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Communism in Europe

Bolshevism And The Emergence Of The Communist International

It was Bolshevism that self-consciously promoted itself as a model for a new kind of revolutionary Marxist party and ideology. After February 1917 and considerable discussion within the movement, the Bolsheviks declared their opposition to the liberal government. While the Mensheviks concentrated on the liberal-democratic phase of revolution, Lenin declared that this could be skipped and that a "workers and peasants state" could be established. In an agrarian country, the Bolsheviks substituted the revolutionary party for the working class as the agent of revolutionary change. Never a mass movement, the Bolsheviks gathered support among soldiers and civilians disillusioned with the war and, crucially, in the committees (soviets) that sprang up in the major cities. Converts to the Bolshevik cause included the Menshevik leader Leon Trotsky. With less success they also tried to extend their influence into those parts of the countryside where peasants had seized control of the land and their localities. By October 1917, with the government discredited by its own failures to end the war and carry out social reforms, the Bolsheviks were able to seize control in the main cities by force.

This was really only the beginning of the Bolsheviks' struggle to secure power, let alone to fulfilling their declared aim of creating a communist society and a world revolution. This process was accompanied by the creation of a mythology that legitimized the violent revolutionary methods of the Bolsheviks as the only path to communism. Lenin's main theoretical contribution was laid out in two works, The April Theses and The State and Revolution, both published in 1917. Once again theory and practice were unified. Bolshevik leaders, particularly Lenin, were lauded as the only true revolutionaries and interpreters of Marxist thought, farsighted and infallible in their judgments. In that sense successful revolution represented the triumph of the will of these leaders, and an authentic socialist revolution leading to communism could be carried out only by Bolsheviks. Similarly the party they led was the only representative of the interests of the working class. Indeed the party was needed to make up for the deficiencies of workers, who, left to their own devices, would not develop a "revolutionary consciousness." The path to true communism was through true bolshevism, and all other claims to revolutionary status were therefore fraudulent. Bolshevism's minority status and tenuous links to mainstream Marxism and socialism were glossed over, as was the fact that other groups within Russia—as elsewhere—also claimed revolutionary status as "communists": particularly the Socialist Revolutionaries and anarchist communists who rejected a centralized state and were supported by sections of the peasantry. By March 1918 the Bolsheviks began to describe themselves as the Communist Party.

In fact, the real route to power came through pragmatic compromises and a bloody civil war that lasted until 1921 in which the real instrument that established Bolshevik rule was not the party but the Red Army. The result was that opponents of all political persuasions, from the ultraleft to the tsarist right, were either crushed or marginalized. The main claim to the primacy of what after Lenin's death in 1924 became called the Marxist-Leninist approach to revolutionary communism came from the success of the Bolsheviks in seizing power in Russia and retaining it. Not surprisingly, all interpretations of communism had to contend with Lenin's ideas and the Soviet regime. However, there was no unquestioning acceptance of Bolshevik ideology and practice; far from it. From the start, questions abounded as to whether Leninism was Marxism or even socialism, and whether the Soviet Union was evolving as a communist society. For a majority of European Marxists, who continued to call themselves socialists, and for many who called themselves communists, the answers to these questions were negative. Kautsky, for example, was quick to condemn both Leninism and the Soviet Union as perversions of Marxism and socialism. Likewise, as a witness to the destruction of Russian anarchist communism at the hands of the Bolsheviks, Kropotkin wrote to Lenin denouncing the regime as a betrayal of communist ideas of freedom and humanity. Lenin's response to these critics, at home and abroad, was to denounce them as utopians in "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder, published in 1920.

Paradoxically, the international attractions of Leninism as a universal ideology were increased by the fact that the Bolshevik revolution proved to be an exception. Short-lived Soviet governments were proclaimed in Munich and Hungary, but Bolshevik-style revolution was defeated everywhere outside Russia. Mainstream social democrats often played a pivotal role in this process, eschewing violence and opting instead to secure liberal-democratic regimes in power. The result was a deep and enduring division between the majority of social democrats and the dissenters. It was institutionalized in 1919 by the formation of a new Communist International (Comintern) based in Moscow. Its creation was based on the notion that Bolshevik-style revolution had failed not because developments in Russia were a peculiar case but because other countries lacked a proper Bolshevik party. Therefore the Comintern was to be a world Communist Party organized on Bolshevik lines, with different sections in each country, which aimed to spread Bolshevism beyond the borders of Soviet Russia. Adherents in each country were required to agree to a twenty-one-point charter based on Leninist principles of organization and activity. Between 1919 and 1921 Communist Parties of this "new type" were created in most European countries, drawing in mostly dissident socialists but also others who saw Bolshevism as the path to revolution.

