Tag Archives: Vladimir Lenin

Extended European Civil War

 

Robert Gerwarth, The Vanquished:

Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 

            On November 11th this autumn, the yearly celebrations and remembrances associated with Veteran’s Day (sometimes called Armistice Day) will carry particular weight – that day will mark 100 years to the day when war-weary German generals signed the ceasefire agreement in a French railroad car that ended the four-year conflict still sometimes termed the “Great War.” There will be many ceremonies and much speechifying about valor, sacrifice, and the high cost of preserving peace.  But if Robert Gerwarth, a German-born professor of modern history at University College, Dublin, were to speak at any such ceremony, he might be considered a party crasher.  He would likely ask his listeners not to think of that November day in 1918 as a moment when the killing and carnage stopped across Europe.

               Gerwarth could explain, as he does in The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923, how the November 1918 armistice did not bring peace to much of Europe.  Although the Western Allies, Great Britain and France, found relative peace and stability in the aftermath of the armistice (Britain still had to cope with an unruly Ireland), that was anything but the case in central and eastern Europe.  There, ethnic strife and political violence continued well past November 1918, to the point where, Gerwarth contends, we should think of the post-war period, up to 1923, as one of an “extended European civil war” (p.8; Gerwarth’s book might thus be considered a counterpart to Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, reviewed here in July 2013, recounting the ethnic violence and fighting that continued well after the official end to World War II hostilities in 1945).  Not since the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century had a “series of interconnected wars and civil wars in Europe been as inchoate and deadly as in the years after 1917-18” (p.7).

            As his title indicates, Gerwarth’s focus is on World War I’s losers, the “vanquished,” better known as the Central Powers, whose defeat on the battlefield deprived them of justification for their immense sacrifices during the war.  In addition to Germany, the vanquished included the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey and Bulgaria, all of whom had signed ceasefire agreements with the Allies prior to Germany’s capitulation on November 11, 1918.  But the first vanquished power for Gerwarth is Russia. The most populous of all combatant states, Russia “became the first to descend into the chaos of revolution and military defeat” (p.15).  It sued Germany for peace in late 1917, the same year Romanov Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated, and only shortly after Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik party had seized power.

          Gerwarth’s starting point is thus an extensive treatment of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the so-called “Russian Civil War” that followed (his initial chapter is entitled “A Train Journey in Spring,” reminiscent of Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train, reviewed here in December 2017).  He then moves to central and eastern Europe after the November 1918 Armistice, a period when both left and right-wing violence plagued the territories once controlled by the Central Powers.  Gerwarth delves into the specific situations in Germany and just about every other country in central and eastern Europe, including many that came into existence after the war, among them Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia. His survey also includes Italy, which switched sides during the war and saw Europe’s first fascist government come to power in 1922 under Benito Mussolini.

            But Gerwarth uses this extensive country-specific detail to create a broader picture. Europe’s post-war upheaval, he argues, has hitherto been looked at almost exclusively from the perspective of individual countries, e.g., what was going on in Russia and Germany, “as if the revolutionary events that shook Europe between 1917 and the early 1920s were completely unconnected” (p.14). There is no study in any language, he asserts, that “investigates the experiences of all the vanquished states within the confines of one book” (p.14).  Gerwarth seeks to fill this void.

                To this end, The Vanquished emphasizes how the extended post-World War I civil war coincided with the dismantlement of the highly-diverse Hapsburg and Ottoman land empires of central and eastern Europe, replaced by fledgling nation states (Germany too under the Kaiser was considered a European land empire; Romanov Russia, Europe’s other great land empire, ended with the Tsar’s 1917 abdication, the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian capitulation to Germany).  Dismantlement of Europe’s land empires was not an initial war aim of the Western Allies, and only became so within the last year of the war. By late 1923, when Europe’s extended civil war had largely ended, Fascist and Bolshevik governments were entrenched in key European states, and the idea that a true nation state required ethnic and religious homogeneity had gained an ominous toehold.

                Gerwarth connects the dots for his macro-portrait in large measure through the peace treaties that purported to settle the conflicts of the World War I era and restructure Europe’s geo-political order. The treaties were not the only cause of the extended political turmoil of the post-war years, but they plainly exacerbated that turmoil.  The first, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, between Russia and Germany, was signed eight months prior to the November armistice, on March 3, 1918.  In the middle chronologically – and in the middle of Gerwarth’s narrative – are the accords that arose out of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference: the Versailles peace treaty, which prescribed terms for Germany; the Treaty of San-Germaine-en-Laye for Austria; Trianon for Hungary; Sèvres for Ottoman Turkey; and Neuilly for Bulgaria.  The end point is the July 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which resolved the extended post-war conflict between Greece and a young, post-Ottoman Turkish Republic. Between Brest-Litovsk and Lausanne, Gerwarth ranges widely yet probes deeply, methodically presenting account after account of the inter-state and civil wars, political revolutions and counter-revolutionary reaction, that ravaged central and eastern Europe in the half-decade following the November 1918 armistice.

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            The March 1918 Treaty of Brest- Litovsk between Russia and Germany stripped the former Romanov Empire of almost all the western, non-Russian portions of its territory, approximately 1.6 million square kilometers, containing almost one-third of its pre-war population and much of its natural resources.  The treaty was a “moment of extraordinary triumph” (p.39) for Germany, bringing it closer to its initial war aim of becoming the dominant power in Central and Eastern Europe. The territorial concessions exacted from Russia as the price for peace, Gerwarth contends, made those imposed upon Germany in the Versailles treaty the following year “seem benign by comparison” (p.39).

            The Russian Civil War that followed n the aftermath of Brest-Litovsk involved counter-revolutionary opponents, peasant insurgencies and the attempts by several regions on the western border of the former Russian Empire to break away from Bolshevik rule.  Allied intervention, initially intended to prevent the Central Powers from taking control of strategic resources, “soon included military aid for the loose confederation of anti-communist forces known as the ‘Whites’ in their struggle against the ‘Red’ Bolsheviks” (p.77).  The eventual Red triumph came at a “staggeringly high price for the country. After two revolutions and seven uninterrupted years of armed conflict, Russia in 1921 lay in ruins” (p.93).

            Two days after the November 1918 armistice, the Russian Red Army sought to recapture western territories lost as a result of Brest-Litovsk.  By early 1919, Bolshevism appeared to be on the march westward, with Germany a cauldron of left and right wing fervor.  Left wing radicals, led by revolutionaries Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, challenged the post-war government in Berlin in the “Spartacus Uprising.” Bavaria sought to become an independent socialist republic.  Former German soldiers, friekorps, set themselves up as a bulwark against the spread of Bolshevism, aided by a huge contingent of émigrés from the Russian civil war.  Liebknecht and Luxembourg were assassinated in January 1919.  Friekorps paramilitary forces were on the front line in the 1920 “Kapp putsch,” an unsuccessful right-wing attack on the German government in 1920.  Bavaria witnessed another unsuccessful right-wing putsch in 1923this one led by a World War I veteran from Austria and members of his infant National Socialist party.

                With Vienna and Budapest experiencing similar upheaval, the Paris Peace Conference convened in mid-January 1919 to decide the future of the vanquished powers. The vanquished themselves were excluded from the negotiations, to be summoned only when the peace treaties had been finalized.  Russia, immersed in civil war, was similarly missing from the negotiations. The treaties were thus a product of compromise, “not between the victors and the vanquished, but between the key actors among the victorious Allies” (p.174; the deliberations and machinations of the Paris Peace Conference are captured brilliantly in Margaret MacMillan’s 2003 work, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World).

               The Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919, is best known for its Article 231, ascribing sole responsibility for the war to Germany, and its unrealistic war reparation requirements.  Germany was also forced into substantial territorial concessions, with its overseas colonies redistributed among the victorious states.  In Germany, the terms of the treaty, considered a diktat, were greeted with disbelief, uniting an otherwise seriously polarized country in a shared sense of “fundamental betrayal and resentment” (p.203).

