood.’ Stalin triumphed, for Lewin, not because he had the best understanding of policy and theory, but because he was better at politics and political in-fighting.

Stalin was also aided by the broader political context. The Bolshevik party was very different from its pre-1917 version. The vast majority of its members joined in the Civil War. They were not intellectuals but fighters, used to administrative and dictatorial methods. In the 1920s, much of the ordinary cadres simply did not understand the programmes of the Left and Right Oppositions. The ordinary cadres were more content to follow the orders of the administrative centre, controlled by Stalin.

Stalin’s victory was thus not inevitable, but it is explicable. It was, in Lewin’s words, ‘not a direct outgrowth of Bolshevism but rather an autonomous and parallel phenomenon and, at the same time, its gravedigger’ (The Making of the Soviet System, London, 1985, p9). Thus gone were the traditions of debate and discussion in which even Lenin had to struggle to convince comrades through argument. Factionalism was normal and healthy in Lenin’s Bolshevism, it was always perceived as a threat and sabotage in Stalin’s Bolshevism. Lewin does not equate Stalinism solely with Stalin’s personality. There were, he makes clear, broader factors at play: ‘Economic, social, and cultural phenomena have to be introduced into the analysis, even if the object of study is a powerful and arbitrary destructive despot.’ (The Making of the Soviet System, p288) At the same time, Lewin was well aware of the personal element: ‘Stalin was less burdened with either theoretical or moral scruples… he was a master-builder of bureaucratic structures, and this it was that determined his conceptions and his methods.’ (Russian Peasants and Soviet Power, p517)

In one of his most famous books, Lewin recounted how Lenin came to realise the dangers of Stalin’s personality and Stalin’s methods. Lenin’s Last Struggle (New York, 1968) focused upon the narrow period from December 1921, when Lenin first fell ill, to 10 March 1923, after which the first Soviet leader was left incapable of further political activity following a new stroke. It was during this crucial 15 months or so that, for Lewin, Lenin made an incredibly honest attempt to evaluate the negative aspects of the regime and to offer viable solutions. Lewin finds in Lenin’s last writings a ‘vast programme’, an example of his ‘intellectual honesty and political courage’ (Lenin’s Last Struggle, p86). Lenin was struggling in particular with the problems of the state bureaucracy and with Stalin’s ‘Great Russian Nationalism’ in riding roughshod over the democratic rights of, in this case, the Georgian republic, to defend its independence. When, in January 1923, Lenin added an addendum to his famous ‘Testament’ of December 1922 that Stalin should be removed from the post of General Secretary, Lewin argues that Lenin was not motivated by reports of Stalin’s rudeness to his wife Krupskaya. No, the ever politically-minded Lenin was simply revolted by what he had discovered about Stalin’s ill-treatment of Georgian comrades. Lenin was soon to conclude a pact with Trotsky to struggle against bureaucracy in the party and government and to finish with Stalin politically. Had the Lenin–Trotsky pact been carried through to fruition, the future history of the USSR would have been much better. Lenin and Trotsky, for example, would have ‘enabled a rational use of the best cadres, instead of their elimination’ (ibid, p139). Lenin’s emphasis upon a gradual transition and a ‘considered policy’ would have avoided the silly excesses of Stalin’s economics. Lenin’s incapacitation and death unfortunately gave Stalin the opportunity to bypass all of Lenin’s timely recommendations. Alone, Trotsky lacked the political skill to outmanoeuvre Stalin: ‘Lenin disappeared and Stalin was assured of victory.’ (Ibid, p141)

Lewin is now able to revisit his earlier works, theories and conceptions, with the historian’s benefit of hindsight, as well as access to more primary materials and contemporary Russian scholarship than previously possible. It is, to begin with, a challenging title: The Soviet Century???But this is not an epitaph for the twentieth century, but a cry to understand better one of its most important aspects that ‘remains an ill-understood system’ (p viii).

Lewin retains much of his earlier historical analysis. Stalin and Stalinism, constructed during 1928-88, represented a sharp break with Lenin and Bolshevism of the period up to 1924. Lenin’s final period of active politics, 1921-23, was an honest attempt by a flexible and honest communist to come to terms with the realities of a gradual transition to building socialism. It was also a crucial and wide-ranging battle between Lenin and Stalin for the future direction of policy. In opposition to Lenin’s model, Stalin sought to control the party and state to implement a dictatorial forced pattern of modernisation. Lenin’s death and the incompetent politics of the old Bolsheviks enabled Stalin to win power and crush Bolshevism.

