Commentary Magazine

Lessons from the Soviet Collapse

Last year, a special issue of the National Interest attempted the beginnings of an autopsy on the Soviet system. Now, with the appearance of Martin Malia’s The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-19911 and Richard Pipes’s Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime2 the great reappraisal—not only of the Soviet system itself, but of the implications of its rise, consolidation, and eventual collapse for the political culture of the West—is fully under way.

For all their similarities, the books by Pipes and Malia are very different. Pipes, in a sequel to his The Russian Revolution (1990), presents us with a rather detailed narrative history of 1918-23, based on elaborate research. In some parts, such as the account of the Civil War or of Lenin’s relations with Stalin, his narrative has the drama of a novel or of military history.

Malia, on the other hand, has written a conceptual history of the entire Soviet regime which largely draws on the research of others, except for the period of perestroika and collapse. It is a very French book, inspired by the Parisian intellectual milieu, dominated throughout by a fascination with ideas that results in cascades of glittering aphorisms, always deeply thought-provoking but rarely proved.

The deepest disagreement of Pipes and Malia is about the pattern or “logic” of Communism’s life course. Malia boldly defies the currently fashionable social history: “The concrete agenda of this book . . . is to reassert the primacy of ideology and politics over social and economic forces in understanding the Soviet phenomenon.” For Malia, in “really existing” Marxism, as opposed to the theoretical kind, it was ideology that was the base, the economy that was the superstructure.

As against Malia, Pipes argues that Bolshevism represented a filling of the ambiguous Marxist legacy “with the content nearest to hand, which in Russia was the historic legacy of [autocratic] patrimonialism.” Pipes makes his case in this elegant formula:

It is not that the Bolsheviks wanted to copy czarist practices: on the contrary, they wanted to have nothing in common with them, to do the very opposite. They emulated them by force of circumstance. Once they rejected democracy, . . . they had no choice but to govern autocratically. And to rule autocratically meant ruling the people in a manner to which they had been accustomed.

Thus the Soviet Union under the Communists wound up with institutions oddly reminiscent of early-modern Russia: an autocrat, a “service nobility” of officials rendering obligatory state service, peasantry bound to the land.



What, then, according to each of these authors, is the deepest lesson to be learned by the West from the catastrophic failure of Communism or “socialism”? To begin with Malia, we confront an immediate paradox: although his brilliant book is more theoretical than Pipes’s, and more informed by philosophy, its conclusion is oddly anticlimactic:

So long as inequality exists, society will continue to be divided into a Left and a Right, a “party of movement” and a “party of resistance”. . . And the former camp will continue to be called “socialism,” for the discredit cast upon that magical word in the immediate wake of the Soviet disaster will not last beyond the next crisis of “capitalism”—that is, of the real world. So in one form or another, the lion of “capitalism” and the unicorn of “socialism” will no doubt contend inconclusively until the end of modernity.

In believing that the “party of movement” will continue to be called “socialism,” Malia may be too rooted in the present moment. After all, the organization of politics along religious lines after the Reformation did not survive the disastrous wars of religion that followed. Nor did the political “party” of monarchy and aristocracy long outlast the democratic revolutions and the rise of popular sovereignty in the 18th and 19th centuries. Fascism, under that name, was enormously popular in many countries during the 1930’s but could not survive the war and the revelation of what the fascist regimes had really done. In this sense, the end of modernity may be nearer than Malia thinks.



One reason why it is possible to imagine an end to modernity—which is also the age of ideology—is that we know premodernity. In classical antiquity, armies of rebellious slaves, like the one organized by Spartacus, could ravage Italy and make Rome tremble, but there was no demand for the abolition of slavery because there was no alternative world view—no ideology—around which to organize political upheavals (“revolutions”) so as to usher in a rational political order. The place that modernity fills with the vision of a just society of the future was filled earlier by the idea of a golden age or Garden of Eden, from which man had fallen, or by a Utopia in the literal sense, which existed “nowhere” because the conditions that would permit it to exist were found nowhere and could not be created by human will.

But if antiquity was closed to ideology, the future could be too. As I wrote in the Spring 1993 National Interest:

. . . When Communism finally perishes, there will be for the first time in about 300 years no strong alternative world view to that undergirding the existing institutions, no vision of alternative political arrangements to sustain an adversary culture, and no strong ideologically driven movement to secure those arrangements. Our life both political and intellectual will proceed within an entirely new horizon.

Perhaps Malia arrives at such a tame conclusion to his savage attack on the Soviet experiment because he believes that the market (“capitalism”) cannot, by itself, give us a just society. “The just society, insofar as it can be approached, must be the product of the moral and political will of a community acting on the amoral forces of the market. And this means that state intervention in the market’s operation for moral and political ends” is and must always be part of the “natural” order of society.

Thus, the great lesson to be learned from the Communist failure seems to reduce to the absolute need to avoid utopianism. But Malia draws back even from this conclusion, to which his whole narrative powerfully drives us. For Malia,

. . . [u]topias are as necessary as they are dangerous. Without the goad of exaggerated hope and excessive zeal, very little democratic reform would be launched in this world. . . . The overstatements of visionary socialism were necessary to produce the welfare state, which is the present point of equilibrium between the two forces [“socialism” and “capitalism”] that now define the politics of normality.