            Yet Germany “actually fared better in Paris than all of the other Central Powers” (p.204), Gerwarth contends. The treaty of St. Germaine-en-Laye, signed in September 1919, allotted huge swaths of the former Hapsburg Empire to Italy, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the future state of Yugoslavia, reducing Austria to a “tiny and impoverished Republic in the Alps” (p.5).  The treaty imposed heavy reparations upon both Austria and Hungary and stipulated that the two countries would have to carry most of the old empire’s war debt.  It further proscribed Anschluss, the voluntary union of Austria with the German Reich, an aspiration strongly supported by the political left in both Austria and Germany which seemed consistent with American President Woodrow Wilson’s lofty principle of “national self determination.”  The newly independent state of Hungary was similarly forced to cede large segments of Hungarian-speaking territory and did not sign the Treaty of Trianon until June 1920, and then  under protest.

            Bulgaria’s territorial loses in the Treaty of Neuilly were less extensive than those of Austria and Hungary but, proportionate to its size and GDP, it faced the highest reparations bill of all the Central Powers.  The Treaty of Sèvres, the last of the Paris Peace Conference, signed in August 1920, forced Ottoman Turkey to cede huge amounts of territory to Greeks, Armenians and Kurds, while allowing onerous foreign spheres of influence and domination in much of the remainder.  The treaty also imposed substantial reparations. “No other defeated Central Power had to subject itself to such a compromise of its sovereignty,” Gerwarth writes. For Turkish nationalists, the treaty’s draconian terms continued “in an even more extreme form the humiliating European interference  in Ottoman affairs [that occurred] during the nineteenth century” (p.236).

             But the focus on Versailles’ war guilt clause and the issue of war reparations for all of the Central Powers obscures what Gerwarth considers the most significant outcome of the Paris Peace accords: the “transformation of an entire continent previously dominated by land empires into one composed of ‘nation states’” (p.174).  Neither Great Britain nor France had gone to war in 1914 with the aim of creating a “Europe of nations,” and it was “only from early 1918 onwards that the destruction of the land empires became an explicit war aim” (p.173).  The Paris accords also led to a series of “Minority treaties,” agreements signed by the new nation states, particularly Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, as a precondition for their international recognition, in which the new states guaranteed rights to ethnic and religious minorities living within their boundaries.

            In his post-Paris Peace Conference section, Gerwarth dedicates a full chapter to Italy and its quest for control over the Adriatic port of Fiume, a city also claimed by the emerging state of Yugoslavia.  Fiume was at the top of the list of territories Italy thought it had been promised when it came over to the Allied side in 1915 in the Great War, but failed to gain in Paris, giving rise to the notion of a “mutilated” Italian victory.  For a while, the flamboyant poet Gabriel D’Annunzio occupied Fiume before being driven out by the Italian central government in Rome.

                Fiume became one of the causes that propelled Benito Mussolini to power in 1922 as Europe’s first overtly fascist leader.  Gerwarth observes how Mussolini utilized lessons he drew from Lenin, notably that “parliamentary majorities were far less important than the ability and determination to instill fear in opponents and to act ruthlessly when an opportunity presented itself” (p.163). Mussolini’s appointment as Italian Prime Minister in 1922 was an instance much like Lenin’s coup d’état in 1917 where power was “handed over to the head of a militia party which had imposed its authority by means of violence” (p.163).

            Gerwarth finishes with the 1919-1922 war between Greece and Turkey.  Greece had joined the Allied side in the war in 1915 out of ambition for territory in the Ottoman Empire.  Encouraged by Britain, in May 1919 it launched an invasion at the Aegean city of Smyrna (now Izmir), and for a short time controlled substantial portions of the Turkish mainland, Anatolia.  But Turkish nationalists, led by Mustafa Kemel, soon to be known as Attäturk, checked Greece forces, recaptured Smyrma and drove the Greeks from Anatolia. The Turkish nationalists negotiated a new treaty at Lausanne which completely overturned the Treaty of Sèvres. The Treaty of Lausanne recognized the independence of the Republic of Turkey and its sovereignty over what was sometimes termed Asia Minor, modern Turkey, along with its largest city, Constantinople (now Istanbul), and Eastern Thrace, now the Turkish portion of the European continent bordering Bulgaria.  By virtue of Lausanne, Greece became the “last of the vanquished states of the ‘post-war’ period” (p.246).

              But the Lausanne Treaty had ominous implications for Europe as a whole. Drawn up to prevent mass violence between different religious groups, the treaty sanctioned the forced exchange of 1.2 million Orthodox Christians, living in Anatolia, who were sent to Greece, and nearly 400,000 Muslims resettled the other way.  Lausanne:

effectively established the legal right of state governments to expel large parts of their citizens on the grounds of ‘otherness.’ It fatally undermined cultural, ethnic and religious plurality as an ideal to which to aspire . . . [T]he future now seemed to belong to ethnic homogeneity as a pre-condition for nation states to live in peace (p.246).

Lausanne thus all but reversed the commitment of the Paris Peace Conference’s Minority treaties to the defense of vulnerable ethnic minorities. It confirmed what was then becoming an “increasingly popular idea” that a “‘true’ nation state could only be founded on the principle of ethnic or religious homogeneity, and that this had to be achieved at almost any human price” (p.243-44).

             Yet, central and eastern Europe entered into a relatively stable period after Lausanne.  Gerwarth sees a “new spirit of rapprochement” (p.248) from late 1923 onward that lasted throughout the remainder of the 1920s, embodied in such instruments as the Dawes plan, which strove to make German reparations payments more manageable; the Locarno Treaty of 1925, by which Germany acknowledged its post-Versailles western borders; and the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, whose high-minded purpose was to ban war as an instrument of foreign policy, except for self-defense.  But the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression reversed much of the progress toward a lasting peace made in the latter portion of the 1920s.  As the decade ended, Fascism and Bolshevism (now referred to more frequently as “Communism”) remained entrenched in Italy and the former Romanov state.  As to Germany, while the fringe National Socialist party was attracting attention for its rabble-rousing attacks on the Versailles treaty, few Germans gave the party any serious chance of achieving power.

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             It is an open question whether Gerwarth offers new detail of Europe’s turbulent period 1917-1923.  The book’s extensive country-specific accounts of these years, especially those pertaining to Russia and Germany, have been the subject matter of numerous other works.   But the virtue of Gerwarth’s work lies in its use of the country-specific histories of Russia, Germany and just about every other European country from Italy eastward to create a comprehensive, thought-provoking portrait of a half-continent awash in ethnic strife and political violence in the aftermath of the November 1918 armistice.  Gerwarth’s  work also seems likely to be at odds with what you might read or hear this coming November 11th.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 22, 2018

 

 

 

 

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Filed under European History, German History, History, Italian History, Russian History

Revolutionary Train Ride

Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train 

            On April 9, 1917, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Vladimir Lenin, secretively boarded a train in Zurich, Switzerland, that was headed for Petrograd (today’s St. Petersburg), then the capital of Russia.  The train left Zurich on its journey just days after the United States had entered World War I on the side of Russia and its allies, Great Britain and France.  Over the course of 8 days, Lenin and a group of 32 fellow Bolsheviks and their families traveled 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers). They passed through Germany, then Russia’s battlefield enemy, crossed the Baltic Sea by ferry to neutral Sweden and on to Finland (at the time part of the Russian empire), before arriving at Petrograd’s famous Finland Station on April 16, 1917.  Barely six months later, in November 1917, 100 years ago last month, Lenin and his Bolshevik cohorts had seized control of the reins of power in Russia and declared a new revolutionary government in the world’s largest nation-state, with Lenin at its head.

