A bright future, happiness and welfare for allmankind– the Bolshevik party would settle for nothing less, leading nations to this programmatic goal with an iron fist. At the same time, this bright future had to come as an immediate consequence of mass terror, denunciations, looting and disdainful attitudes toward human morals and cultural riches for which “the revolutionary proletariat had no need.”
The dialectical unity of these two foundations of Bolshevism was successfully implemented in practice. “Steal what has been stolen!” Vladimir Ulianov-Lenin incited his followers. Shortly afterward, once they had finished off the “residual bourgeois and kulaks,” they eagerly began stripping their own Bolshevik colleagues of extra possessions. “Proletarian coercion in all its forms, from executions by shooting to mandatory labor, is a way of crafting communist mankind out of the human material of the capitalist era,” wrote Nikolai Bukharin, a leading theoretician of Bolshevism. Less than two decades later, in strict accordance with this formula, he was taken to the shooting cellar along with millions of others, to the thunderous ovation of the working people. “Life has become better, comrades. Life has become merrier,” Joseph Stalin famously said, and ordered the NKVD leadership to prepare for the Great Purge in the party and the Army. The people enthusiastically approved of “the wise measures taken by the party and government.” Writers demanded that “mad dogs be shown no mercy.” Children renounced their parents, and wives their husbands. There were, no doubt, exceptions, but they disappeared in concentration camps. “Compassion humiliates man,” Maxim Gorky, the great proletarian writer, taught in his infinite wisdom. His teaching was so successful that even 40 odd years after the Great Purge, most highbrow intellectuals were still in the habit of crossing the street when they encountered a former colleague who had been fired for being “politically unreliable” or ran into family members of political prisoners.
But beyond the obverse political face of “unity between the party and the people” lay a sinister side. The nomenklatura, from the very top to the very bottom, embezzled “the property of the people” and enjoyed the enthusiastic support of the masses in doing so. They stole during Stalin’s reign – first through famine, then out of principle, and later for the continual improvement of their welfare. Thieves who stole everything they could get their hands on from plants and collective farms were gently called nesuny (pilferers, literally ‘carriers’) by the state newspaper Pravda. Those who took more than their rank entitled them to were punished. One case in point was USSR Supreme Council Presidium Secretary Mikhail Georgadze – in November 1982, 6 billion rubles were found in his possession and confiscated. After he committed suicide, however, he was buried at the prestigious Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, and the case was never made public because he had taken bribes to have matters resolved by “dear Leonid Illich” Brezhnev. There is good reason that many are nostalgic for those times of universal corruption: “The communists stole, and they let us steal, too.”
However, responsibility for bringing out the worst human qualities and semi-animal instincts among the masses does not entirely rest with the Bolsheviks. In this respect Lenin, Bukharin, Stalin and company were faithful followers of the two bearded founders of the “proletarian teaching.”
A “KINGDOM OF FREEDOM” ON A FOUNDATION OF TERROR
More than 150 years ago, a young Karl Marx elaborated a theory of a universal fair society based on spiritual freedom, material welfare and high culture. In doing so, he relied on Hegel’s idea of historical necessity. However, standing in the way of this kingdom of freedom, or communism, was, according to Marx, the capitalist system that dominated Western Europe at the time. The main factor preventing the creation of this happy society was the prevalence of private property—particularly the means of production, while the majority of those who created material and spiritual goods were, so to speak, left out of their distribution and consumption. Thus, it was necessary to destroy private property by way of a violent, bloody revolution and “expropriate the expropriators,” thus transitioning to a kingdom of freedom where the creative human essence would be fully realized. It was during the bloody revolution that society was supposed to be reborn and cleansed. The engine of these transformations and the only “correct” social class was the industrial proletariat, the most uneducated and oppressed part of society which, following Marx’s reasoning, was the inheritor of all classic culture of humankind, its arts, philosophy and technology. Other classes had to disappear in the whirlwind of the revolution, although Marx did not specify how.
