No surprise. I have a few issues with Comrade Lenin. He was on the wrong side of the Russian revolution. His associates were of questionable character. (Keep an eye on that Joseph Stalin character. He’s up to no good.) And he completely misread Das Kapital — I mean completely.
That said, I want to (as they say) take a couple steps back from what (no thanks to Comrade Lenin) has become an ideological quagmire. I want to note the astonishingly poor conditions of all Russians and, indeed, all Eastern Europeans and most Europeans as World War I dragged on. I want to note the inconceivably high casualty rate suffered by Russians in particular in that conflict (see chart below). And I want to note the unlikelihood of a predominantly agrarian, quasi-feudal society governed by a thin strata of elites gradually, peacefully, joyfully developing into a French- or British-style representative democracy mediated by nominally free markets. Ain’t gonna’ happen.
Here we have only to notice the non-democratic path taken by Germany’s southern and eastern regions in the 1920s; or, for that matter, the non-democratic path taken by France’s southern and western regions. Or we could look at the attraction that fascism held for British high society; or American high society for that matter. The 1920s were not a good decade for democracy anywhere, even in the most industrially advanced regions of the globe. Could be mistaken, but wasn’t it the free-market, democratic, capitalist nations that plunged the world into war?
Which is all to say that Russia’s path from 1917 forward is not all that unusual; even when compared to western Europe; even when compared to North America. North America was saved — if we can count a nation plagued by lynchings, cross burnings, and officially sanctioned eugenics “saved”; North America was “saved” only insofar as it emerged from WWI with nary a scratch (see chart above). Even more, North America emerged enjoying a huge economic advantage. It and not England was now the world’s bank. And it made the 1920s in the United States quite literally roar. The wealthy could not spend their money fast enough. And this meant that some — though not much — was bound to trickle down to working families.
Russia enjoyed none of this. None. In 1917, Russia was completely broke. Its debt soared. Its currency was a joke. The Romanovs hadn’t the slightest idea where to turn or what to do. Its haute bourgeoisie was in continuous, non-stop terror over the future status of their wealth (see Tom Reiss’ brilliant account of one family, The Orientalist). The exceedingly small petit bourgeoisie (wrongly) assumed that it was powerful enough, or at least enjoyed sufficient moral suasion, to recreate republican France or Great Britain in quasi-feudal Russia.
So, let us suppose that Russia needs to modernize and modernize quickly. No one knows this better than industrial workers whose very livelihood rests on industrial expansion and modernization. Indeed, it is still taken as a given that industrial expansion and economic growth give rise to — and do not follow from — democratic institutions and process. Here Russia’s teeny democratic party is exposed as hopelessly romantic, believing as it did that peasants, sailors, and workers — contrary to every precedent anywhere on the planet — would flock to democratic process and republican institutions. They did not.
Which brings us back to Comrade Lenin. Lenin’s favorite author? Ok. After Pushkin and Gogol, Shakespeare and Goethe. The author to whom he returned again and again; the author he compelled Russian publishers to print edition after edition of his works? That would be Henry Ford, by whom Comrade Lenin was transfixed. What’s not to love? Military discipline applied to the assembly line. Taylorist time and motion efficiencies. And it was with this image of large scale industrial production — an image born of Henry Ford’s mind — that Comrade Lenin and his associates set out to build an industrial giant. Indeed, long before Monsanto or Archer Daniels Midland, Comrade Lenin had already applied modern industrial rationality to the vast grain growing regions of Central Asia. To this extent, the Russian industrial revolution was American born and American made — down to the smallest details of brutally suppressing the least stirrings of worker unrest. Russia — Red Russia — is an American success story!
All Hail Comrade Lenin!
So, why isn’t Russia celebrating? Why aren’t we? I suspect that it may have something to do with Comrade Lenin’s modus operandi hitting a bit too close to home. A worker’s state? Full employment in high end industrial jobs? Universal health care? Democracy? Get real. That ship has sailed, both in Russia and in the United States. Which may explain why no one is celebrating.