Leninism offered a path to power, but what to do with it was a more difficult matter. The formulations of Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks such as Leon Trotsky on how communism was to be created or what it would look like in practice had been as vague as those of all the preceding generations of Marxists who assumed that it would emerge out of an advanced industrial society rather than a rural one. In reality, they had no blueprint. The regime that emerged in Russia called itself a Soviet democracy with a constitutional apparatus. Significantly, neither the U.S.S.R. nor later Communist states actually claimed to be communist societies. Their governments argued that they were living through a socialist stage, "the dictatorship of the proletariat" again, and were in the process of building communism. In practice this meant the permanent dictatorship of the party and the creation of a party-bureaucratic state that, in theory if not in practice, subsumed all aspects of society to it. Nor could any rivals—not just political but also religious—be tolerated. Throughout all the considerable changes, conflicts, and real debates about policy that took place in Soviet society and government, this was to be the constant reality that inhibited pluralism and independence, even during the genuinely radical early phase of Bolshevism, with its cultural and social experimentation. Symptomatic of the trend that set in was the case of Alexandra Kollontai, a strong advocate of the equality that the Soviet regime promised to women. Though initially prominent in the party and government, she and her writings were gradually marginalized, as was the question of real equality.

After Lenin's death in 1924 the question of how to create a communist society in a country that lacked an industrial working class was at the heart of the struggle for the party leadership. Although a political and personality dispute as well, the three main contenders—Nikolai Bukharin, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin—all shared this basic goal but differed over how it was to be achieved. Bukharin favored a gradualist approach, while Trotsky argued that a "permanent revolution" was required—a swift transformation and a determined effort to secure the spread of the revolution worldwide. Rather than contributing wholly new ideas to these disputes, Stalin maneuvered between them and emerged triumphant. His approach was domestic and sought to create a specifically Russian version of communism, "socialism in one country." However, the second revolution that he announced in 1928 borrowed heavily from Trotsky's ideas in terms of the elimination of the peasantry through the collectivization of agriculture and rapid industrialization. The application of state power to centralize economic and social control that followed could only be achieved through considerable force and at the cost of millions of lives and was accompanied by a Stalinist terror that eliminated political enemies both real and imagined. Ideological conformity to Marxism-Leninism, as now defined by Stalin, became a prerequisite for survival. Nonconformist communists were accordingly particular targets, usually labeled as "Trotskyists" whether they were followers of Trotsky or not. This created a permanent division among Marxist communists, all of whom saw themselves as the heirs of Lenin and Bolshevism, between those who accepted the Soviet Union as it developed under Stalin and those who did not.

These disputes and developments in the Soviet Union inevitably impacted on the wider international communist movement. Stalin was mostly contemptuous of the Comintern, seeing foreign communists as inadequate and other communist parties as failures and sources of dissent. And in terms of recreating Bolshevik success this was a correct assessment, as no other successful revolution occurred in Europe despite some serious efforts in the early 1920s. The International went through various strategic twists and turns until it was finally dissolved in 1943, all of which proved futile and, for Stalin, simply proved his point. Individual parties did often play a prominent political role, particularly in liberal-democratic conditions. But for the most part international communism provided a threat and a justification for the authoritarian and Fascist movements that rose in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s—a threat that was without any real substance. After 1928, developments in the Soviet Union increasingly divided communists. On the one hand, many were appalled at the excesses of Stalinism and either became dissenters or abandoned communism completely. But on the other hand, the apparent achievements of collectivization and industrialization could also be a matter of pride and an example that communism offered a real alternative to the unemployment and economic depression that gripped Europe after 1929. As a result, and encouraged by the Comintern, Communist Parties turned in on themselves in pursuit of dissidents—many of whom were expelled as Trotskyists. Some formed small rival Communist groups, and Trotsky himself, in exile until his murder by Soviet agents in 1940, attempted to form a rival International.

