Foreign Affairs

What Happened to Leftism in Russia?

When Vladimir Lenin succumbed to illness in 1924, his fledgling revolutionary state had emerged as a bulwark of radical leftism. Lenin’s Communist International, based in Russia, was financing communist agitators in Europe as part of an effort to “export the October Revolution.” Western liberal powers despaired as their international coalition failed to defeat the Red Army in the Russian Civil War. Meanwhile, communists of the world rejoiced and lauded the Soviet Union’s purported dedication to the implementation of Marxist theory. The global assault on the bourgeoisie had begun.

Nearly a century after his passing, the philosopher-statesman remains embalmed in a tomb open to the Russian public. The Russia that surrounds him, however, is far from the workers’ paradise envisioned in the October Revolution. Ten percent of Russians own 87 percent of the country’s wealth. The Kremlin, visible from Lenin’s Mausoleum, is presently occupied by a politician who exports far-right-wing authoritarianism instead of left-wing Soviet idealism.

That man, Vladimir Putin, has criticized the Bolsheviks for “cheating” the Russian people. He has overseen an initiative to institutionalize the crony capitalism that flourished under Yeltsin in the 1990s. Shortly after the 100th anniversary of the “Great October” — which, incidentally, Putin refused to commemorateThe Economist hyperbolically wrote that Putin was Russia’s 21st-century tsar. If Lenin had a grave, he would certainly be rolling in it. What happened to the leftist Russia forged through revolution and civil war?

Vladimir Putin: A Communist-Turned-Traditionalist?

Despite finding himself at the helm of a right-wing political revolution, Putin rose to prominence as a faithful servant to the Marxist-Leninist order of the Eastern Bloc. He emerged from university a card-carrying communist and an operative of the KGB. As an officer, he monitored foreigners in East Germany and helped recruit for the East German Communist Party. His intelligence career ended in 1991 when he resigned his post to protest a KGB-organized coup d’etat against Gorbachev. Following the collapse of the USSR, Putin abandoned the Russian Communist Party and disavowed communism altogether.

The communist spy who worked to entrench Soviet power in Eastern Europe made his political debut as a conservative. While Putin is presently an independent, he spent a substantive amount of time affiliated with the United Russia party. United Russia advertises “catch-all, big-tent centrism,” but it is unequivocally right-wing. Additionally, the All-Russia People’s Front, a political coalition created by Putin, was founded on a nationalistic, conservative platform.

Putinism — a political paradigm which emphasizes social conservatism, autocratic governance, economic centralization, and the institutionalization of corporations — is currently the prevailing ideology in Russia. In federal elections, the Communist Party of Russia generally comes in second place, garnering vote totals that are often a fraction of Putin’s. In 2018, for instance, Putin won 77 percent of the electorate, with the communists trailing behind at 11 percent of the vote. Of course, it’s likely that election fraud inflated Putin’s margin of victory.

The Union of Pseudo-Socialist Soviet Republics

It is thus apparent that the communists haven’t vanished from thin air. As a whole, however, the Russian left is in disarray. Socialists, anarchists, Stalinists, Trotskyists, social democrats, and other leftist factions have been targeted by Putin’s Kremlin and barred from extensive participation in the Russian political sphere. The Communist Party of Russia, while organized, is quite weak. It largely appeals to older voters nostalgic for the Soviet era and younger leftists in urban centers. Critics lambast it as a pseudo-communist party in place to masquerade as opposition and bolster the illusion of multi-party democracy in the Russian Federation.

Charges of pseudo-communism are not unique to the modern Russian Communist Party. It has long been maintained that communism never genuinely existed in the U.S.S.R. The philosophy of “Marxism-Leninism” as articulated by Joseph Stalin deviated considerably from both Leninist and Marxist thought, and when implemented, realized a Soviet society characterized more by state capitalism than communism. The stateless, classless society advocated by Marx was not manifested by the October Revolution. Rather, the state became the sole arbiter of Russian industrialism, merely assuming control of exploitative, wage-based labor instead of abolishing it.

It’s important to note that while “communism” and “socialism” are often used interchangeably in reference to the U.S.S.R’s political system, they are far from the same thing; in the context of the Soviet Union, however, conflation of these terms is excusable, as the overarching goal of the Soviet socialist state was the transition towards full communism.

At its very core, socialism extols democracy and anti-imperialism: two things which the Soviet Union undoubtedly failed to embody. Democracy, as implemented through a socialist framework, entails a fairer distribution of economic power and the absence of an extraordinarily-wealthy elite class as well as a respect for self-determination and freedom of expression and organization.

The Soviet Union became the antithesis of this image. Lenin, and later Stalin, actively justified these failures, maintaining that totalitarian government was necessary for the march towards communism. The Soviet system was a dictatorship of the proletariat (a “dictatorship of the people” advocated by Marx) insofar as it was working towards the ultimate liberation of the working class. Marx likely would have abhorred the gargantuan centralized state of the U.S.S.R. and the concentration of both political and economic power in the Soviet elite.

Putinism vis-à-vis Sovietism

When one considers the base similarities between the Soviet system and Putinism — the maintenance of a highly-centralized, state-capitalist-esque economy, violent suppression of dissent, emphasis on national greatness as expressed through military grandeur — it becomes apparent that Russia did not shift from the far left to the far right overnight. Rather, Putin was able to resuscitate the statist, nationalistic virtues of the Leninist-Stalinist era that survived the Soviet Union’s collapse and incorporate them into an ideology which promotes tradition and stability over progress and upheaval.

Furthermore, this “tradition and stability” likely didn’t require much resuscitation. The Soviet mythos was underpinned by a pledge to destroy the institutions of the “old world,” and one of the first targets of revolutionary crosshairs was the stronghold of Russian traditionalism: The Orthodox Church. While many smaller churches collapsed under antitheist policies, the Soviets were unable to completely vanquish the behemoth of Russian Orthodoxy. It is worth asking whether the militantly-atheist Soviet state enjoyed any success in strangling the religious soul of tsarist Russia.

Despite the decline in religious worship reported by Soviet censuses, the Russian people did not genuinely lose their faith during the Soviet era. Indeed, while the Orthodox Church does not possess the religious monopoly it once did, the heart of Russian religion continues to beat vibrantly. Once relieved of the pressure imposed by the heavy hand of Soviet totalitarianism, the Russian people returned to religion, with a remarkable 43-percent increase in religiosity occurring between 1991 and 2008.

This indicates widespread disinterest in the Soviet crusade against Russian conservatism and accounts for Putin’s success in broadcasting a traditionalist platform. The luster of Soviet idealism failed to find permanent grounding in the Russian conscience. We are witnessing a once-pseudo-socialist Russia embrace right-wing policy, instead of a spontaneous shift to the opposite side of the political spectrum.

In essence, the society that evolved under Soviet rule was socialist in name only. Below the facade of revolutionary Marxism, Russian traditionalism continued to occupy its historical place of prominence among the common people. It informed the faux-socialist ideology that characterized the Soviet system and would later emerge from the carcass of the U.S.S.R. to propel Putinism to the upper echelons of Russian government. Leftism flavored the dialogue of Soviet politics, but the leftist workers’ paradise envisioned in 1917 scarcely existed beyond the rhetoric of lofty idealists. In practice, radical leftism never legitimately existed in Russia.

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