           Lenin’s trip from Zurich to Petrograd via train is the centerpiece of Catherine Merridale’s incisive, often-riveting Lenin on the Train, in which she recounts in detail what she aptly terms a “journey that changed the world” (p.5).  Merridale, author of several other books on Russia and the Soviet Union, also provides a close look at the world Lenin inhabited in the immediate weeks and months before and after his train trip, while stopping short of the events of the 1917 November Revolution (often termed the “October Revolution,” due to the 13-day difference between the Julian calendar employed in Russia at that time and that utilized in most of the rest of the world).  She has done extensive digging into the archives and historical records of Russia, Germany, France and Britain to produce a nuanced picture of these crucial months in 1917. Her account benefits from detailed portraits of the numerous people who surrounded and interacted with Lenin in Switzerland, Germany, and Russia, and of course during the notorious train ride.

            Lenin’s ride back to his home country in April 1917 was precipitated by Russian Tsar Nicolas II’s stunning abdication a few weeks previously, abruptly ending the nearly 300-year Romanov dynasty.  Russia at the time of the Tsar’s abdication was a country seething with anger and falling into chaos. Workers were striking over food shortages and civil unrest was spreading from Petrograd across the country, all at a time when Russia’s war with Germany and Austria-Hungary was going poorly, with alarming desertion levels among its demoralized troops.  The State Duma, a parliamentary body dating from Russia’s 1905 Revolution that had shared power with the Tsar, conferred authority upon what came to be known as the Provisional Government, a caretaker institution charged with maintaining order and continuity until more permanent institutions could be established. Many Russian reformers and revolutionaries saw the Provisional Government as a step toward liberal, Western-style democracy.

            Not Lenin.  A fiery but uncommonly focused revolutionary from a decidedly bourgeois family, Lenin led the Bolsheviks, the most militant of the many revolutionary and reform groups that had pressed for changes in the Tsarist regime in Russia’s 1905 Revolution (“Bolshevik” was Lenin’s term, “majority men,” coined prior to the 1905 Revolution and intended to contrast with the other anti-Tsarist forces, the “Mensheviks,” literally “minority men” but by 1917 far more numerous than the Bolsheviks).  Lenin had spent much of his life since 1905 in exile, out of reach of the Tsars and their heavy-handed methods.  At the time of the Nicholas II’s abdication, he was in Zurich, where he was spending his daytime hours in the city’s library, reading and writing, theorizing and fantasizing about the coming world revolution that would bring down capitalism and imperialism. Lenin at this stage in his life was, as a contemporary put it, the “only man for whom revolution is the preoccupation twenty-four hours a day, who has no thoughts but of revolution, and even in his sleep dreams of nothing but revolution” (p.78).

            Once he learned that the Tsar had abdicated, Lenin was naturally more than eager to get back to Petrograd and put his revolutionary stamp on the emerging post-Tsarist regime.  In crossing Germany to return home, Lenin’s party benefitted from the unexpected cooperation of the German High Command.  But the extent of that cooperation remains unresolved to this day.  Was Lenin a German spy or agent? Did Germany acquiesce in the trip across its territory with the expectation that Lenin’s return to Russia would lead to its withdrawal from the war, thereby freeing Germany to fight on a single front against it British and French enemies?  Merridale does not shy away from addressing these still open questions.

          Throughout, Merridale provides a close up look at Lenin during his most pivotal period, emphasizing the forcefulness of his convictions while treading lightly over the ruthlessness of his character.  The Lenin who arrived in Petrograd on April 16, 1917, really believed that the world was on the edge of a worldwide proletarian revolution; that the revolution had already started in Russia but would not be restricted to her  boundaries (more conventional Marxist wisdom held that the revolution would start in Germany; Russia was considered too backward and insufficiently industrialized); and that with this revolution, the capitalist and imperialist world of 19th and early 20the century Europe would vanish. Lenin foresaw, as Merridale puts it, a “series of coordinated, pitiless and violent campaigns that would annihilate the twin oppressions of capitalism and empire forever. The bourgeoisie would have to die, the big country estates would burn, and everywhere slave-owners would face enslavement themselves” (p.77).

           When Lenin arrived at the Finland Station armed with this apocalyptic vision, the many anti-Tsarist forces in Russia were in almost complete disarray.  In the weeks that followed, Lenin provided clarity and focus to his Bolshevik followers on two key points which helped propel them to seizure of power a half year later: there would be no compromise between the Bolsheviks and  other anti-Tsarist forces; and there would be no further support for the war among the capitalist and imperialist powers that was ravaging Russia.

* * *

          Lenin and his party traveled in a single wooden train car, painted green, with three second-class and five third class compartments, plus two toilets and a baggage area.  The puritanical Lenin instituted strict rules aboard the train.  Disturbed by the bent of some of his group to sing well into the night, he instituted official times for sleeping. Smoking was allowed only in the toilets, with a system of tickets for their use. Those who wished to use the toilet to smoke were given “second-class” tickets, and had to accord priority to those with “first class” tickets who needed to use the toilet for more basic purposes.

       Before the train left, Lenin had wrenched numerous concessions from the German High Command, the most critical of which was that the car transporting his group was to be treated as an extra-territorial entity, “sealed off from the surrounding world and therefore innocent of any contact with the enemy population” (p.7).  A chalk line drawn on the floor of the car served to demarcate a “border” between “Russia” and “Germany,” with the Russian travelers confined to one side of the line, the German soldiers assigned to guard them on the other. A designated neutral, befittingly a Swiss national, acted as the contact between the passengers and the German soldiers.  Lenin needed to stay in the Russian portion of the car so that he could later say he never set foot in “Germany.”  The High Command also agreed that no passenger could be ordered to leave the train, and that there would be no passport controls and no discrimination against potential passengers on account of their political views.

          The trip took place at a time when Germany yearned to be relieved of its two-front war so that it might concentrate its resources on the Western Front against its British and French enemies, before reinforcements from America could have a significant effect upon the stalemate in the trenches.  If Russia could be persuaded to withdraw from the war, Germany could then “focus all its troops along a single front, crushing the French and British like so many gnats” (p.39-40).   Britain and France, of course, were committed to keeping Russia in the war at almost any cost for precisely this reason.

          By 1917, the inconclusive nature of trench warfare had led all belligerents to search for ways of gaining advantages off the battlefield.  In Germany, foreign ministry officials had come to support using insurgents to destabilize their enemies. They sponsored French military mutineers and Irish nationalists, and even looked at possibilities for sparking rebellion in distant India.  They were thus “quick to grasp [Lenin’s] potential for disrupting Russia’s war effort” and indisputably provided some financial backing to Lenin, what has come to be known as “German gold” (p.7).

          Lenin’s critics and rivals for power seized on the notion of “German gold” to label him a traitor, an agent operating on behalf of the enemy that was slaughtering Russian soldiers.  These charges never receded, and they continue to intrigue contemporary historians.  Merridale evaluates some of the more elaborately documented theories that Lenin was in fact a German agent, and finds them unproven.  In one instance she recounts, in the 1950s renowned diplomat and Russia expert George Kennan examined extensive documentation purporting to show an agency relationship between Lenin and the German government and concluded that the documents were forgeries.

          Lenin himself added to the speculation and conspiracy theories by denying that he had accepted any German assistance. Merridale suggests that, rather than lying about his acceptance of German gold, Lenin could have utilized his acceptance to forge a powerful argument on his own behalf.  A braver Lenin, she contends, might have “boasted of that German cash,” as a means to “help the German proletariat defeat the Kaiser. . . If taking German money was one kind of crime,” Lenin could have argued that “trampling on the people’s dreams, making them fight against their will and even starving them were surely worse. . . [Lenin] might have pointed to the poetry of taking money from the robbers of the poor, whatever country they were from” (p.262).

          Merridale submits that Germany most likely gambled that Lenin’s Bolsheviks were unlikely to achieve power on a long-term basis but could stir up useful “inconclusive civil chaos” (p.56) in the short term to further destabilize and weaken Russia. The Germans seemed to recognize that fomenting revolution was a dangerous idea, given that Germany had its own socialist revolutionaries at home. Lenin in any event arrived in Petrograd amidst the rumors of treachery and treason.

