It wouldn’t be fair to have called Bolshevism the death of irony. But it did insist on its exile. In the fall of 1922, V. I. Lenin deported intellectuals—putting them on two vessels jocularly called the Philosophers’ Steamers—for exhibiting such suspicious traits as “knows a foreign language” and “uses irony.” Those with opinions at actual variance with the new regime were interned in labor camps on an island near the White Sea. The newly formed State Political Administration (GPU) saw to it that no creeping Socratism would shadow the prospect of radiant tomorrows opened by history’s proletarian vanguard.
As distinct from philosophy, ideology tolerates no questioners, only interrogators. And “ideology was Bolshevik identity,” writes Stephen Kotkin in the first volume of his biography of Stalin, subtitled Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928. “The documents, whether those made public at the time or kept secret, are absolutely saturated with Marxist-Leninist ways of thinking and vocabulary.” The fights for dominance by and within the Bolshevik Party centered on ideas, for it was ideas that “defin[ed] the revolution going forward” and, in so doing, formed the principal claims to rule in Soviet Russia.
Josef Stalin defeated Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, and his other rivals in large measure by mastering Leninism, rather as a fundamentalist preacher asserts his authority by quoting scripture. Although Lenin himself famously—if only allegedly—expressed deathbed doubts about Stalin’s fitness to be general secretary of the Bolshevik Party, Stalin consolidated his position with the slogan, “Lenin has died—Leninism lives!” In Soviet Russia, the “ism” mattered most.
A man born as Iosif “Soso” Jughashvili who rechristens himself “Stalin,” which means “Man of Steel,” does not likely appreciate irony, much. Born in Gori, Georgia, in 1878 and educated at an Eastern Orthodox theological seminary in nearby Tiflis, such a man would have been as unamused as Queen Victoria was so often reported to be, had he heard that the young American songwriter and pianist Oscar Levant, upon hearing of Stalin’s upbringing, dashed off a tune titled “A Slight Touch of Tiflis.” (A publisher deemed it “hilarious but unprintable” but, this being America, no one shipped Oscar off to the shores of Lake Huron.) The Tiflis scholar proved diligent, a good student and the lead tenor in the school choir, before meeting a Marxist militant who mentored him in dialectical materialism. “In Marxism he found his theory of everything” or, as the man himself soon would put it, “a complete worldview.”
The future Stalin claimed to have joined the Russian Communist Party in 1898—the year that Vladimir Ulyanov, a.k.a. Lenin, did—and, yes, studied Machiavelli’s The Prince along with his Marx, Engels, and Renan while working part-time jobs by day and agitating for revolution at night. Lenin, eight years Stalin’s senior, quickly hit upon the political formula that would enable his brand of Marxism to rule a large swath of the earth: “a party of professional revolutionaries”—smaller, more disciplined than the more “inclusive” Mensheviks.
In the social and political chaos soon to come, fanatical discipline would carry the day, not coalition building. For this criterion Stalin must have looked very good indeed to Lenin: a militant journalist and organizer, all-in for such criminal antics as a 1907 mail-coach heist that landed both men in exile. In 1912, when Lenin formed a twelve-member Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, he plucked Jughashvili from the dustbin—the younger man had “no money, no permanent residence, and no profession other than punditry, which was illegal in the forms in which he practiced it.”
Kotkin suggests that Lenin appreciated his ally’s status as a then-rare representative of the Caucasus region of the empire. And Soso was grateful. Although, fortunately for himself, he “did little or nothing” for Lenin or the party during the Great War—consigned as he was to internal exile—he became deeply involved in internecine Bolshevik politics when it counted, in 1917 and thereafter, writing some forty lead articles for the party newspaper, Pravda (or “Truth” as its anti-ironist publishers called it), consistently taking Lenin’s side.
This volume shows how the Bolshevik Revolution could happen, and how Lenin but especially Stalin consolidated it. Russia’s czarist regime adapted badly to the “Tocquevillian” dimension of modernity—the rise of the people to influence, against the landed aristocrats. The czars had enjoyed an unusual form of absolute monarchy. Unlike, say, the Bourbons, the Romanovs had never needed to contend with a really powerful aristocracy. As a result, Russian aristocrats at the turn of the twentieth century had even less experience in self-government than their French counterparts in 1789.