Although as a good social historian, Lewin continues to emphasise the broader context that supported Stalin’s authoritarianism, there is much more weight put on Stalin’s character. Reference is made to Stalin’s desire for absolute power, to be recognised as the indisputable authority on history, politics, ideology, etc, that lay behind the decision to destroy the Bolshevik Old Guard and indeed anyone whose historical memory might undermine Stalin’s version of events. Lewin claims that Stalin had the Great Terror of 1936-38 in mind as early as 1933. The references to Stalin’s ‘mania’, ‘paranoia’, ‘political pathology’ and their impact on the system more generally brought Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ to mind. The ‘Secret Speech’ is often presented as an élite cynical ploy to lay systemic failings at an individual’s door and to give a rationale for continuing to believe in the USSR. However, Lewin’s reading of events may lead us to see the Secret Speech as an honest attempt to understand what really happened in the change from Lenin’s leadership to Stalin’s.

Certainly Lewin charts the very real changes that affected the USSR post-1953. With Stalin out of the way and, under Khrushchev, out of the Mausoleum, there was no return to Stalinism. The destruction of the Gulag, the proclamation of new legal and workers’ rights, and a new mode of operation for the security services, did herald real and genuine changes in the Soviet Union. It did become a more open and freer society, even if there were obvious limits. What post-Stalinism lacked, however, was a genuine impetus for reform.

Repeating points that were made in Political Undercurrents in Soviet Economic Debates, Lewin outlines the excellent analyses of the failings of the Soviet system produced by Soviet academics from the 1950s onwards. The opportunities for a root-and-branch overhaul of the Soviet economy were however missed. This was partly due to the entrenched interests of the bureaucracy, whose privileges were bound up with the maintenance of the state’s management of the economy. It was also a consequence of the atrophy of the CPSU. This was, Lewin argues, a non-political party. It had no genuine role to play in policy formation and execution. It had no debates, no elections and no alternative platforms. It was moribund. But an independent political force was essential if the bureaucracy was to be defeated. Trotsky was thus quite right to call for a political revolution against the bureaucracy before a genuine social revolution could take place. It was also the reason why, although Lewin does not make this point explicitly, that Gorbachev had to link economic and political reform.

With sensible reform blocked, the system was always likely to run into a terminal crisis of its own accord. There was, in the finish, no need to overthrow Soviet communism. A ‘moth-eaten’ CPSU simply faded away ‘without any need for a strong jolt or storm’ (p350): ‘The regime was not toppled: it died after exhausting its inner resources and collapsed under its own weight.’ (p326) What disappeared was clearly not socialism. For Lewin socialism means an extension of democracy under society’s ownership of the means of production. Neither point held in the bureaucratic-dominated authoritarian post-Lenin USSR. Ultimately Stalin and the bureaucracy drew more inspiration from the Tsarist past than from Marxism. Like the Tsars, the system of government proved inadequate for a modernising society. An unbridgeable gap formed between state and society, in which the state was a fetter upon progress. Therefore the government did not last.

There is much food for thought in this book, even if Lewin is mainly restating earlier propositions. It is not a general history of the USSR, even if it offers a periodisation of the Soviet Union’s history (at its most basic Lenin, Stalin, post-Stalinism) and an explanation for its downfall. It is wonderfully idiosyncratic. There is next to nothing on the Gorbachev period, but there is a lengthy section on Andropov and a call for a better understanding of his reform programme. Brezhnev is simply dismissed as an example of one of the USSR’s numerous useless leaders. Lewin prefers to focus upon the brighter minds of the Brezhnev period from the academic institutes. But then there is more on Solzhenitsyn than the more interesting Sakharov. There are thus large gaps and chapters in which one has to be prepared simply to follow Lewin’s obsessions. This book should probably be read as a transition to the ‘more systematic future work’ that Lewin says that he has in mind (p viii). For all that, it is well worth reading.

Ian D Thatcher