          Most socialists and many revolutionaries at that time, including some members of Lenin’s own Bolshevik party, regarded cooperation with the Provisional Government and bourgeois forces as necessary, at least on an interim basis. Lenin, however, never wavered in his categorical rejection of any compromise, coalition, or cooperation with the Provisional Government or any of the reform elements in Russia. Waiting for the bourgeoisie to turn into a revolutionary force was in Lenin’s view pointless.  The bourgeoisie was inalterably “bent on the defense of property, profit, and caste” (p.227).   Collusion with the Provisional Government would be the “death of socialism” (p.223).

            Scorning the Provisional Government, Lenin saw the key to revolution and subsequent governance of the country in a network of workers’ councils, known as “soviets,” led by the Petrograd Soviet. He rejected the conventional view that the Petrograd Soviet and its counterparts in provincial cities were simply workers’ educational councils designed not to compete with the Provisional Government for power. The soviet system which Lenin envisioned would not be a parliamentary republic, Lenin told his supporters, but rather a “Republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Laborers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom” (p.228). To defend against counter-revolutionary insurgencies, the new revolutionary state would need to be governed by what Lenin termed, in perhaps his most enduring phrase, a “dictatorship of the proletariat” (p.195).

       Lenin further distinguished himself from other revolutionaries and reformers with his uncompromising stance on Russia’s unpopular war. By the time of his return to Petrograd, Russia had sustained nearly 5 million causalities, killed, missing or wounded, a far higher rate than any other belligerent. By some estimates, an additional 1.5 million soldiers had deserted. Arguments about the war had foiled all attempts at unity among the many anti-Tsarist factions. From the war’s outbreak in 1914, a major Russian objective had been to wrestle Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, away from the dying Ottoman Empire, which was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary. The aspiration for control of Constantinople’s shipping lanes along the Bosporus and Dardanelles survived the Tsar’s abdication.

        Many in the Provisional Government saw the quest for Constantinople as reason enough to remain in the war. Others on the left believed that a more modern, democratic Russia could deliver a quick deathblow to the Kaiser and German imperialism, especially with the United States now fighting alongside Russia and its Western allies.  Russia could then join with revolutionary elements in Germany in establishing a socialism that transcended national boundaries, a position sometimes termed “revolutionary defencism.”

      Lenin would have none of this.  He rejected even the slightest concession to proponents of “revolutionary defencism.” The present conflict, Lenin reminded his followers, “unquestionably remains on Russia’s part a predatory imperialist war” (p.227).  Bourgeois elements, he argued, “could never give up on war because their future was bound to it” (p.224). Lenin was no pacifist, however. Cessation of the capitalist and imperialist war among the great powers must be followed by transnational class warfare against capitalism itself.  Lenin forced these ideas upon his party, and in November 1917 forced them upon the country after he and his Bolshevik cohorts had ousted the Provisional Government in an armed insurgency.

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        Although not detailing the events of the November 1917 insurgency, Merridale argues that Lenin succeeded in that fateful month because he had worn down his opposition by the “force of his conviction.  While others talked and traded exquisite concessions, picking their way along the path of revolution as if they were avoiding mines, Lenin knew where he wanted to go and he knew exactly why.  His energy was prodigious, and he wrote and argued tirelessly, repeating the same themes until his opponents wearied of concocting new rebuttals” (p.230).  Merridale’s book is neither a biography of Lenin nor a comprehensive account of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution; there are plenty of works available on both subjects, including several that have come out during this centennial year of the 1917 Revolution.  But hers is an ideal choice for readers whose goal is to understand what drove Lenin, literally and figuratively, to reorder the course of history.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

December 6, 2017

 

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Lenin’s Century

Pictures.tismaneanu

Vladmir Tismaneanu, The Devil in History:
Communism, Fascism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century 

             The sub-title of this book should be a tip off that Valdimir Tismaneanu is wrestling with arguably the most critical question in 20th century European history: how did so much of the continent, where the Enlightenment two centuries previously had provided the blueprint for democratic governance based on religious tolerance and respect for individual rights, stray so far from the Enlightenment’s ideals? In The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century, Tismaneanu locates the answer in 20th century communism, from its inception quite simply a “criminal system” (p.69), he writes. Tismaneanu’s searing critique hones in on the impact of Bolshevik and Leninist thinking throughout the 20th century, and describes the rethinking that went on in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, when most of the countries of the former Communist bloc committed themselves to democratic governance.

            A professor of political theory at the University of Maryland and Director of the University’s Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies, Tismaneanu is a native of Romania brought up under the odious regime of Nicolae Ceaușecu, and thus knows more than a thing or two about how totalitarian governments operate. Tismaneanu indicates in his Forward that he was born after World War II to “revolutionary parents who had embraced anti-Fascist Communist values” (p.ix). His father fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, losing an arm, while his mother served as a nurse in that conflict. At age 14, Tismaneanu started to think about the implications of communism after a chance reading of a clandestine copy of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

            The book’s cover contains an ingenious photo of Stalin and Hitler staring at one another. If you’re talking about the devil in history, you’ve got to start with these two guys, right? Actually, an argument could be made that neither should be on the cover. Despite its sub-title, the book is only secondarily about Fascism and Nazism, emphasizing primarily how, despite ideological differences, they were influenced by the communist model. Moreover, it would have made way more sense to put Vladimir Lenin on the cover rather than Stalin. Stalin in Tismaneanu’s analysis was a ruthless implementer who “carried to an extreme Lenin’s intolerant logic” (p.230). But Lenin was the devil in 20th century European history – “the twentieth century was Lenin’s century” (p.90).

* * *

            Tismaneanu describes Leninism (or Bolshevism; Tismaneanu uses these terms inter-changeably) as a “self-styled synthesis between Marxian revolutionary doctrine and Russian tradition of nihilistic repudiation of the status quo” (p.90). If there had been no Lenin, he goes on to contend, “there would have been no totalitarianism – at least not in its Stalinist version. The October 1917 Bolshevik putsch . . . was “the event that irreversibly changed the course of Western civilization and world history” (p.92). Thanks to Lenin, a “new type of politics emerged in the twentieth century, one based on elitism, fanaticism, [and] unflinching commitment to the sacred cause” (p.90). Leninism was “inherently inimical to political liberties. It is not an accidental deviation from the democratic project but its logical, direct and unequivocal antithesis” (p.120).

            Leninism was rooted in Enlightenment, with its focus on reason and progress. Leninists “knew how to pose as the heir to the Enlightenment, and many were duped by this rationalistic and humanistic pretense” (p.46). But Leninism was equally rooted in Marx’s theories of transformation and the Russian anarchistic revolutionary tradition, with its “utilitarian nihilism and a quasi-religious socialist vision of the transformation of mankind” (p.112), a tradition which Steven Marks described in How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism, reviewed here in December. Lenin took Marx’s broad theories and emphasized the “organizational element as fundamental to the success of revolutionary action” (p.97). Leninism was precisely the type of utopianism which Isaiah Berlin abhorred, sanctifying “ultimate ends, and thus the creation of an amoral universe in which the most terrible crimes could be justified in the name of a radiant future” (p.70). More than a revolutionary response to the inequities of the Tsarist state and the injustices of capitalism, Leninism was an “experiment in ideologically driven, unbounded social engineering” (p.30). Never was a political doctrine “so ambitious, never a revolutionary project so much imbued with a sense of prophetic mission and charismatically heroic predestination” than Leninism (p.90), Tismaneanu concludes.

            Lenin’s diabolical influence extended to both Hitler and Mussolini. In times of moral and cultural disarray, Tismaneanu argues, Communism and Fascism can “merge into a baroque synthesis. Communism is not Fascism, and Fascism is not Communism. Each totalitarian experiment had had its own irreducible attributes, but they shared a number of phobias, obsessions, and resentments that could generate toxic alliances, like the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939” (p.x). The party played a different role under the two regimes. Under Communism the party leader incarnated the wisdom of the party, whereas under Fascism and Nazism the party was entirely secondary to the leader as the charismatic center of power. Fascism and Nazism also lacked the recurring party purges and show trials of the ruling elite as a “mechanism of mobilization, integration, and scapegoating” that characterized Communist regimes (p.53). Nonetheless, the ideologies of Communism and Fascism held in common a “belief in the plasticity of human nature and the possibility of transforming it in accordance with a utopian blueprint” (p.162). Both “identified with the revolution as an irreversible moment breaking with the past and creating a totally new world” (p.118). The two movements were alike in being “essentially and unflinchingly opposed to democratic values, institutions and practices” (p.21) – the “antithesis of the Western humanist legacy” (p.62).

