From the October Revolution in 1917 until his death in January 1924 Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, ruled Russia via the Communist Party. He justified his rule by a philosophical and political ideology called Marxism-Leninism, an adjusted form of the teachings of Karl Marx. This ideology is usually referred to as Communism. But to what extent was the USSR under Lenin in fact an orthodox communist state? The truth is that Lenin’s policies were influenced by his pragmatism almost as much as by his belief in communism. The extent of his adherence to communist doctrine is to be looked into in this essay.
An important characteristic of Communism is a strong aversion to religion. Thus already Karl Marx stated that “Religion is the opium of the masses” and was convinced that “The first requisite for the happiness of the people is the abolition of religion.” Additionally, the Bolsheviks strongly associated the Orthodox Church with the Tsarist regime and were therefore even more determined to abolish it. The separation of church and state and the ban of the church from owning property in the ‘Decree on Freedom of Conscience and on Church and Religious Associations’ (1918) was the first step to abolishing the orthodox church in Russia.
During the Civil Wars (1918-20) soviets were actively encouraged to remove valuable items from churches. This lead to clashes between the authorities and members of the church – these clashes cost some 8,000 people their lives. Two major show trials in Moscow and Petrograd followed, accusing leading churchmen of counter-revolutionary activities. All in all it can be said that the church lost almost all their influence under Lenin’s Bolshevik government – they were not allowed to own land; they were no longer allowed to teach; they had been robbed of a major part of their wealth; they became the target of a major propaganda campaign to ridicule the church, which consequently lost a large amount of their credibility among the Russian people.
In this sense it can be said that the USSR under Lenin was a truly orthodox communist state as far as the treatment of the church and religious groups was concerned.
Another important characteristic of a communist society is equality between men and women – according to Karl Marx “social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex.” Thus Lenin was determined to strengthen the role of women within society. To this end divorce policies became much more liberal than they had been under the Tsarist regime – marriages could easily be dissolved on demand of either partner; “incompatibility” was a valid enough reason. On top of this, abortion policies were relaxed drastically. Not only did abortion become free of charge but could also be carried out simply because the mother demanded it. This made Russia the first country ever to legalise abortion on demand.
Lenin’s policies of liberalisation of the female sex, however, remained relatively unsuccessful. The relaxed divorce laws resulted in many young men divorcing their wives as soon as they became pregnant, leaving these women unable to sustain their children or themselves – criminality and prostitution were the results.
The attempts on increasing the number of women in employment remained unsuccessful – many women had taken up industrial work during the war (47% of women were in employment in 1917), but were discharged from their jobs as the soldiers returned after the Civil War. Men were given preference over women – all in all the percentage of women in employment in 1929 was the same as in 1913.There were however examples for the altogether more liberal attitude of Russian society towards women’s rights and sexuality – the People’s Commissar for Social Welfare, Alexandra Kollontai (a woman!) famously stated that “sexual intercourse should be as natural as drinking a glass of water – and as frequent.”
In conclusion it can be said that although the attitude to women’s rights and sexuality became more liberal under Lenin, their actual position in the society was not strengthened decisively. In this respect the extent to which the USSR under Lenin was an orthodox communist state – as far as equal rights for women are concerned – is limited.
Another aspect to take into consideration when trying to assess how closely Lenin stuck to communist orthodoxy is his foreign policy. The truth is that Lenin, despite his ideological conviction that communism should spread throughout the whole world, always kept a highly realistic approach to foreign policy. Thus his signing of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918) becomes more understandable – although contradictory to communist doctrine, the signing certainly saved Russia from destruction by the advancing German forces. Lenin explaining his signing of the treaty as follows:
“Our impulse tells us to rebel, to refuse to sign this robber peace. Our reason will in our calmer moments tell us the plain naked truth – that Russia can offer no physical resistance (…).”
Still the so called “World Revolution” remained the main priority in Lenin’s foreign policy; although the reasons for this were not purely the ideological conviction that communism was the superior social system. The Bolsheviks were also aware of the fact that the position of Russia in international politics was far from secure, and were therefore most eager to help establishing communist governments in other countries, most preferably in the highly industrialised countries of central and Western Europe. To this end the so called “Comintern” under the leadership of Grigory Zinoviev was founded in March 1919. The aim of the Comintern was promote revolutions in industrial countries by sending agents abroad, who were to offer help and advice to local communist movements.
