- The 1917 Russian Revolution signaled the dawn of over 70 years of communist rule through the creation of the Soviet Union, a vast collection of 15 republics underpinned ideologically by Marxism–Leninism. The Soviet Union finally fragmented toward the conclusion of the 1980s, with Mikhail Gorbachev presiding over sweeping reforms as part of the Soviet glasnost and perestroika programs. Instead of renewing Soviet communism, these stood only to herald the break-up of the union into individual republics.Events in 1917 brought to an end Tsarist rule and, in spite of opposition from the Menshevik wing of the movement, enabled Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin to form a government concerned with consolidating power and directing the Soviet Union toward communism. Leon Trotsky and Josef Stalin were immediately handed important positions in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Financial institutions were nationalized and worker control of factories began. In subsequent months, to combat counterrevolutionary elements, the Soviet government founded the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB, sought to undermine the stronghold of the church on the population by seizing much of its property, and began a program to nationalize land. On 10 July 1918 a Soviet Constitution that was to have a marked effect on subsequent history came formally into being. The document stated that the government would be run by the Politburo and the Central Committee of the CPSU, now the sole legal political party in the country, with power filtering outwards via a hierarchical system of local, provincial and national soviets. Legislative power was entirely in the hands of the highest echelons of the party, and the subordination of the state to the CSPU was now legally enshrined. Meanwhile, as World War I staggered to its conclusion, between 1918 and 1922 the Bolsheviks’ Red Army combated the anti-communist forces of the White Army during a long and bitter Civil War. Largely because of Trotsky’s erudite direction, the communists eventually emerged victorious.As dissatisfaction with the state of the Soviet economy and food shortages grew in tandem, Lenin proposed a New Economic Plan (NEP) to improve conditions. The implementation of the NEP in 1921 meant an end to war communism, and its replacement by a taxbased system that allowed limited market elements to exist within the heavily nationalized Soviet economy. On 21 January 1924 a scramble for the CPSU leadership was sparked by the death of Lenin, as Stalin, Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin among others vied to become party chief against the wish of the perished ruler who had asserted his desire to be succeeded by a collective leadership. Stalin, who assumed the all-important role of general secretary in 1922, eventually emerged supreme in 1927 at the 15th All-Union Congress having outmaneuvered his political rivals. The elevation of the Georgian to the forefront of the CPSU dramatically altered the course of Soviet history, as Marxist–Leninist principles were distorted and twisted to establish “socialism in one country,” construct a cult of personality around the leader, and push through rapid industrialization and collectivization of agricultural land, chiefly through a series of five-year plans that replaced the NEP from 1928 onwards. The Stalinist regime was also characterized by a series of purges in the 1930s that saw high-profile political figures sidelined, and millions of ordinary citizens sent to “Gulag” labor camps or exterminated in the cause of consolidating Stalin’s grip on power and the progress of the Soviet Union toward communism. The collectivization policy he pursued led to devastating famine in the rural areas of the Soviet Union, adding millions to a death toll already swelled by the continuing purges, and later to be astronomically inflated by Soviet involvement in World War II.Stalin had shocked the globe in 1939 with his August Nonaggression Pact with Adolf Hitler’s Germany, but in 1941, following Nazi invasion, the Soviet Union switched sides and fought with the Allies. Over 20 million Soviet fatalities occurred over the course of the conflict, and at its close Stalin’s industrialization program had been dealt a severe blow. However, the Soviet Union emerged from the conflict with superpower status in the region, something that gradually gave rise to the Cold War. A substantial cordon of Soviet satellite territories sprang up between Western Europe and the Soviet Union to exacerbate already existing ideological tensions between East and West, and in the Far East Moscow sought to impose communist governments in areas such as North Korea and Manchuria. In March 1953 Stalin passed away, and Nikita Khrushchev gradually emerged as general secretary.In 1955 the Soviet Union risked further hostility from the West by compelling its Soviet satellite countries to join the Warsaw Pact military assistance agreement, a measure aimed as a response to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The following year Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” at the 20th Party Conference of the CPSU had an acute effect on the course of Soviet history, as the general secretary denounced the excesses of Stalin’s rule and called for measures across the communist world to “de-Stalinize.” Liberalization in varying forms followed, with the immediate outcome being an increase in dissent among the citizens of communist countries that culminated in the Polish and Hungarian Uprisings. Khrushchev pursued