BOOK REVIEW / From Russia without love: Angus Macqueen on a historian quick to anger and oddly keen to take sides: Russia under the Bolshevik regime: Richard Pipes Harvill pounds 25
Saturday 30 April 1994
In his epilogue he says history should be written with anger and enthusiasm, quoting Aristotle: 'those who are not angry at things they should be angry at are deemed fools'. He certainly finds much to annoy him in Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime: 1919-1924 - the third in his trilogy of works covering Russia and the 1917 revolution. His account of the revolution in terms of its own aspirations is a litany of deliberate violence and 'monumental failure' laid directly at the feet of Lenin.
He gives an admirable account of the civil war, and convincingly argues that the Bolshevik victory had more to do with control of the centre of Russia and its related industries than any Soviet military brilliance or commitment from the masses. The portrait of the White leaders, let down by an outside world unsure what it was trying to achieve in Russia, is of generals and politicians never able to work together. Their opponent leads a regime which had turned politics into a military campaign. As Lenin wrote: 'politics is warfare'.
Pipes has no truck with the old line that Stalin was a 30-year aberration, and that if only Lenin's legacy had been properly developed Soviet history would have been different. It was Lenin, after all, who deliberately cultivated the use of force for political ends and who banned all factions in the Bolshevik party. He was also directly responsible for the merciless crushing of revolts in both Tambov and Kronstadt. By his death Lenin had put in place all the institutions and instruments by which Stalin was to rule.
Pipes also produces figures for population loss in the period 1917-1922, the period of the civil war and the Volga famine, which seem to rival those suffered under Stalin's regime in the Thirties. But death in civil war must surely be counted differently from death in the Gulag.
Pipes' anger seems to overwhelm the overall drive of the book, making it rather peculiar. Between seemingly balanced chapters of historical narrative about the civil war and Lenin's 'new economic policy', there are political analyses of the relationship between Bolshevism and Fascism, or the meaning of the word fanatic. A contemporary political agenda, more in tune with his position on Ronald Reagan's National Security Council, never seems far from the surface.
Pipes launches broadsides at 'fellow travellers and liberals', both ideologies that believe 'mankind can attain moral perfection through the restructuring of its environment'. These are justified attacks, and a complete account of the abject failure of the left to address what was going on in Soviet Russia is still badly needed. Pipes picks off his targets, from H G Wells to the New York Times's Walter Durranty, with withering contempt.
But he reveals so little empathy with any Bolshevik policy or intention, however unsuccessful it may have been, that the attacks lose some of their power. Literacy campaigns, literature, theatre and cinema for the masses are seen only as part of Lenin's need to have total control. The fact that for the first time a Russian government was even thinking about mass education is irrelevant. The artistic explosion of the early Twenties is allowed to take place simply because Lunacharskii, the minister of education, was too 'lazy' to crush it. To Pipes, Communist ideology and aspirations from the very beginning were simply fronts for acquiring and maintaining political power.
This desire to demolish the revolution is best seen in the chapter on Communism and Fascism. First Pipes puts in a disclaimer: 'Communism cannot be said to have caused Fascism and 'National Socialism'. Then he goes on to propose that it came very close to it, providing the basic models and mindsets to both Mussolini and Hitler. Alan Bullock's Hitler and Stalin has explored the similarities and differences between the two dictators, but I have never read an account which so clearly lays blame on the Bolsheviks. Apparently it was 'the Communists' addiction to hatred that Hitler found so congenial' but while the Bolshevik leaders relied 'exclusively on coercion, even Hitler combined coercion with consent'.
Half way through, Pipes delves into the argument over the differences between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. First raised by Jeanne Kirkpatrick as a fig-leaf for US support of dictators in Central and South America, Pipes tries to give the distinction some intellectual validity. Communism can be seen as the godfather to Fascism, not its opposite. But it is sometimes difficult to work out what these musings add to his account of the years 1919-1924 in Russia.
The present inability of the Russians to shrug off their Soviet past is compared to the ease with which Germany threw off its Nazi inheritance. Pipes concludes that Lenin's communism was even more destructive of the structures of society than Hitler's National Socialism, but fails to mention that Hitler was in power for 13 years, the Communists for 74. He may be right: perhaps historians really should be angry. But this book reveals the dangers.
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