A number of interesting specifics of such changes were included in a detailed pamphlet describing the principles of communism penned by Marx’s alter ego, Friedrich Engels. This became the Communist Manifesto, which detailed a wide range of issues, from political terror to setting up concentration camps, dubbed “special guarded places.” The goal of all these actions was specified very clearly: “to concentrate increasingly in the hands of the state all capital, all agriculture, all transport, all trade.” This concentration is totalitarianism perfected. In this respect, the Russian Marxists were faithful and consistent followers of Marx and Engels.
They were also the disciples of these two men in another respect. Engels widely used the concept of counterrevolutionary nations. He wrote in the newspaper Neue Rheinische Zeitung published by Marx: “Among all the great and small nations of Austria, only three have the engines of progress, have actively influenced historical progress and still retained their vitality: the Germans, Poles and Hungarians. That is why they are now revolutionary. All other great and small ethnicities and peoples are to die in the near future in the whirlwind of the world revolution. Therefore, they are now counterrevolutionary.” Thus, not only the bourgeoisie was supposed to disappear in the revolution.
In other words, the totalitarian ideology of communism, even at the point of its origin, included both terror based on social criteria (against “any classes”) and terror based on a purely national criterion (against “counterrevolutionary nations”). These components in their interrelation were perfected by the Bolsheviks and implemented in social practice in the entire territory they controlled. Is it possible to carry out mass terror, execution without trial, and investigation and confiscation of property (from pants to plants and factories) from tens of millions of people without utilizing and inciting the most brutal instincts of the masses? Is this possible unless the “expropriators” (who quite possibly began their activities in keeping with their ideals) are turned into simple robbers who put their minds, honor and conscience at the complete disposal of the central party committee? The course of historical events played into the hands of social experimenters by aiding in their primary task – changing the very essence of the human mass.
A CENTURY OF THE CROWD
When Marx wrote about the proletariat’s actions in all countries and their eventual union, he was thinking in Hegel’s speculative categories. However, the collective social and national subject became an empirical reality in the 20th century. Information necessary for its survival began to circulate “internally” via technical means at the speed of light, thus almost instantaneously. Human masses scattered across space began to act in sync, whether pertaining to war offensives, opposition party rallies, stage shows featuring famous actors before gullible audiences, or production cycles on huge assembly lines. It was for good reason that, on the night of October 25, 1917, Lenin demanded that participants of the coup seize, above all, “the post, the telegraph and the telephone,” as well as Russia’s most powerful Tsarskoselskaya Radio Station. Without these technical means, whose value was not appreciated by the democrats or conservatives at the time, absolute power and the absolute propaganda upon which it relied were impossible. Propaganda would spread via simultaneous ideological brainwashing of the human masses, no matter their size. The government needed only to connect the necessary region to the telegraph and install radio transmitters there, which is what the USSR did a while later: radio loudspeakers in the form of large dishes were installed in streets and apartments, and there was no hiding from them. Gigantic industrial complexes and megacities where millions of people were concentrated and lived according to one rhythm helpedunify not only hired workers but also managers, transforming them into a crowd.
The First World War, which broke out in 1914, marked the devaluation of individual life as means of mass destruction were created and employed. Aggravating the situation was the emergence of forces of powerful political repression and means of communication that were easily utilized for mass propaganda. Cultural taboos were shattered, as were limitations placed on human actions, moral norms and concepts of the value of one’s life and those of others. Only collective, class and national actions seemed to acquire significance as they were united via means of communication and multiplied through technology. Renouncing and blocking one’s own aspirations and sublimating them into the subconscious in order to “dissolve” into the collective whole became the sociocultural norm for many peoples, who for various reasons found themselves on the brink of national disaster. The inability to be one’s own self in conditions of overwhelming upheaval leads to an “escape from freedom” (Erich Fromm). Only that which coincides with the actions of the “great collective subject” is real, empirically presenting itself as a crowd of greater or lesser size.
Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and, somewhat later, anti-Marxist socialists like Mussolini, Hitler and Goebbels supported their ideological concepts with practical recommendations on how to manipulate the crowd. They relied on the writings of French thinker Gustave Le Bon, whose La psychologie des foules(The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, 1896) lay on the desks of all of the above leaders, complete with underlinings and dog-eared pages, and served as a guideline for future actions. Paradoxically, Le Bon was staunchly opposed to socialism in any form, but totalitarian socialist experiments would have hardly been successful without him.