a reformist agenda throughout his rule as general secretary, but it was his reform of agricultural policy, alongside the loss of Soviet prestige following the Cuban Missile Crisis and the split with the People’s Republic of China in 1960, that eventually led to his departure from office in 1964.He was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev who immediately set about slowing the pace of reform and the overt repudiation of all things Stalin in Soviet propaganda. Brezhnev’s anti-liberalization standpoint was emphasized when he called on Warsaw Pact troops to ruthlessly crush the 1968 Prague Spring and restore orthodox order in Czechoslovakia, an action he justified in his proclamation of the Brezhnev Doctrine. However, his administration did consent to economic reforms domestically, with the adoption of a system in which individual firms were allowed to determine production levels according to prices and profits rather than government-set targets. Brezhnev also oversaw a thaw in the Cold War as relations with the United States were dramatically improved by Soviet acquiescence in a policy of international cooperation. Yet, this relaxation proved to be only temporary, as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to back the communist government, and threatened repression against the Polish Solidarity movement in 1980, soured relations between the two superpowers.Brezhnev died in November of 1982 to be replaced as general secretary by former KGB controller Yuri Andropov. However, neither Andropov nor his successor, Konstantin Chernenko, had any time to instigate any discernible alterations in Soviet life, the former falling fatally ill in 1984, and the latter a year later. As this unusually swift succession of party leaders played itself out, Mikhail Gorbachev began to establish himself as a key figure in the CPSU, and was the obvious choice to take the reins as general secretary in 1985. The Gorbachev era brought about the end of the 80-year-long adhesion to Marxism in the Soviet Union and subsequently its satellite states. The Soviet leader liberalized the country through his glasnost and perestroika programs, with the embracing of free market economics, an end to censorship, the opening up of government, and the promise of free elections. Gorbachev steered the Soviet Union toward peace with the West, chiefly by reaching disarmament agreements with the United States and renewing international cooperation.As reforms led to a societal and political relaxation, debate inside the 15 Soviet republics over their individual role in the union took hold and national independence movements blossomed. Constitutional reforms in 1989 legalizing the birth of a multiparty system further emboldened the clamor for independence and the breakup of the Soviet empire, as national interest movements and parties prospered. In August 1991 communist hard-liners failed in a coup designed to oust Gorbachev’s reformers from power, a definite indication that the reign of orthodox Marxism–Leninism in the Soviet Union was entering its final chapter. The Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia asserted their independence, and in December 1991 the Soviet Union was formally dissolved. The short-lived Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that followed soon disintegrated, and the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, the world’s largest sovereign state, once more formed individual nations.The development of Marxism inside the Soviet Union went through a number of phases. What began prior to 1917 as a revolutionary doctrine full of fervent radical principles was altered to become an ideology designed to consolidate and maintain rule. “Official” Marxism–Leninism became the monopolistic belief system in the Soviet Union, and its significance meant that all other ideologies and ways of thinking were eradicated. There was to be a sole interpretation that would dictate the course the country took, with state organs conceiving, disseminating and controlling ideas. The official ideology sought both to legitimize the role and actions of the CPSU, and to provide stimulus and direction for the transition to communism. Intellectual pluralism, especially following the emergence of Stalin as party leader, was basically nonexistent as all ideas were subordinate to the long-term goals of Marxism–Leninism. That ideology, in its promotion of democratic centralism, was twisted to validate the role of a strong leader at the top of party and country and to establish and maintain ideological hegemony. This leader would be able therefore to ideologically justify the elimination of political opponents as they were distorting the true path to communism as embodied by the official line. For instance, as Stalin emerged as this one strong leader following the death of Lenin he sidelined Trotsky by affirming that his own concept of “socialism in one country,” as opposed to the Red Army chief’s notion of permanent revolution, was the true doctrine of Marxism–Leninism. In this way he was able to mold the ideology to suit his own political purposes. Accordingly, as Marxism–Leninism justified and necessitated “socialism in one country,” the practical undertakings required to achieve communism in the Soviet Union under the auspices of this doctrine, namely mass industrialization and collectivization, were ideologically vindicated.To this end, from the moment Stalin’s dictatorship of the CPSU commenced, genuine theoretical discourse, interpretation and development of Marxism ended, and the leader went