Yet even if one takes for granted the goodness of the welfare state, Great Britain, to cite one important example, reached it without actual or proposed utopian revolutions. What would seem to follow, on Malia’s premises, from a comparison of the Soviet and British cases would be something like a very cautious, unsystematic (and therefore “unideological”) meliorism, not the necessity of Utopia.

Besides, there is another “goad of exaggerated hope and excessive zeal” apart from political Utopia. It is religion. The biblical prophets fearlessly reproached kings, reformed society, and inspired the rebuilding of the Temple without resorting to the utopian illusion. Malia does not advance this possibility, perhaps deterred by his clever insight that in modern times, the utopian illusion became “possible . . . only because history was in fact in constantly accelerating movement toward greater equality and scientific progress.” In other words, modern science and technology intrinsically pose utopian possibilities and give rise to utopian visions. This truth suggests how hard it may be to cope with the lessons of the collapse of Communism.



Pipes, for his part, is determined to cope with them. His conclusions from the Soviet tragedy are grimmer than Malia’s, less graceful and elusive, more uncompromising and radical. The first lesson that Pipes draws is this:

Bolshevism was the most audacious attempt in history to subject the entire life of a country to a master plan, to rationalize everybody and everything. It sought to sweep aside as useless rubbish the wisdom that mankind had accumulated over millennia. In that sense, it was a unique effort to apply science to human affairs. . . . Communism failed because it proceeded from the erroneous doctrine of the Enlightenment, perhaps the most pernicious idea in the history of thought, that man is merely a material compound, devoid of either soul or innate ideas, and as such a passive product of an infinitely malleable social environment.

Pipes is absolutely right that the failure of the Soviet experiment compels another look at the entire Enlightenment project. In pre-modern times, the fate of Socrates in Athens served as an archetype of the relation between thinking and social life; every community was, in principle, always trying to kill Socrates. Modernity has tried to overcome this contradiction between philosophy and life-in-community by making philosophy (“enlightenment”) not only the provider of science and technology but the revealer of a better way of life that the community can seize for everyone.

On the other hand, Pipes does not note how radical this lesson might be. For the Enlightenment is at work not only in Soviet ideology but in the American Founding, too. That great enterprise opened with the declaration that “We hold these truths to be self-evident. . . .” Precisely because the Soviet experiment was so much more extreme than ours in attempting to enlighten or rationalize social life, it can alert us to dangers or even defects intrinsic to our own version of the Enlightenment project.

Pipes sums up his second lesson in these words:

The Russian Revolution has raised the profoundest moral questions about the nature of politics, namely, the right of governments to try to remake human beings and refashion society without their mandate and even against their will. . . . Hippolyte Taine drew from his monumental study of the French Revolution a lesson that he himself described as “puerile,” namely, that “human society, especially a modern society, is a vast and complicated thing.” One is tempted to supplement this observation with a corollary, that precisely because modern society is so “vast and complicated” and therefore so difficult to grasp, it is neither proper nor feasible to impose on it patterns of conduct, let alone try to remake it. What cannot be comprehended cannot be controlled. The tragic and sordid history of the Russian Revolution . . . teaches that political authority must never be employed for ideological ends. It is best to let people be.

This courageous conclusion, if we take it seriously, is in radical opposition to the entire tradition of the Left, and almost of modernity as such. It represents the recovery of a certain conservative tradition which insists that revolutions are bad not only when their ideology is bad or utopian but even when their agenda is admirable—the tradition of such thinkers as Hume, Burke, and Taine.

Himself a participant in the “Reagan revolution” (as adviser to the President on Soviet affairs), Pipes does not discuss how deep this anti-revolutionary understanding might cut in a country that still more or less respects its Founding in the American Revolution. Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison thought it morally proper and feasible to impose on society patterns of conduct within certain limits set by human nature, the separation of state and society, and the circumstances of their time and place. Lenin did not accept any such limits. The American Founding project, which for some people seems far too “conservative,” too accepting of the status quo (especially in the case of slavery), seems in Pipes’s formulation almost too radical.



These vast philosophical and moral issues gain a certain urgency from the snags now increasingly obstructing the transitions to democracy in the countries of the former Soviet Union. It is too early to draw any conclusions, but many of these transitions may be failing, and it is not clear that the advice tendered by Western observers has been helpful.

One possible mistake may have been in the very notion of a “velvet revolution”—that is, a painless and morally pure shift to a normal order that was somehow already available and that could be purchased “off the shelf,” as it were. The older concept of the “founder” or “legislator”—i.e., a person who creates a structure that ordinary statesmen will work within—has the advantage that it alerts one to the enormous difficulty of the task, and to the need for both imagination and human sympathy. But this is a role that both tempts hubris and points to the moral dangers involved.

Malia and Pipes have ensured, once their work is absorbed, that the name of Lenin will shine through history as a symbol of these moral dangers. History, in presenting us once again today with chaos in Russia, once again challenges the people of the former USSR with the need to decide whether they are facing an opportunity or only a seductive temptation. If there are opportunities, they can be seized only by finishing the debate Pipes and Malia have opened.


1 Free Press, 575 pp., $24.95.

2 Knopf, 587 pp., $35.00.


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