Surprisingly, this absolutist regime had established a fairly weak state, with only four officials per one thousand subjects in its sprawling domain. What is more, this was no modern, impersonal bureaucracy animated by the “science of administration” but an old-fashioned apparatus loyal to a person, the czar. In social-science terms, there was no regularization of rule; instead of a state-building monarchy, Russia had a state-limiting one. Because no one person could possibly rule a substantial modern bureaucracy, the czars didn’t want one. Neither did they seek the esteem which the more sensible European monarchs cultivated among their peoples.
Such latter-day reformers as Sergei Witte and Pyotr Stolypin found their efforts undercut by Czar Nicholas II, who understood that “constitutional autocracy was self-defeating”—indeed, self-contradictory. Even worse, the regime had no ideational framework to attract the increasingly demanding people. Kotkin observes that in Great Britain and Europe, liberalism preceded the “massified” politics of the twentieth century, whereas Russian Orthodox Christianity—which is about the closest Christianity gets to Nietzsche’s “Platonism for the people”—provided little practical guidance for popular self-government.
When the Great War concentrated masses of young Russian men—previously scattered over a dozen or more time zones—into military organizations that occupied politically sensitive regions near the major cities; when those young men began to yearn for peace after months of getting battered by the Germans; and when not only the czars but the post-czarist Provisional Government (which did not spring from the lower orders but was “a liberal coup”) persisted in fighting the Kaiser’s army, not only the two regimes but the state collapsed.
Amid the chaos, the Bolsheviks had no more popular support than anyone else, but at least they had something democratic-sounding to say in a country where socialism, not liberalism, had won the hearts and minds of just about everyone—including the peasants, attached to their local communes. Lenin and Stalin called for immediate peace and land ownership by peasants. They intended to revoke the latter slogan, but since communalism seemed close enough to communism for popular consumption, their pose worked. While Bolsheviks seized the cities and infiltrated the military, peasants seized the lands of the aristocrats—a vaster if not ultimately more consequential revolution. “Soon enough, the peasant revolution and Bolshevism would collide,” Kotkin writes. But soon was not now—it would arrive too late for the Bolsheviks’ enemies.
Kotkin adds that “Few thought this crazy putsch would last.” Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, and their accomplices had no administrative experience, no real military experience, and no knowledge of finance or agriculture. Luckily for them they didn’t need a state, right away; pandemonium was more useful, and the Red Guards were really all they needed to seize state buildings. Bolsheviks did not initially need to win so much as they needed to make their enemies lose. In every case, they encountered rivals even more incompetent than themselves.
When they did turn to state-building, between 1918 and 1920, they founded something unique, and uniquely effective in the circumstances. American historians speak of the American state between the Jackson and McKinley administrations as “the regime of courts and parties”: the relatively small state apparatus was staffed by lawyers on the judicial side, party regulars on the administrative side. The move for reform consisted of replacing the partisans with professional technocrats—university-trained, tested, tenured. As for the Bolsheviks, they understood that they must deploy at least a modicum of administrative competence to run a state intended to remake human society. But they also needed politically correct ideologues to oversee that remaking. Stalin hit upon the answer: a mass party would provide personnel—the “commissars”—to supervise the technocrats, shadowing them to ensure that the Bolshevik project stayed on track.
The “theory of everything” required an all-encompassing state—even if it would eventually “wither away” after its work was accomplished. But not just any all-encompassing state would do. Stalin needed a state that combined minute, administrative detail with the full rigor of ideological vigilance. Although it wouldn’t have been possible to “centralize the whole country himself,” he “could effectively centralize the bosses who were centralizing their own provinces,” bosses personally loyal to him because they owed their jobs to him, initially and on condition of his continuing satisfaction of their obedience. Trotsky did this in the Red Army, too, but Stalin was simply the more politically astute of the two. Comrade Lenin noticed, appointing the Man of Steel to be party secretary just as he, Lenin, was about to suffer the first in a series of incapacitating strokes.