MARXISM IMPLEMENTED ACCORDING TO LE BON
As he studied the phenomenon of the crowd, Le Bon concluded that under certain circumstances a collection of individuals – regardless of their nationality, profession or sex – acquires new qualities that are significantly different from the qualities of the individual participants: “A conscious individual disappears, and the feelings and ideas of all entities that make up the whole called the crowd acquire one direction. The collective soul has been formed which has, of course, temporary nature, but it does have certain features.” This is precisely what people with transformative visions need in order to change the world to suit their interests.
“The main qualities of the crowd are anonymity (impunity), contagion (spreading of thoughts), suggestiveness (being forced to see things that do not really exist) and a desire to immediately implement ideas in practice. The psychology of the crowd is like that of savages, women and children: impulsiveness, irritability, inability to think, absence of consideration and criticism and excessive sensitivity. Its behavior is changeable, because it reacts to impulses. It does not have doubts.”
Many of Le Bon’s conclusions would later be underscored by Lenin and Stalin: “Once in the crowd, an individual acquires, because of its size, a realization of his invincible force, which permits him to yield to instincts which he never releases when acting on his own. In the crowd, he is less inclined to curb these instincts, because the crowd is anonymous and is not responsible for anything. The sense of responsibility that normally restrains individuals disappears completely in the crowd.”
“After spending several hours in the crowd, an individual, influenced either by currents emanating from it or for some other reason – we do not know for certain – quickly enters a condition strongly reminiscent of a hypnotized subject. As a result of the paralysis of his conscious mental life, the subject becomes a slave to the subconscious activities of his spinal cord which the hypnotist directs as he sees fit. The hypnotized completely loses his conscious personality as his will, mind and all feelings and thoughts are directed by the will of the hypnotizer.”
“As he becomes part of an organized crowd, man takes several steps down the ladder of civilization. In isolation he might be cultured, but in the crowd he is a barbarian, a creature of instinct. He exhibits a penchant for willfulness, rowdiness and fury, but also enthusiasm and heroism exclusive to the primordial man. This resemblance is further intensified by the fact that in the crowd he follows, with extreme ease, words and concepts that would have had no influence on him in isolation, and does things that clearly contradict his interests and habits. An individual in the crowd is a grain of sand among countless other grains taken up and carried by the wind.”
The history of the 20th century supplied vivid proof that these conclusions are true.
When mass communication is deftly utilized and sociocultural taboos are broken as a result of colossal cataclysms, entire nations turn into a system of crowds. Of course, the crowd is capable of both immoral, destructive actions and heroic, noble exploits. But the latter depend not so much on the internal attitude of the crowd, but rather on the skillful manipulation thereof. Le Bon wrote: “The judgments of the crowd are always imposed upon it and are never a result of comprehensive discussion.” “No matter what ideas are imposed on the crowd, they can become dominant in no other way than by reduction to their most categorical and simple form,” so “the crimes of the crowd are always caused by some extremely powerful suggestion, and the individuals who were involved in committing them are convinced that they simply performed their duty.” Surely when promising “a great victory, a great wonder and a great hope,” Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin and Stalin were theoretically much more understandable and closer to the human masses of post-imperial 1917-21 than any languid intellectual or overeducated general.
In what followed, Stalin’s system of terror and propaganda, merged into one whole, exerted every effort to prevent crowds from turning into peoples, and government-manipulated individuals from turning into independent personalities. Of course, Marx with his original goals, contradictory and chimerical as they were, was pushed far into the background. Meanwhile, the traditional slogans of the Black Hundred, which was active much earlier in the Russian Empire, were slightly veiled with red flags and finally came to the fore.
Le Bon failed to take one important thing into account: the lifelong existence of the Soviet people as part of the crowd caused new generations to inherit the inborn (and worst) traits of “men of the crowd.” This became apparent when the opportunity to obtain freedom presented itself.
Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security on the way American political establishment sees Ukraine today, the stance of the Obama Administration on Russia and expectations of the NATO Summit in Warsaw