about enforcing massive change in the Soviet Union, applying loosely fitting Marxian concepts to his actions usually subsequent to their being taken. In its prioritization of domestic interests, the concept of “socialism in one country” also allowed the CPSU to fuse Marxism with elements of nationalism in order to placate the patriotic tendencies of the constituent member nations of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s interpretation of Marxism–Leninism resulted in intense political control. He adopted and extended Lenin’s aversion toward the “class enemy” (in reality political opponents), and suggested the struggle against this group would intensify as full communism approached. Thus, a system was installed to guarantee ideological monism through ever-increasing suppression of opposing ideas and persons. Stalin appointed obdurate “nomenklatura” administrators who blindly carried out every instruction issued from the CPSU party central to ensure the monopoly of Marxism–Leninism was maintained. This party apparatus was backed up by a highly censored mass media, regime-run public organizations instead of groups such as independent trade unions, and an all-powerful secret police. Stalin became deified through the cult of personality that was built up around him to make him and the ideological orthodoxy his party stood for unassailable.By the late 1930s the party had fully expounded a strong line on education, culture, science and history that brought the domination of Marxism–Leninism in each of these spheres throughout the nation. The 1936 Constitution declared the establishment of fully fledged socialism in the Soviet Union, setting a blueprint later adopted by other nations pursuing a communist path (mainly the Soviet satellite states of the Eastern Bloc). In 1938 ideological orthodoxy in the Soviet Union was espoused in a new chapter added by Stalin to the History of the CPSU (Short Course) on “Dialectical and Historical Materialism.” This liturgical piece borrowed ideas from Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, Lenin and other key figures from the annals of the Marxist past in order to reaffirm the correctness of the direction in which the CPSU was taking the Soviet Union. Ideological orthodoxy in the country was challenged only with the death of Stalin in 1953, and even then only partially, with the relative autonomy that some Soviet intellects were granted reflected in the rise in liberalism throughout the region, especially in satellite states like Poland and Czechoslovakia.While Stalin had been reluctant to provide a timetable of the stages of transition to full communism, his successor Khrushchev did so, stating that in the 1970s the material and technical base of communism would be created, and in the 1980s actual communism would finally be achieved. While Khrushchev’s model would finally mean an end to the dictatorship of the proletariat era ushered in following 1917, it did not, however, represent a “withering away of the state” as certified in the classic Marxist model. Instead, while some state elements would be extinguished (for example, repression), a principal element of central power would have to remain in the final phase of communism until the people were able to self-govern. Khrushchev’s replacement by Brezhnev meant he would never be able to see his own ideological model transpire, and the new leader was quick to emphasize his own map to transition. Brezhnev suggested that the stage of socialism was not merely a bridge between capitalism and communism but was in fact a prolonged stage in itself. He was not offering a rejection of Khrushchev’s aim for a leap to communism, but stressing that the process would be more of a drawn-out affair bereft of a strict itinerary. Brezhnev reemphasized the pivotal role of the CPSU and the Soviet state in deciphering the course the country would take, and as a consequence by the early 1980s the sheer magnitude of the party and government’s reach had multiplied. The party had become an all-consuming, Leviathan machine, one of the Soviet Union’s major employers and landowners with a giant bureaucracy and far-reaching institutional framework. It was the embodiment of the Marxist–Leninist concept of a vanguard party, dominating all aspects of Soviet life.As such, when Gorbachev assumed the post of general secretary in 1985 the end of the Soviet Union looked light years away. Criticism, though, had been mounting prior to his accession to power, and so when he began his program of glasnost and perestroika the Soviet people used the reforms those concepts entailed to air their grievances. Party and state officials lost their cozy jobs, nationalist movements gained strength and fundamental questions about the nature of the Soviet system were openly raised. Ever since the 1917 revolution the CPSU had aimed to accelerate social and economic development through Marxist–Leninist planning, but in contrast Gorbachev began to embrace market elements that ran entirely contrary to that ethos. Marxism–Leninism waned concurrently with the Soviet Union, as democratization laid the groundwork for a political pluralism that simply could not allow for one monopolistic political ideology and course of action. As the CPSU attempted to halt its own inexorable collapse by embracing a number of reforms, Marxist–Leninist ideas were quickly replaced, and orthodox “official” ideology disintegrated alongside the Soviet Union.
Historical dictionary of Marxism. David Walker and Daniel Gray . 2014.
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