Marx and Soviet Reality. Daniel Norman (1955)

XII: The Muscovite Tradition

‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please... but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’, wrote Marx in the opening chapter of the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The Russian Revolution is perhaps the most convincing illustration.

Who knows whether, if a Socialist revolution had succeeded in the West, where the prerequisites existed, Bolsheviks would then have been able to act in accord with the principles they advocated before the revolution? But this was not the case and they were obliged to embark upon the task of completing the capitalist industrial revolution; a vital task and certainly a progressive one, and who can dispute that they did not escape the nightmare of the ‘tradition of all dead [Russian] generations’.

Is not this tradition speaking through Lenin’s mouth when he argues in favour of ‘state capitalism’? Moreover, from where if not from the Tsarist heritage were the methods advocated drawn? Neither is it accidental that he should have taken as model the ‘militarist Junker-bourgeois imperialist state’, in which he saw the ‘most concrete example of state capitalism’ – ‘the last word in modern large-scale capitalist technique and planned organisation’.

Those who continue to see in Lenin the heir of Marx rather than Stalin’s master, should give serious thought to the following statement by Lenin:

Our task is to study the state capitalism of the Germans, to spare no effort in copying it and not shrink from adopting dictatorial methods to hasten the copying of it. Our task is to do this even more thoroughly than Peter [the Great] did when hastening the copying of Western culture by barbarian Russia... he did not hesitate to use barbarous methods in fighting against barbarism. (Left-Wing Childishness and Petty Bourgeois Mentality)

Indeed, Stalin was the most faithful disciple Lenin could have desired, and the Soviet state he created really is ‘the militarist Junker-bourgeois imperialist state’ with a ‘different class content’, such as Lenin envisaged. In fact, however, it is not the whole people which has been substituted for the militarist Junker-bourgeois class, as Soviet propaganda claims, but the military and civil technocracy and bureaucracy or, in Soviet terms, the intelligentsia, the only category of Soviet citizens with an interest in the maintenance of the present regime.

In 1939 this class numbered eleven to twelve million people, and has now, according to Academician VV Nikolayev, reached the fifteen million mark, that is, 15 to 20 per cent of the population. ‘A standing army, a police force and bureaucracy which in practice are permanent and privileged and stand above the people’, are, according to Lenin, the characteristics of the capitalistic regime. Where are those characteristics more prominent than in state capitalist Russia? Any in doubt, should scrutinise the composition of the Supreme Soviet – ‘the highest organ of state power’ (1936 Constitution), in which the Ministers and the high officials of the administrative and party machine are represented by more than 40 per cent of the deputies, the industrial and agricultural managers by 26 per cent, writers, musicians and other intellectuals by 15 per cent, with the mass of the workers and peasants being ‘misrepresented’ – Lenin’s word – by various Stakhanovites and other privileged shock-workers by less than seven per cent, that is, approximately one per cent more than the figure for marshals, generals and other high-ranking officers of the army, navy and air force.

Thus in the parliament of this so-called Socialist state of workers and peasants the working class and the peasantry are represented by less than seven per cent of the deputies, while the privileged minority (that is, some 15 to 20 per cent of the population) held over 93 per cent of the seats. It is difficult to believe that Marx or Engels would ever have admitted that these are the ‘sum total of the condition necessary to Socialism’, as Lenin claimed and the Stalinists maintain.

But Stalin did not only successfully install state capitalism in Russia; he achieved it by the means indicated by Lenin himself, that is, by copying the German model and, on occasion, American ‘Taylorism’, [7] but above all by following his Muscovite forerunners’ methods.

Yes. ‘The tradition of the dead generations’ weighed ‘like a nightmare on the brain’ of the Bolsheviks, and we must admit that there is no substitute for Marx’s outline of this tradition. In a generally unknown series of articles published in the Free Press (August 1856 to April 1857 under the title Revelations on the Diplomatic History of the Eighteenth Century), which was intended only as an introduction to a longer study on the history of diplomacy, Marx wrote:

A simple study of names and dates will prove that between the policy of Ivan III and that of modern Russia there exists not similarity, but sameness. Ivan III, on his part, did but perfect the traditional policy of Muscovy, bequeathed by Ivan Kalita.

Ivan Kalita, the Mongolian slave, acquired greatness by wielding the power of his greatest foe, the Tartar, against his minor foes, the Russian princes. He could not wield the power of the Tartar but under false pretences. Forced to dissemble before his masters the strength he had really gathered, he had to dazzle his fellow-serfs with a power he did not own. To solve this problem he had to elaborate all the ruses of the most abject slavery into a system, and to execute that system with the patient labour of the slave.

Open force itself could enter as an intrigue only into a system of intrigues, corruption and underground usurpation. He could not strike before he had poisoned. Singleness of purpose became with him duplicity of action. To encroach by the fraudulent use of a hostile power, to weaken that power by the very act of using it, and to overthrow it at last by the effects produced through its own instrumentality – this policy was inspired to [sic] Ivan Kalita by the peculiar character of both the ruling and the serving race.

His policy remained still the policy of Ivan III. It is yet the policy of Peter the Great, and of modern Russia, whatever changes of name, seat and character the hostile power used may have undergone.

Peter the Great is indeed the inventor of modern Russian policy, but he became so only by divesting the old Muscovite method of encroachment of its merely local character and its accidental admixtures, by distilling it into an abstract formula, by generalising its purpose, and exalting its object from the overthrow of certain given limits of power to the aspiration of unlimited power. He metamorphosed Muscovy into modern Russia by the generalisation of its system, not by the mere addition of some provinces.

To resume, it is in the terrible and abject school of Mongolian slavery that Muscovy was nursed and grew up. It gathered strength only by becoming a virtuoso in the craft of serfdom. Even when emancipated, Muscovy continued to perform its traditional part of the slave as master. At length Peter the Great coupled the political craft of the Mongol slave with the proud aspiration of the Mongol master to whom Genghis Khan had, by will, bequeathed his conquest of the earth.

Riazanov, the well-known scholar of Marxiana and founder of the Marx – Engels Institute in Moscow, was of the opinion that the Revelations on the Diplomatic History of the Eighteenth Century was not a Marxist work. But he had time, later in the 1930s, when he was deported by Stalin, to realise how right Marx had been.

What Stalin himself thought when the Russian translation was presented to him by Riazanov’s successor as head of the Institute, Adoratsky, we can infer from the fact that the Revelations... were eliminated from Book 1 of the eleventh volume of the Sochinenia (the Russian-language edition of Marx and Engels’ Works), published in Moscow in 1933, which contains all their other known writings of 1856-57.

This elimination amounted in itself to an admission of a guilty conscience. But the suppression of Marx’s major work on Russian history did not satisfy Stalin. True descendant of the founder of the Muscovite tradition that he was, he had to make Marx endorse the new version of Russian history written under his personal direction. Marx had to be transformed into an admirer of those very characters and methods for which he had evinced such scorn.

So Stalin ordered his slave historians to use the Revelations, a practically unknown work, by quoting isolated words and fragments of sentences in a context in complete contradiction to what Marx had written, and thus maintain the illusion of Marxism.

An illuminating example of this method is to be found in the first volume of the History of Diplomacy, published soon after the Second World War, under the auspices of the Soviet Academy, by a ‘distinguished’ panel of professors, including the famous Academician E Tarle, under the editorship of Academician V Potemkin. [8]