The help the Comintern offered was of a mostly financial nature – Lenin himself told an agent of the Comintern in 1918 not to “stint at spending millions for agitation (…).” The countries of most interest to Lenin were Britain, Switzerland and most importantly Germany, being the most industrialised and at the same time most instable of the three, having suffered greatly during the war. Although the work of the Comintern did initially bring about some results – Hungary became a Soviet republic in 1919, and communist parties in Germany and Britain seemed to gain more political influence – the success didn’t prove to be long-lived, and most of the communist activities outside Russia were almost completely suppressed by the mid-1920s.
There was however another aspect to Russian foreign policy – an aspect most prominently promoted by a man called Georgi Chicherin, who had succeeded Leon Trotsky as Commissar for foreign affairs in 1918. The aim of Chicherin’s policy was to normalise the relations to the central European countries, in order to enable trade and to avoid armed conflicts. Thus Chicherin signed a secret Russo-German treaty in March 1921. The treaty enabled German armament manufacturers to produce on Russian soil, which according to the Treaty of Versailles they were on Germany soil. The relations with Germany were improved even more by the signing of the Treaty of Rapallo in April 1922. This Treaty re-established normal diplomatic relations between the two countries. On top of this reconciliation with other European powers was achieved – in 1921 an Anglo-Soviet agreement was signed, which made trade between the Britain and the USSR possible again. To this end the ARCOS (xxx) was established in xxx
The fact that both these foreign policies co-existed under Lenin shows clearly to what extent Lenin’s pragmatism triumphed over his ideological conviction in this matter. In order to secure the USSR’s position, one of the most fundamental doctrines of communism – the fight against capitalism by all means – was ignored.
Thus it has to be said that as far as foreign policy was concerned, the USSR under Lenin was only to a very small extent an orthodox communist state.
As one of the most central ideas of communism is the abolition of private ownership, Lenin’s economic policies are obviously an area that has to be looked at very carefully. During the Russian Civil Wars (1918-20) the Bolsheviks had established a form of economy that was called War Communism. This economic system involved extensive grain requisitioning and a complete centralisation of the economy. The control of the state over the economy was complete – this economic policy was used to support the Red Army with all the goods necessary, ignoring the needs of the people. War Communism resulted in horrendous famines, which cost millions of Russians their lives. War Communism, however, was in Lenin’s eyes merely a short-term solution to the fundamental problems posed by the Civil War – soon after the end of the war he realised that War Communism could not be carried on, for it didn’t only steer discontent amongst the people, above all the peasantry, but also proved to be too unproductive to rebuild Russia after the Civil War.
Thus a completely different economic policy was introduced in March 1921 – the NEP (New Economic Policy). The NEP’s main features were the end of grain requisitioning and an introduction of ‘tax in kind’, the re-establishment of private trading and the legalisation of private ownership of small-scale businesses. The industry and banking remained under state control. The economic advances lead to a fundamental growth in production, but also in the formation of a middle-class which worked for their own profit – an essential feature of all capitalist economies.
All this happened much to the discontent of many left-wing Bolsheviks, most prominently Leon Trotsky, who regarded War Communism, which featured complete control of the economy by the state, as a form of economy very much like Karl Marx had described it and also understood the NEP as a big step towards capitalism – “The NEP is the first sign of degeneration of Bolshevism.” (Leon Trotsky). Lenin himself regarded the NEP as a temporary measure – “We are determined to carry out this policy seriously and for a long time – but of course not for ever.”(Lenin)
All in all it can be said that Lenin’s economic policies, just like his foreign policies, were, although based on communist principles, essentially pragmatic. Clear breaks with communist doctrine were accepted for the greater good. All this allows the conclusion that Lenin’s economic policy was by all means in no way that of an orthodox communist state.
All in all it can be concluded that the USSR under Lenin was only to a limited extent an orthodox communist state. Although certain communist principles such as atheism and the equality of the genders were at least attempted to be adhered to, both the economy and the foreign policy remained to be influenced by Lenin’s pragmatism much more than by communist principles.
The essay has so far dealt with assessing to what extent the USSR under Lenin was an orthodox communist state. An orthodox communist state has been understood to be a state in which policies are mainly inspired by Marxist ideals. But as soon as a closer look at Marxist theory is taken it becomes clear that such a definition and therefore the investigation itself contains a paradox. One of the most basic principles and ideals of communism, which is understood to be the final stage of the class struggle, is the abolition of the state. Therefore assessing to what extent a state is communist is impossible – as long there is a state we cannot speak of communism. There is no such thing as a communist state!