Emancipated Woman 1926 USSR poster

Napoleon and Gorbachev: Reflections on the End of a Revolution

Napoleon and Gorbachev: Reflections on the End of a Revolution

by Paul Richards, PhD

Part I: Revolution and Change 

Emancipated Woman 1926 USSR poster in End of a Revolution
1926, USSR, Emancipated Women Build Socialism! Poster. End of a Revolution

The two greatest revolutions in western history were the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. They ended old worlds and started new ones. As we witness the tightening right wing grip on the US, I find myself reflecting on the long term changes in western history and what the end of a revolution means for us today. How can we orient ourselves to our current (regrettable) era of corrupted democracy and ever more powerful police states? Are we living in the wake of the wave set off by the end of a revolution? Taking a long term view brings some historical perspective to things which, without such a perspective, often seem timeless and monolithic.

The French Revolution expanded democracy in the face of age old aristocratic privilege, a bourgeois revolution against feudalism, to use the Marxian terms I am used to. The Russian Revolution overthrew the Czar and proclaimed the end of capitalism and the beginning of socialism, creating a new worker centered state straight out of the pages of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin . Underneath the hopes and rhetoric of these revolutions, however, lay the global expansion of capitalism, with its market economy where innovation and profit go hand in hand, working its way into every corner of the globe and every corner of the human mind, unleashing productivity and transforming (and now destroying) the natural world. As a young Marxist, many decades ago, I learned about the path history was supposed to travel from feudalism to capitalism and then, inevitably, to socialism. But, it turns out, nothing is inevitable in history. The collapse of the USSR has left me wondering, where does this leave us? It left me thinking about how revolutions end. Since there are so many parallels in the historical events surrounding both the French and Russian revolutions, it is instructive to consider them both.

Napoleon. End of a Revolution

Just as the end of the French Revolution did not bring back the rule of the aristocracy, so too, the end of the Russian Revolution did not bring back the Czar. The Soviet experiment lasted 70 years. Now that USSR is gone, we have entered a time when we all sit in the same boat and look around to discover where we are headed. Revolutions arrive with the promise of unending radicalism and then, after a time, subside into everyday life, leaving a mark that passes on from generation to generation. Revolutions are temporary. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. But in the process they transform the world. Changes might be permanent but revolutions are not.

It would not be unfair to say that both France of 1789 and Russia of 1917 were ruled by feudal old regimes that had out lived themselves. Both revolutions went from high hopes and fiery rhetoric to dictatorship within a few years of their beginning. The French Revolution’s First Republic fell to Emperor Napoleon who ruled with the absolutism (and a different set of favorites) of his aristocratic predecessors. The Czarist regime collapsed under the stress of World War I, with the killing of millions of soldiers in the midst of widespread desperation of Russia’s peasants and workers. The Bolsheviks filled the resulting vacuum. Before long the Bolsheviks too adopted the absolutism and disregard for individual liberties that had characterized the Czarist autocracy they had overthrown.

Both revolutions liquidated the ruling families of the aristocracy. The guillotine did the job in France while basement executions by firing squad marked the end of the Romanov’s in Russia. One revolution adopted liberty, equality and fraternity as its creed and then quickly devolved into the rule of Emperor Napoleon. The other opted for Lenin’s democratic centralism and a single party state, and then quickly turned into a plain old dictatorship. Both revolutions marked the end of one type of government based on aristocratic privileges and gave rise to another that proclaimed a new day for humanity and an end to injustice. After some time, the revolutionary experiments with all their excesses fell back into the democratic (and capitalist) practices of their times. A new era of economic and political history, very different from the old regime, commenced.

International wars accompanied both revolutions. In France, once Napoleon was in power, he embarked upon a European wide war on the old regimes. You could argue that he had no choice since these old regimes were determined to overthrow him. His armies invaded and replaced the aristocrats in neighboring European countries and then continued on their way to Moscow, where the Russian winter and Czar Alexander’s troops forced them to retreat all the way to Waterloo.

Gorbachev. End of a Revolution

In Russia, the revolution faced a civil war against it, supported by the major capitalist powers that surrounded Russia. The Bolsheviks won the civil war and in the process put revolutionary Russia on a permanent war footing that proved to be Hitler’s undoing 20 years later when he, like Napoleon, marched to Moscow. Invading Russia in winter had the same result for Hitler as it had for Napoleon, only this time it was Stalin’s troops (direct descendants of Alexander I troops) who forced the Nazis to retreat and put Hitler into his bunker. Moving into Europe as victors, the Red Army then created “sister” socialist regimes including half of Germany, much as Napoleon’s armies had created bourgeois regimes a century earlier on their way into Russia. The new socialist regimes held on for 50 years while the tide of history undercut them and finally swept them away, non violently for the most part. Just like in Napoleon’s era, once these revolutionary regimes disappeared, they left nations transformed, having destroyed the previous ruling political structures.

