Ideas and Ideologies
The study of Russian history throughout the period of autocracy and dictatorship can be seen as a battle of ideas. In October 1917 Marxist Leninism prevailed over liberalism and more moderate strands of socialism. The triumph of Lenin’s ideas was in no way inevitable and the collapse of Tsarist authority under the pressures of the First World War created conditions for liberal and revolutionary ideas that had long been suppressed to compete for supremacy. The Russian Civil War that broke out as a result of the Bolsheviks seizure of power resulted in the triumph of Lenin’s ideas and extreme brutality meted out on Russia from the various forces of revolution and reaction.
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Russian liberalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries was a political movement that sought to establish a constitutional monarchy and a representative government in Russia. The Kadet Party, also known as the Constitutional Democratic Party, was the main liberal political party in Russia during this time period. Founded in 1905, the party sought to establish a constitutional monarchy and a representative government in Russia, and was led by figures such as Prince Georgi Lvov and Paul Miliukov.
Prince Georgi Lvov was a key figure in the Russian liberal movement and served as the first prime minister of the Russian Provisional Government following the February Revolution of 1917. He was a strong advocate for political and economic reform and worked to establish a constitutional monarchy in Russia.
Prince Lvov saw the Zemstvos as a model for liberal government and civil society across Russia, he was a leader of Zemgor, the national union of Zemstvos and used them to considerable effect in the Russo Japanese War.
During the Russo Japanese War in 1904, the zemstvos were called upon to support the war effort. To aid the Red Cross on the Manchurian front, thirteen zemstvos formed a medical brigade of 360 doctors and nurses, which was led by Prince Lvov. This was the first time that zemstvos had been allowed to organize themselves at a national level since their powers were restricted by Alexander III in 1890. The relief mission, which was highly praised by Russian military leaders, made Lvov a national hero and allowed the zemstvos to reintegrate themselves into Russian governing society.
The idea that local government bodies, created constitutionally and organised in the interests of the nation, could have a powerful transformative effect was a core liberal concept. Liberals in Russia sought to demonstrate that a system of government where power could be less concentrated in the hands of the Tsar but shared across civil society (particularly in bodies controlled by Russia’s small middle class), was the most effective way to run the country.
Despite the Tsar’s gratitude to Prince Lvov at the provision of medical aid to the army, he remained deeply committed to the autocracy.
Paul Miliukov was a prominent Russian historian and political leader who played a key role in the liberal opposition to the Tsarist regime in Russia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a founding member of the Kadet Party, also known as the Constitutional Democratic Party, which was the main liberal political party in Russia at the time. Miliukov served as the leader of the Kadet Party and as Russia’s foreign minister in the Provisional Government that was established following the February Revolution of 1917.
Miliukov was a strong advocate for democracy and civil liberties and sought to modernize Russia’s economy and political system. He opposed the autocratic nature of the Tsarist regime and advocated for the expansion of the franchise, the establishment of a more representative government, and the protection of civil liberties. He also called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in Russia, which would have limited the power of the Tsar and ensured that the government was accountable to the people.
Miliukov’s opposition to the Tsarist regime was not limited to his political activities. He was also a prominent historian and intellectual who wrote extensively about the political and social issues facing Russia. His work focused on the need for political and economic reform in Russia and he advocated for the modernization of the country. He published many articles and books, like “Russia and its Crisis” where he criticized the Tsarist government for its lack of political reform and its inability to modernize the country.
Despite his opposition to the Tsarist regime, Miliukov was a moderate and believed in the possibility of peaceful reform. However, due to the radicalization of the political situation in Russia, the Kadet Party lost support and the Provisional Government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in October 1917. Miliukov went into exile, lived in France and continued to write and advocate for liberal democracy.