For non-Russian communists questions about why the Bolshevik revolution could not be repeated and of the direction taken by Soviet communism became central preoccupations. Most of the discourse of the orthodox Communist Parties simply aped that of the Soviet government and the International. In particular, the idea that the Bolshevik path was simply unrepeatable in the conditions in the more economically and socially advanced societies in the rest of Europe was officially unacceptable. Even so, some creative intellectuals, often called the Western Marxists, did flourish. Chief among them were Antonio Gramsci, Karl Korsch, György Lukács, and some members of the so-called Frankfurt School (particularly Herbert Marcuse). They were active in the first flood of revolutionary enthusiasm for the Soviet experiment, when there was more space for creative thinking within communist movements. Questions about the significance of culture and aesthetics in Marxist analysis concerned them as much as, if not more than, economics and politics. They were aware that cultural and social circumstances often conditioned political possibilities. Often implicitly, rather than explicitly, they offered a critique of Leninism in all its variations (including Trotsky's). Gramsci in particular, without ever rejecting the Soviet model, suggested a path to revolution that contained the same sense of human agency as Lenin's views but rejected its insurrectionary and conspiratorial strategy as well as the primacy placed on the material conditions necessary for revolutionary change. In complex Western societies, Gramsci argued, revolution was intimately bound up with a competition or struggle for cultural dominance (egemonia). In order for socialism to be established it had to be as consensual as possible—more akin to the triumph of the Italian Renaissance. Such thinking remained a minority concern and was decisively marginalized after 1928 in the drive to impose Stalinist orthodoxy on all communists. Either purged from their parties, recanting their views, exiled or imprisoned by their governments, they were silenced and their writings ignored by contemporaries.

In many respects, the fund of genuinely new ideas about communism, in Europe at least, began to dry up by the 1940s. The consolidation of Soviet rule under Stalin and the failure of communism outside of Russia contributed to that feeling. But once again a world war transformed the fortunes of communism in Europe. The war effort allowed Stalin to combine Soviet rule and Russian nationalism—a potent combination that was also to be successful outside of Europe after 1945. The isolation of the Soviet Union was also ended between 1945 and 1949, when Soviet rule spread to Eastern Europe under military occupation by the Red Army, and Yugoslavia was liberated by Communist partisans under Marshall Tito. In Western Europe as well, Communists also gained greater respectability and popularity as a result of the prominent role they played in the civilian resistance movements in parts of occupied Europe. Powerful and popular parties developed in France, Greece, and Italy. After 1945 Communists even participated in governments, though they were ejected by 1947 as the Cold War developed and political divisions hardened. Increasingly, political choices were dominated by attitudes toward communism, both domestically and internationally. This was, in fact, to mark the highpoint of communist success and, though not clearly perceivable at the time, the trend was from then on to be decline. Both within the Soviet-style regime and within the Western Communist Parties, as well as in the wider world of communist thinking, communism ossified. And the search for renewal, and the recycling of old ideas, began to dominate.

Without World War II it is extremely unlikely that Soviet-style regimes would ever have emerged in this region. Even so, communism was not established overnight. By 1949, however, Communist Party rule prevailed throughout Eastern and Central Europe. At first many elements of Stalinist policies were imposed on the newly formed regimes: collectivization of agriculture, state economic control, the suppression of religion and class differences. But by the time of Stalin's death in 1953 it had become apparent that, due to the distinctive social, economic, and cultural conditions that existed in each of these countries, attempts to create systems in the likeness of the Soviet Union could never be completely successful. Yugoslavia was the one country in the communized part of Europe that completely escaped Soviet domination. Thanks in large measure to the partisan leader, Josip Broz, or Tito, from 1948 on Yugoslavia followed an independent course of Communist development. However, this extension of Communist rule also marked the beginnings of decline and the eventual destruction of communism as a state ideology in Europe. Following Stalin's death the problems of cultural, economic, and social stagnation steadily mounted. Opposition to Communist dictatorship also grew, including from intellectuals within party ranks who used the tools of official Marxism to dissect the failings of their own societies. The growth of dissent and the rejection of the regimes by many of their own supporters were to be key features of decline.

The central, unsolvable problem for all the Communist states became how to liberalize and renew themselves without rejecting party rule. The first serious attempt to do so came in the Soviet Union during the mid-1950s when a new premier, Nikita Khrushchev, surprised the world by denouncing the crimes of Stalinism and promising a renewal of communist ideals. The slogan "communism within a generation" was accompanied by attempts at economic reform and political liberalization. However, a conservative backlash unseated Khrushchev and destroyed the drive for reform. Similar experiments under Imre Nagy in Hungary in late 1956 and in Czechoslovakia under Alexander Dubcek in the spring of 1968 resulted in military intervention by the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries. By the 1980s all the Communist states suffered from "stagnation" (zastoy), the term used by Russians to describe conditions under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev. Any serious belief that communism could renew itself as a state ideology had finally passed. In Poland a powerful independent trade union organization, Solidarity, emerged in the early 1980s and soon posed a serious challenge to the regime. It contained a coalition of ideas ranging from Catholicism to dissident Marxism. Only direct military rule was able temporarily to contain it.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cluster compound to ConcupiscenceCommunism in Europe - Karl Marx And The Origins Of Modern Communism, Non-marxist Communism, Marxism And European Socialism