            By the end of Khrushchev’s rule in the fall of 1964, both in the USSR and Eastern Europe, it was clear that reform within party-defined boundaries had “ceased to be a viable option”( p.136). Tismaneanu sees 1968 as a pivotal year, during which Eastern Europe saw an “explosion of post-revolutionary skepticism,” setting in motion forces that led to the “gradual decomposition of the Communist regimes” (p.142). Futile attempts to find ways of reforming Communism from within were replaced by an emphasis upon human dignity and the inviolability of human rights. The soul of Communism died in Prague in August 1968, Tismaneanu concludes. From that year onward, Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was a spent force, with stagnation and immobility becoming its main characteristics.

          If the Communist soul died in 1968, its emaciated body survived until 1989. The changes which Europe underwent that year start with Mikhail Gorbachev. Tismaneanu regards Gorbachev as a “genuine Marxist revisionist, who, while paying lip service to Lenin’s iconic figure, moved away from Bolshevism as a political culture based on fanaticism, sectarianism, and volunteerism toward a self-styled version of Marxist revisionism” (p.145-46). Gorbachev tried to offer “antidotes to the rampant pathologies of cynicism, corruption and cronyism,” but was “utterly confused as to how to bring about political pluralism while sustaining state socialism” (p.153). Gorbachev’s version of Marxist revisionism was directly inspired by Eduard Bernstein’s evolutionary socialism, but he was “unable to fully abandon the outworked Leninist model, desperately searching for ‘socialism with a human face,’ torn between nostalgia for old ideals and the tragic awareness of their hollowness” (p.153). Neither a neo-Menshevik nor a Western-style Social Democrat, Gorbachev remains the “last and most influential of those East European Leninist leaders who tried to humanize an inherently inhuman system” (p.153).

            Twenty-five years after the changes of 1989-91, pluralism seems to have settled solidly throughout the former Eastern European Communist bloc, Tismaneanu argues, with democratic practices widely recognized, accepted and practiced. The revolutions of 1989-91 dealt a mortal blow to the “ideological pretense according to which human life can be structured in accordance with scientific designs proposed by a general staff of revolutionary doctrinaires” (p.171). Tismaneanu emphasizes the centrality of civil society to the success of the 1989 transformation, replacing the existing political, social, and economic system with one “founded on the ideals of democratic citizenship and human rights” (p.223). The core value restored, cherished and promoted by the revolutions of 1989 was “common sense. The revolutionaries believed in civility, decency, and humanity, and they succeeded in rehabilitating these values” (p.223). In so doing, they also managed to bring about the “rebirth of citizenship, a category abolished by both Communism and Fascism,” which also involved “re-empowering the truth” (p.221). What we have learned from 1989, Tismaneanu concludes, represents an “unquestionable argument in favor of the values that we consider essential and exemplary for democracy today” (p.221).

             Still, Tismaneanu cautions, a “residual Bolshevism” (p.114) lingers in the formerly Communist world, certainly in Russia and many of the states of the former Soviet Union. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has instituted a regime euphemistically termed “managed democracy,” an “increasingly aggressive version of neo-Stalinist and neo-imperialist restoration” (p.218). But even in Eastern Europe, the “utopian reservoir of humanity has not been completely exhausted: refurbished ideologies have resurfaced, among them populism, chauvinism, and fundamentalism of different shades” (p.164-65). Communism’s demise has given rise to “disenchantment, dispirited political cultures, the rise of new collectivisms, marginalization of former heroes, and the return of former Communists” (p.194). In brief, the “battle for the soul of man after Communism has not ended” (p.205).

* * *

            As perceptive as Tismaneanu’s insights are, as critical as his subject matter is, a few caveats are in order before you rush out and plunk down something like $20 for the paperback edition of his book. Tismaneanu’s prose is often dense, bordering on turgid. It is riddled with sentences such as: “The disintegration of the Stalinist gnosis as a key self-sufficient system of authoritarian norms and quasi-mystical precepts impelled revisionist intellectuals toward the construction of what Kolakowski called an agnostic Marxism, actually a quixotic attempt to salvage the humanistic kernel of the doctrine lest the whole Marxist utopia fall apart” (p.177); and “The theoretical manifestations of these undercurrents provided a new semantic horizon, the coalescence of a new emotional and intellectual infrastructure that was translated into a resurgence of repressed philosophical topics, above all humanism as a privileged metaphysical concern” (p.134).

           To be sure, the nuances of Marxist thinking and applications of Communist theories do not always lend themselves to crackling prose. Further, English is not Tismaneanu’s native language, and he has my full admiration for establishing a distinguished career and earning numerous academic distinctions in an acquired rather than native language. This is by itself a remarkable achievement. But some writers achieve genuine fluency and elegance writing in an acquired language. Valdimir Zubok, whose book Zhivago’s Children I reviewed here in November 2012, is one example. Tismaneanu is not there yet (incidentally, Tismaneanu frequently cites Zubok’s work).

            Further, Tismaneanu over-relies on quotations from other works. For example, the following string of quotations is contained entirely on a single page, page 103:

. . .as A.E. Rees showed. . .To paraphrase Eugen Weber. . .as the Catholic intellectual Adolf Keller wrote. . . as sociologist Michael Mann underlines. . . As Lesek Kolakowski puts it. . .. Paul Berman explains . . .

           There is of course nothing wrong with one author occasionally quoting another’s work – it is way better than using another’s words without quoting the other writer. The over-reliance on quotations is a common characteristic of too many college term papers and university dissertations. An author writing for general readers should be providing primarily his or her own thoughts, not those of other writers.

* * *

            Born and raised in a particularly virulent form of Communism in Romania, Vladimir Tismaneanu has a wealth of insight to offer readers on the implications of that and other repressive systems of government. But this book, while treating an enticing and still-critical subject, is unlikely to gain the affection of most general readers.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
February 21, 2015

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What Was So Enlightened About That?

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Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment
And
Why It Still Matters 

            I remember being introduced to the Enlightenment during my senior year in college, in a course officially denominated 18th Century European Intellectual History or something to that effect. In this course, the professor, a kind, scholarly gentleman whose specialty was Diderot, introduced his clueless undergraduate charges to a sort of Hall of Fame of Enlightenment philosophes and other enlightened figures. In addition to his beloved Diderot, we met Voltaire, Montesquieu, Frederick the Great (an “enlightened despot”), and a host of others. I recall that our professor even allowed Jean-Jacques Rousseau to make a brief and tightly-regulated appearance. I couldn’t help but like the Enlightenment figures’ emphasis on science, reason, and empirical thinking rather than religion; their belief in the equality of all men – for some, even the equality of all men and women; and their willingness to rethink the “timeless verities” that had been handed down from century to century in Europe.

            But as I identified with the enlightened figures of the 18th century, I was consistently brought back to a harsher reality: hadn’t I learned in a previous year’s introductory European History course that the 18th century ended rather badly for France, the epicenter of the Enlightenment? Didn’t the French Revolution that began so nobly with a Declaration of the Rights of Man degenerate into a guillotined bloodbath, with some of the revered Enlightenment figures finding themselves on the chopping block for politically incorrect thinking or insufficient revolutionary zeal? Wasn’t our text punctuated with several gruesome sketches of the guillotine in action? And didn’t that revolutionary zeal inspire a pesky little guy named Napoleon to launch a European war of conquest? What was so enlightened about that?