On the revolutionary left, there was a division between the parties that focused on the violent revolutionary overthrow of Russian capitalism and those that sought a more gradual transition towards socialism. It is sometimes hard to define socialist and communist ideas because by the early 20th Century there were numerous competing ideologies on the political left. A useful catch all for socialist thinking might be ‘the democratisation of wealth and power in a society;’ it is questionable whether the Soviet communism that materialised after the Russian civil war could ever be thought of as socialist based on these criteria. Communism, which was described by the philosopher Karl Marx as the economic and social state where technology had ended scarcity and abundance made private property, work and the state redundant, was never successfully created in the USSR.
The entire body of Marx’s work is so broad that it would not be helpful to explore all of his ideas here. The ideas that relate to the study of the Russian Revolution are as follows:
- All history is the history of class struggle: Marx believed that in every historical period there was conflict between the oppressed class that produced wealth and the ruling class that owned it. Over time contradictions in society built up until there was a revolutionary moment and the old structure of class, work, wealth and ownership was destroyed. In the feudal era (a set of class relations that many of Russia’s revolutionaries believed still existed in Russia), nobles owned the land an exploited the peasants that worked upon it.
- In industrial society the nobles were replaced by the bourgeois factory bosses and the peasants by the workers. Marx, who wrote in the mid 19th Century, referred to the economic relations that existed as capitalism and said that once the working class was aware of its exploitation, it would develop the institutions (political parties, trade unions) to create an alternative to bourgeois capitalism and this would be called socialism. Under conditions of socialism, the workers would build the infrastructure and industry to eventually create communism.
- Marx had argued that the ideal place for a revolution to take place would be Germany, because its workers were advanced and educated enough and its level of science and technology was sufficient for the building of socialism. Marx thought that a revolution in Russia was something that should be avoided at all costs because Russia had not advanced much beyond feudalism. Marx believed that if a revolution did happen in Russia, there would be little chance of building the kind of society that could create communism
Lenin took Marx’s ideas and adapted them to Russia’s specific social and historical conditions. Lenin believed that a mass movement of the working class would be unable to overthrow Tsarism for the following reasons:
- The working class, even by 1905 was too small and growing too slowly. Lenin believed, as Marx did, that the workers were the revolutionary agents of change and disagreed with other parties like the Social Revolutionaries who thought that the Russian peasants would be able to bring about revolution in Russia.
- Lenin believed that a broad based movement of the working class would be unable to achieve the overthrow of Tsarism. The Tsarist secret police had been too successful in infiltrating revolutionary parties and Lenin predicted that all the autocracy would need to do would be to find a place for the middle class intelligentsia in the regime in order to drain the revolutionary movement of its leadership.
- Instead, Lenin proposed a secret revolutionary vanguard party, dedicated to overthrowing Tsardom. This party would not include the mass of the proletariat, but would lead it once it had seized power on the working class’s behalf. When Lenin proposed this to the Social Democratic Party is split into the Bolsheviks (majority) and Mensheviks (minority). The Mensheviks, led by Yuli Martov, argued that in order to impose a new revolutionary society on Russia in the manner that Lenin proposed, state terror would be inevitable.
- Lenin’s ideas were set out in his book What is to be done? Published in 1902.
In a later book ‘The State and Revolution’ Lenin abandoned ideas that had been drawn from anarchist thought about the dismantling of the state. Lenin and other Bolsheviks had believed that the dissolution of the Tsarist state would be followed by the Bolsheviks ending the ownership of land, capital and other forms of property in order for communism to be quickly reached. Lenin realised in 1917 (following debates in 1916 with fellow Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin) that the state wouldn’t simply ‘wither away’ and it did not serve the purposes of the Bolsheviks to simply allow that. Instead, the organs of the state (army, police, bureaucracy) needed to be captured by the Bolsheviks in order to bring about a social revolution following a political seizure of power. He referred to this as ‘expropriating the expropriators’ (taking the wealth and power from the bourgeoisie), which meant that state terror needed to be directed at ‘class enemies’ in order to rapidly and violently transform society. The creation of a secret police, the Checka, and the first camps for political prisoners and class enemies in the years immediately after the Bolshevik seizure of power are evidence of the ideas in The State and Revolution put into practice.