When the dust settled on these dramatic endings, the world was not the same. In nineteenth century France, Marx characterized the fall of the First Republic to Napoleon as tragic, and then the fall of the Second Republic to Louis-Napoleon, as farce. The power and privileges of the aristocracy were gone, no matter what clothes the King wore.

When the Russian revolution ended with the collapse of the USSR, the survivors of the old aristocratic ruling families were nowhere in sight. In both eras, the new power of capitalism held the day. Radical awareness, it seems, rises in the periods of revolutionary change, then settles back down into the work-a-day world view that always adapts to the real possibilities of an era.

The decline of both revolutions was first and foremost the outcome of war. The wars against Napoleon made him into an emperor as surely as the capitalist encirclement of the USSR turned Stalin into a dictator. During a revolution, debates about what form of government to adopt becomes inseparable from the need to fight off foreign invaders. The Russian Revolution became something entirely different when Stalin assumed command, just as the French Revolution had when Napoleon became Emperor. Their choices were the same: either fight or die, create a military readiness or suffer defeat in battle. Revolutionary governments are command structures or they are crushed.

Revolutionary adaptation to war is just another version the same problem facing every nation state. Democracies, based on private property, have never solved the puzzle of war, creating a permanent contradiction between democratic values and the warfare state. If property is theft, as Marx saw it, then national and international wars might be best characterized as a fight among thieves, without honor or rules. Revolutionary regimes get no free pass. They must master war or perish. The biggest defenders of capitalist democracy today are not coincidentally heavily invested in war industries. No revolution has offered a way to peace because every revolution has been encircled and forced to battle for its life.

Revolutions are creative acts, not bureaucratic decrees. Creative acts always end up differently than they start out. Did Stalin’s dictatorship negate the socialist character of the Soviet Union? I will leave the answer to that question for others. For me, the decades I lived through when the Soviet Union existed were decades when socialism lived. Without doubt, its western adversaries all believed the USSR was a socialist state and empire. However the socialist experiment was distorted by endless war and concentration camps, socialism lived in my mind and in the eyes of most of the world until the Soviet Union collapsed. And even after that, socialist countries like Cuba, Vietnam and even to some vastly perplexing extent, China continue to carry the banner onward.

In Russia, the revolutionary regime set out to transform a largely self sufficient agrarian society into an industrial producer capable of making both commodities but also the means of production, the machines that make commodities. They did it with an authoritarian model which outlawed individual profit and handcuffed innovation. In the context of early 20th Century Russia, this model worked. In the 1930s, Stalin’s government expropriated the surplus from every corner of the USSR to pay for industrialization. A million Ukrainians died in a famine as a result of Soviet expropriation of Ukrainian crops. Under the pressures of Nazi Germany and its western capitalist supporters, Stalin created the most rapid industrialization process ever witnessed up to that time. Japan’s industrialization leading up to World War II is the only rival. And due to those efforts, Stalin’s Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany’s invasion and then occupied part of Europe. It is an awesome record in an age of mass death unrivaled in all of history. It was not, it can be seen in retrospect, an idealistic march from capitalism to socialism to communism. It was history at its most complex and bewildering.

I was born in 1944, a year when millions of people were dying in violent clashes and genocidal concentration camps all over the world. As a child, I was aware of World War II in the limited way that children can conceive of such events. When my family suffered persecution as communists at the hands of the FBI and red baiting newspaper headlines, I sensed it was a continuation of the era of mass death into which I was born. I did not see the Soviet Union as an enemy. It was a shining star in the face of a world that could sweep its real history under a rug and go on pretending we had not just been submerged in the blood of millions. These memories do not change just because I am now aware of Soviet crimes and mass death in their own concentration camps. Humanity, myself included, seems to reel from one catastrophe to the next, pointing fingers of blame, weaving elaborate justifications for genocide with myths of all-wise Communist Parties, or religiously inspired myths of manifest destiny, or for slavery, with myths of racial superiority. With the end of the USSR, Russia has now joined the rest of us in the on going struggle to face the hard truths of our past and create a better future that will not repeat our mistakes.

The Berlin Wall testifies to the defensive nature of the whole socialist experiment. When the wall fell, the east’s Warsaw Pact was absorbed by the west. NATO expanded. The outcome was celebrated in the west as a victory. “Thanks to God” said George Bush. No one was celebrating the end of Czarism, and the transformed world that resulted. The demise of socialism in Russia did not end the socialist ideal. But it did release it from the historical uniqueness and perversity of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. And whatever history finally makes of it, the Russian Revolution transformed the world and the ideals of socialism played a part.

The demise of the USSR deeply hurt socialist movements around the world. But it ended the confusion between socialism as a revolutionary idea and the Soviet Union as an existing state. The two never were the same and it was wrong to have confused them. Socialism was how Russia transformed itself from a peasant nation to a modern industrial state that could and did confront and defeat German fascism. But command economy socialism could not match free market capitalism with its deep seated historical creed dominating humanity world-wide today. And as this creed of greed devours the living planet it is again time to open up the question of our future: if not socialism, what? The history of the Soviet Union provides us with a lot to think about.

Part 2: The End of a Socialist Empire is next.

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