            In the decades since that course, I have instinctively felt the need to check my natural enthusiasm for the ideals of the Enlightenment by reminding myself of the ignominious ending to the French Revolution, followed by Napoleonic wars of conquest. Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters seeks to uncouple the Enlightenment from the darker chapters of the Revolution and the Napoleonic era. Pagden’s answer to why the Enlightenment still matters, his somewhat aggressive, in-your-face title, is that it continues to be the baseline for the “broadly secular, experimental, individualist and progressive intellectual world” we inhabit today (p.x-xi). By insisting on “its own unfinished nature,” the Enlightenment “quite simply created the modern world. It is . . . impossible to imagine any aspect of contemporary life in the West without it” (p. 408). In particular, Pagden concludes that modern liberal democracy, the form of political system which, “for better and sometimes for worse, governs most modern societies,” is a “creation of the Enlightenment, refined and institutionalized during the course of the nineteenth century” (p.412-13). Nonetheless, the struggle over the legacy of the Enlightenment remains one of the “most persistent, most troubling, and increasingly most divisive” of the ideological divisions within the modern world (p.ix).

            For Pagden, the Enlightenment arose during the “long” 18th century, the last decade of the 17th century through the first decade of the 19th, in the aftermath of the 17th century’s religious wars and the accompanying breakdown of the authority and intellectual unity of the Catholic church. These wars, the Reformation, the “theologically destabilizing impact of the revival of Skepticism,” and the discovery of the Americas had “dealt all the self-assured claims of the theologians a blow from which they never recovered’ (p.96). By the end of the 17th century, Christianity was no longer able to provide the “intellectual and consequently moral certainty that it once had done” (p.406). Pagden describes two broad, intertwined intellectual trends which marked the Enlightenment: reliance upon science and reason, rather the religion and theology, to explain the human species and the universe; and what he calls the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment, its emphasis upon what unites the human species across a vast array of cultures and languages. Pagden sets out these trends in eight erudite if sometimes difficult to follow chapters, each with a snappy title (e.g. “Bringing Pity Back In”; “The Fatherless World”). The most argumentative portion – and for me the most enticing – is his conclusion, entitled “Enlightenment and Its Enemies,” evoking Karl Popper’s World War II-era defense of liberal democracy, The Open Society and Its Enemies.

            The Enlightenment can be studied from numerous angles, but most encompass the study of the thinking of Europe’s enlightened figures, a “self-appointed elite” whose members were, as Pagden phrases it, marked by their “intellectual gifts, their open-mindedness, their benevolence toward their fellow human beings. . . and their generosity” (p.322). Each student of the period has his or her own favorite figures. My undergraduate course seemed to turn around Diderot, whereas Pagden’s interpretation gives preeminent place to two philosophers who thrived outside France, the Scottish David Hume and the German Immanuel Kant. Although the thinking of each ranged broadly, Hume personifies for Pagden the secular thread of the Enlightenment, the effort to supplant religious and theological explanations of man and the universe with a “science of man,” based on such notions as “sentiment,” “empathy, “and “virtue,” rather than simple self-preservation, as Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher and quasi-atheist, had posited. In somewhat different terms, both Hume and Kant articulated the Enlightenment’s cosmopolitan universalism.

            Hume became the “single most influential proponent of a secular ethics based upon a ‘science of man’ which the Enlightenment ever produced” (p.153), Pagden writes. For Hume, the world’s religions – those “sick men’s dreams,” as he called them (p.125) — had only muddled, corrupted and complicated human lives. His demolition of religion was, Pagden argues, “more assertive, better argued, more profound, and has been more long-standing than that of any philosopher besides Kant” (p.146). Moreover, unlike Kant, Hume was “able to demonstrate that religious belief could not exist ‘within the limits of reason alone,’” using Kant’s phrase (p.146). Hume agreed with the Old Testament view that “however varied actual human beings might be, they all shared a common identity as humans,” with “no universal difference discernible in the human species” (p.162). For Hume, “habits,” “manners,” “customs,” are the stuff of which our worlds are made. All that distinguished the “wisest European from the most ignorant ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’ is precisely the same as that which distinguishes one ‘civilized’ people from another . . . custom, law, habit, and social expectations” (p.163).

          Pagden cautiously endorses the view of Kant as the “first of the modern liberals” and the first to claim that “modern liberal democracy was bound eventually to become the form of government that all enlightened and civilized peoples would one day embrace” (p.358). Kant’s “cosmopolitan right,” the vision of humanity moving steadily toward a future free of strife and hostility, in which all humans might pursue their own individual ends without endangering those of others, was the “inescapable conclusion of the Enlightenment project” (p.370). Kant, who paradoxically never traveled more than 30 miles away from his native Konigsberg in Germany, also foreshadowed the 20th and 21st century movements toward international justice.

            Kant’s Toward Perpetual Peace, written in the aftermath of the 1795 Peace of Basel, which ended the War of the First Coalition between Europe’s principal monarchies and revolutionary France, set out Kant’s views on ending the scourge of war. In this tract, Kant laid out the case for a hypothetical universal peace treaty that could “ensure the future and inescapably cosmopolitan development of the human race” (p.349). The influence of Toward Perpetual Peace can be seen not only in “contemporary discussions over global governance and global justice but also in the creation of the universal institutions to sustain them, in the League of Nations, the United Nations, and perhaps most closely of all, the European Union” (p.349-50). In bringing the secular, scientific and cosmopolitan threads of the Enlightenment together, Hume and Kant enunciated the Enlightenment objective of creating a “historically grounded human science that would one day lead to the creation of a universal civilization capable of making all individuals independent, autonomous, freed of dictates from above and below, self-knowing, and dependent only on one another for survival” (p.371).

            After setting forth the essential threads of the Enlightenment and highlighting its most consequential thinkers, Pagden finishes with his provocative conclusion, “Enlightenment and Its Enemies,” in which he discusses the case against the Enlightenment. The case amounts to an assault against modernity, Pagden contends, based on “some caricature of a project to reduce all human life to a set of rational calculations” (p.406). Under this view, the Enlightenment produced a culture “devoid of direction and purpose” because the Enlightenment was “fundamentally wrong about morality” as being discoverable by reason alone (p.397). Without the guidelines of tradition, custom and systems of religious belief which the Enlightenment sought to strip away, “humans are lost” and the Western world has been “suffering for it ever since” (p.398). What might be termed the German 4H club, Herder, Heine, and Hegel in the 19th century, and Heidegger in the 20th, propounded the view of the Enlightenment as a “cold, toneless, monstrous and calculating . . . It had tried to crush all of human life, difference, heroism, and desire” (p.387). Over the centuries, Enlightenment, the “Rights of Man,” “Republicanism,” and Kant’s “Cosmopolitanism” all came to be identified in the minds of conservative elites with the destructive power of the French Revolution. Or, as Friederich Karl von Moser, an 18th German jurist and government official, more succinctly put it, Enlightenment “begins with philosophy and ends with scalping and cannibalism” (p.381).

            In response, Pagden comes to what is for me the crux of his argument on behalf of the Enlightenment. Any direct causal link between the Enlightenment and the darker side of the French Revolution, he asserts, is “spurious” (p.389). Had the Enlightenment in fact been a precursor to the Revolution and to Napoleon, he writes, “it would not be of much lasting importance” (p.389). For all its excesses, the Revolution and the Napoleonic era were a “necessary evil” that “ultimately cleared the way for the liberal-democratic order that ultimately came to replace the ancient regime throughout Europe” (p.389). That doesn’t sound to me like an argument that the links between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution are “spurious” (which my dictionary defines as “of falsified or erroneously attributed origin”). Rather, Pagden’s account seems to acknowledge that the Revolution and Napoleonic era were intertwined with the Enlightenment, and it is difficult to see how one could argue otherwise.