The Georgian also found a solution to the new empire’s national problems: federalism. Stalin “developed the Bolshevik rationale for federalism,” a “way to bind the many peoples into a single integrated state.” Some respect for nationality was necessary because, at a minimum, Marxism-Leninism (like the Bible before it) needed to be translated into vernacular languages. Some degree of self-government made sense. But the party itself would remain strictly centralized and in line with the regime’s ideology. Both national-state and regional-state officials were under the eye, and gun, of the party. And the party was ruled by its general secretary. To use the Hegelian-Marxist language, this synthesis of party government (with its personalism) and administrative science (with its impersonality, centralization, and federalism) kept the Bolsheviks in power for a long time. And Stalin—not Trotsky, not even Lenin—“emerged as the most significant figure in determining the structure of the Soviet state.”
Anything but the inevitable result of large historical forces (including the world war), the Soviet regime had depended upon the individuals who made it. In one of his many breathtaking but somehow true paradoxes, Kotkin calls Stalin both a sociopath—the very portrait of the paranoiac with real enemies—and “a people person”—the pol who never forgets a name, the tough boss who makes his immediate subordinates feel, to be sure, subordinate but not used or overlooked and who always works harder than anyone else in the office.
Finally, Stalin found a solution, at least in principle, to Russia’s persistent geopolitical problem: its situation on the eastern edge of the vast European plain, where no real natural borders exist from the Atlantic to the Urals. He used the ideology of worldwide proletarian revolution to justify whatever territorial expansion made sense at the time.
Insecure borders? Very well, did the “country of the revolution” not need to be defended? And did its defense not require, finally, the worldwide triumph of a proletariat animated by Marxism-Leninism as interpreted by its vanguard? Russian Orthodoxy was too specific ever to have made such a claim, but dialectical materialism was a universal principle; as the unity of theory and practice, could not the worldwide rule of the party be made real, someday? As prelude to this end, would the capitalists not fall once again to warring amongst themselves? Although the consummation devoutly to be wished never came, the threat of communist revolution, in the capitalist homelands and also in their empires, would keep his enemies off balance for decades.
Severe problems remained. By the second half of the 1920s, the United States produced one-third of global industrial output; for example, there were 20 million motorcars in America and 5,500 in the Soviet Union. Envying this, Stalin never quite saw that productivity also requires demand, markets—democracy not in the sense of egalitarianism but in the sense of letting people get what they want. Lenin and Stalin’s New Economic Policy, which loosened economic controls somewhat, worked somewhat, but left the regime with the questions of how to get back to the better, purer socialism that Marxism required, and of how to bring the landowning peasants to heel.
By 1928, the last year covered in this book, Stalin had found a solution to the “peasant problem” that would turn singularly bloody. He would, in imitation of large-scale American agriculture, get rid of the small communes—but at the same time he prevented private ownership of the new, big tracts. Such a solution could only be effected by force. Writes Kotkin:
No one else in or near the Bolshevik leadership, Trotsky included, could have stayed the course on such a bloody social-engineering escapade on such a scale.
Falling behind the capitalists in industry and in agriculture, with an army and navy now incapable of fighting any major power, moving from one blunder to another in an attempt to manage the Chinese revolution, with a rising Japan to the east and an increasingly worrisome Germany to the west, Stalin knew that one more shock might ruin everything.
But the shock that actually came saved everything. Stalin expected another intracapitalist war, but what happened instead was the Great Depression. This cut capitalist productivity down, making the Soviet regime seem viable—perhaps even the solution to all human problems its founders claimed it to be. The years leading up to the next world war will be the topic of Kotkin’s second volume, which promises to be equally worth reading and learning from.
Will Morrisey holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the American Constitution at Hillsdale College. He is the author of The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government. This essay was originally published in December 2014 at Liberty Fund’s Library of Law and Liberty, and it is republished here with gracious permission from that web-magazine.
 Kotkin wonders if this fault-finding “Testament,” as it was soon called by Trotsky, came from Lenin or from his widow, whom Stalin had insulted.