            The Enlightenment itself was a complex phenomenon, and the interpretation of its legacy some 200 years after the end of the “long” 18th century still excites passions. Given this complexity, we should not be surprised that many paths can be charted from the Enlightenment. I accept as well-founded the link which Isaiah Berlin perceived between the Enlightenment’s utopian universalism and the game plan which Vladimir Lenin devised for Russia. That another path from the Enlightenment leads to modern notions of liberal democracy, Pagden’s primary contention, seems unassailable. And it is not unreasonable to contend, as Pagden does, that the Revolution and the Napoleonic era were necessary disruptions to clear that path. But that is a more modest contention than that links between the Revolution and the Enlightenment are “spurious.”

            After the horrendous wars and genocides of the 20th century, we know that we cannot always count on reason to prevail. There is still tribalism of many sorts that precludes us from seeing the common humanity linking individuals across the globe, and atrocities are committed in the name of religion nearly every day. But the Enlightenment impulses represent for me now, as they did in that classroom several decades ago, the more noble side of human beings and human experience – if only I could only rid my mind of those guillotine sketches in my college textbook.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
January 24, 2015

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Filed under European History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Uncategorized

Soul Reaction

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Steven Marks, How Russia Shaped the Modern World:
From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism 

                   From the autocracy of the Tsars to the totalitarianism of Stalinist communism, and on to the authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin, over the last two centuries, Russia (and the Soviet Union, when it existed), have charted a path politically well removed from that of the democracies of Western Europe and North America. But if Russia has been depressingly resistant to the democratizing currents of the West, I have always assumed and never doubted for a moment that Russia was a indispensable part of European culture, a huge contributor to its every aspect, literature and art, music and dance and more. Steven Marks’ “How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism,” which first appeared in 2003, did not dispel that assumption but added a new twist to my understanding of Russia’s contribution to both European and world culture.

               Marks, a Russian history specialist at Clemson University, argues that since the late 19th century, Russians have shaped the modern world by leading the reaction to it. Throughout this period, Russian art and literature, as well as its politics, have had the common characteristic of being in opposition to the liberal, individualistic, capitalist ethos of the West. Marks characterizes these tendencies across diverse areas as “rejectionism,” frequently encapsulating them in an elusive notion termed the “soul of Russia.” There was, he writes, a “perception of tsarist Russian and Soviet thought as Eastern and exotic, which made it especially appealing beyond the empire’s borders. This was the strain of ‘Orientalism’ that was embraced as an antidote to modern civilization” (p.4). This theme runs through his analyses of Russian anarchistic 19th century political thought, literature – especially the giants Dostoevsky and Tolstoy – anti-Semitism, dance, visual arts and music. He finishes with the Leninist Bolshevik project. On each topic, Marks shows Russian influence throughout the world; he does not limit his study to Western Europe and North America.

               Marks writes for the general reader. His scope is breathtakingly broad, with a dizzying series of short portraits of Russian luminaries in each of the areas he treats. Experts may contend that he overstates or oversimplifies the extent and nature of Russian influence in some of these areas. But readers wishing to consider a different perspective on the soul of Russia and the Russian contribution to world thinking and artistic expression should find the book highly engaging.

* * *

                Marks starts with the Russian anarchists of the late 19th century and finishes with those pesky Bolsheviks who took the reins of power in 1917 and set Russia off on a nearly 75-year experiment known as the Soviet Union. The opening chapters on Russian anarchism were for me the book’s most captivating. Anarchism was a branch of socialism that arose in Western Europe in the mid-nineteenth century as a “combined legacy of the Enlightenment belief in the perfectibility of humankind and the Romantic fervor for noble savages and stormy rebelliousness” (p.7), Marks writes.

          By the 1860s, Russia had become the acknowledged international leader of the anarchist movement and its opposition to state power and bourgeois industrialism, the “ills of which were often . . . more apparent than the benefits” (p.7). Anarchism was the “first Russian intellectual movement to have a significant international impact. Its glorious promises for society’s future electrified followers around the world, and the organizational and killing methods developed by Russian revolutionary adherents to fight the tsarist regime marked the birth of modern terrorism” (p.7).

            The most prominent of the anarchists were Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin.  Although Bakunin and his followers were atheists, Bakunin “worshipped the peasant masses as the vessels of the Absolute” (p.10). Bakunin thus tapped into the soul of Russia cult, infusing his ideas with “spiritual yearning and secular ideological substitutes for religiosity . . . Religious messianism was transferred to the revolutionary movement, a process Bakunin embodied” (p.8). Freedom for Bakunin was a “mystical notion” derived from Russian Orthodox metaphysics which “required not the preservation of individualism bur rather its total dissolution in a collective form of unity that would free humankind from the suffering brought on by the selfish competitiveness of the capitalist bourgeoisie” (p.11).

                Bakuninst anarchism went on to become an important rejectionist force in Italian politics from the 1870s to the 1920s. Gavrilo Princep and his fellow Serbian ultra-nationalists fed on Russian conspiratorial-revolutionary-anarchist literature. Poles, Armenians, Macedonians and Serbs formed the earliest organized terrorist movements outside Russia to serve the cause of national liberation. Political terrorism came to be known as the “Russian method.” Although anarchism sought to shield the individual from the depredations of state power, Bakunin was a “closet authoritarian who thought a dictatorship was necessary to organize the future communal society” (p.11).

          Although less well known than Bakunin, Kropotkin was more eccentric and offered a far softer version of anarchism. Kropotkin challenged the understanding of Thomas Malthus and Charles Darwin of competitive relations between and among species. For Kropotkin, nature is not a struggle between individuals, but a “struggle between individuals and the environment.” The fittest are not the strongest, but “those who have learned to live cooperatively” (p.41). Kropotkin’s utopian solution relied on the Russian peasant commune as the “prototype of the ideal form for the future organization of humanity” (p.42). Kropotkin’s slogan was “to every man according to his needs,” and he called his program “anarchist communist” because of its emphasis upon cooperative organization.

                  Kropotkin’s communitarian vision gave rise to certain strains of Western urban planning in the 1920s, such as creation of garden cities and back-to-the-land alternatives to city life, and foreshadowed the contemporary ecological movement. Kropotkin’s radical ideas even account “partially” for the “ancestry of certain features of the modern American suburban landscape” (p.48), Marks asserts. When Kropotkin died, his funeral was the occasion for the “last mass demonstration against Bolshevism” (p.53).

         Many leftist intellectuals projected their anarchist, pro-peasant soul-of-Russia views onto the Bolshevik Revolution. Few “understood that Lenin and Trotsky were autocratic. Most believed that the Bolshevik leaders were implementing the decentralizing, anarchist agenda that had long been recognized as the hallmark of Russian radicalism” (p.284). With good reason, then, those on the outside often saw little difference between Russian anarchism and Bolshevism. Marks shows how Lenin used ideas drawn from the anarchists when useful to him. Stalin, for his part, added a “theocratic and Russian chauvinist imprint to Soviet official culture” (p.279).

               Marks treats the familiar and always fascinating theme of the early Western attraction to the Soviet experiment. Carrying forward prerevolutionary stereotypes of “soulful Russia as a repository of Eastern wisdom and collectivism” (p.282), Western intellectuals were surprisingly “prone to messianic delusions,” with an “astonishing capacity for fooling themselves” (p.285-86). Upon reviewing Stalin’s industrialization efforts, John Dewey commented that he felt, “as if for the first time the moving spirit and force of primitive Christianity” (p.285). British socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb lauded the “entirely ‘new civilization’’ which Stalin was in the process of creating, with a “truly democratic system of representation” (p.285), while George Bernard Shaw insisted that Stalin was “simply secretary of the supreme controlling organ of the hierarchy, subject to dismissal at ten minutes’ notice if he does not give satisfaction” (p.286).

         Marks finishes with a chapter on the influence of Russian Bolshevism outside the Soviet Union, mostly a discussion of the degree to which lesser developed countries adopted the Russian model of socialism. In the years immediately following the Bolshevik revolution, intellectuals from what came to be known as “Third World,” “reacting to their own countries’ trauma in the throes of modernization or imperialism, were similarly attracted to Russian culture and ideology. They, too, perceived Russia, despite a thin European veneer, as being non-Western, and thus close in spirit to their own experiences” (p.4-5).

                The chapter on Russian anti-Semitism is extremely dark. To a surprising degree, Marks argues, 20th century European anti-Semitism was a Russian import. By the end of the 19th century, Russia had the world’s largest Jewish population, and anti-Semitism was stronger in Russia than in the West. Tsarist Russia maintained an apartheid-like regime, buttressed by Jim Crow legislation and recurrently violent anti-Jewish pogroms in the years leading up to the 1917 Revolution. In late 19th century Russia, Jews were perceived as the “quintessentially evil representatives of modernity, whether as financiers, traders or revolutionaries” (p.140). The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the basic text in anti-Semitism, was a Russian product. The Protocols, whose precise origins are still uncertain, were “purportedly the secret resolutions of international Jewish leaders, a game plan for the domination of the world and enslavement of the goyim – Yiddish for Gentiles” (p.149). The Protocols were at the foundation of “all Nazi anti-Semitic belief and rhetoric,” helping to “extinguish lingering good will toward the Jews, and . . . to rationalize their annihilation” (p.170).

             Militantly anti-capitalist and rabidly anti-Semitic Russian organizations came to be known at the Black Hundreds. Marks characterizes the rise of the Black Hundreds as a “transitional phase in the history of the European right between old-fashioned reactionary movements and dynamic modern fascism” (p.148). The Russian extreme right formulated major strains of Nazism and fascism at least a decade before these phenomena appeared in Western Europe, Marks contends, forging an “alliance of old elites and resentful masses” (p.148). Its “radical rejectionism; its reliance on violence as its chief political tool; and its demagogic anti-Semitism all anticipated the future fascist movements of France, Germany and Romania” (p.148).

              Marks’ chapters on Fydor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy provide good comparisons between the two, and demonstrate the enormous influence of each beyond Russia’s borders. Dostoevsky’s focus on the complexity of human psychology and man’s irrationality established him as one of the 19th century’s deepest but darkest thinkers. Dostoevsky’s world view was based on what Marks terms a “holy trinity” of individual freedom, orthodox Christianity, and Russian nationalism. For Dostoevsky, Western rationalism had produced a “cold, unloving kind of devotion to humanity that often concealed an abhorrence of human beings as individuals” (p.62). Freedom for Dostoevsky was an inner, spiritual matter, not a “juridical or constitutional problem,” embracing a “Christ like spirituality that overcomes man’s fractured and wounded personality, through love, brotherhood, and community” (p.65). Dostoevsky transformed the soul-of-Russia sense of uniqueness into a “strident and hostile anti-Western credo — despite his intellectual engagement with European philosophy and literature” (p.65).

             Dostoevsky’s work fit well with the late 19th century European interest in individual psychology and the irrational. He had a huge impact upon Sigmund Freud, whose ancestors had migrated to Austria from Russia. Freud found that Dostoevsky had captured the psyche if not the soul of Russians, who, as Freud saw them, were inclined to “ascetic mysticism, chauvinism, fanaticism, violence, and other ‘compromise[s] with morality’” (p.72). In the first decades of the 20th century, Dostoevsky’s popularity in Europe soared, nowhere more than in Germany, where he gained the dubious distinction of being the Nazis’ favorite non-German writer.

                  Tolstoy, described as “genius and crank” (p.102) by Ivan Turgenev, another 19th century Russian literary giant, sought to simplify Christianity and reduce it to what he considered its core values. He promulgated a version of Christianity that didn’t have much to do with Russian Orthodoxy or any other institutional form of Christianity. Marks characterizes Tolstoy’s religious outlook as “Christian anarchism,” another strain of Russian rejectionism that attracted a global following at the turn of the century. Tolstoy’s entire body of writing “reeks of contempt for Western capitalism, materialism, parliamentary democracy, law and constitutionalism” (p.105), Marks writes. Through his fictional and theological portrayals of the peasant, Tolstoy “contributed to the international image of the Russian soul as the antipode of the rationalizing, industrializing West” (p.109).

             Tolstoy fashioned a lifestyle that foreshadowed 1960s hippies. He became one of the first advocates of vegetarianism. Among those attracted to his views and life style was an obscure Indian lawyer practicing law in Durban, South Africa, Mahatmas Gandhi. Gandhi’s reading of Tolstoy was a critical step in his transformation as liberator of the Indian people. By 1900, Tolstoy was a recognized voice against American racism. He was one of the first international mass-media celebrities, a role he relished, curiously enough, and one that befitted a man who helped usher in the modern world even as he struggled against it.

                   In his chapters on music, dance and painting, Marks shows how in each domain, the major Russian artists were in some sense reacting to Western modernism. Marks starts with Sergei Diaghilev, publisher of The World of Art, a journal which, with its initial appearance in 1898, marked the beginning of the Russian Modernist movement. Diaghilev and his associates fostered a “discriminating love of music, dance, and painting alongside scorn for what they saw as the stagnant Russian art of the day. They yearned for the revival of Russian art as a bulwark against the dominance of western European, bourgeois culture” (p.177). Diaghilev combined ambivalence toward the West with “massive expectations of Russian culture. He was at bottom a Russian nationalist whose purpose was not to Europeanize domestic art but to remedy its effects through exposure to contemporary trends” (p.179).

                Diaghilev created the dance company “Ballets Russes.” Ballet for Diaghilev and his followers was a “non-descriptive and suggestive means of means of expressing pure emotion” (p.180). The essence of Ballets Russes, according to Diaghilev, was its “elemental spontaneity. We wished to find an art through which all the complexity of life, all feelings and passions, could be expressed apart from words and ideas – not rationally but elementally” (p.181). The Ballets Russes “opened the door to the embrace of an array of exotic, lower class and foreign music and dance impulses” (p.200). Ballets Russes never performed in Russia owing to official ostracism of Diaghliev before 1917 and Diaghilev’s hatred of communism afterwards.

                    Meanwhile, Russian artists “ceaselessly pushed the limits of artistic firmament” (p.228). Vasily Kandinsky was Russia’s primary “practitioner and theorist of abstractionism,” which reflected a common view among avant garde Russian artists that painting could replicate the psychological effect of music or poetry and vice-versa. Russian abstractionism shared with Russian antecedents an “anti-modern sense that Western Civilization had gone tragically awry. Humanity required radical aesthetic and political measures to reduce it, namely their brand of abstract painting plus socialism or anarchism” (p.270).

               Marks emphasizes the “global adaptability” of the Russian avant-garde forms of artistic expression. Like Russian anarchists, writers, visionaries and anti-Semites, the Russian avant-garde “appeared as wise men of the East offering access to higher truth” (p.274). Rooted in mysticism, messianism, and anti-Westernism, Russian visual arts, dance and theatre “rejected industrial-bourgeois existence and sought to remake society anew” (p.274). But the obvious irony was that these artists’ legacy was to be found in “realms of mass culture such as Hollywood movies, fascist propaganda, and Western commercial advertising” (p.176), with individualistic and capitalist audiences avidly pursuing their works.

* * *

                 Marks indicates at the outset of his sweeping and exuberantly written work that Russian intellectual and artistic life has always had a “close and symbiotic relationship with the West” (p.6), with the Russian thinkers and artists he discusses influenced in differing degrees by European counterparts as well as influencing them. Nonetheless, his book could be criticized for its “one way street” effect, the sense that there was little cross-fertilization, little positive absorption of Western lines of thought and artistic expression in Russia – only reaction to decadent capitalist and individualistic Western models.  Specialists might also criticize the book for trying to pack too much into the notion of Russian rejectionism and the soul of Russia. The American suburban landscape would likely have taken its present form even had Peter Kropotkin died in early childhood, for example; and Fascism and anti-Semitism hardly needed Russian models to thrive in Germany, France, and Italy. But Marks deserves credit for creative thinking across a wide range, bringing highly diverse subject matters together into an intriguing conceptual framework.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
November 22, 2014

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Filed under European History, Intellectual History, Soviet Union