Why do revolutionaries become dictators? (and examples?)
January 26, 2016 12:54 PM   Subscribe

Pol Pat, Sukarno, Mugabe, Mao, Afwerki, Stalin. Why is it that ideologically-motivated revolutionaries often become dictators? Is it that people only act out of ideology and principles when they lack power?
posted by mrmanvir to Society & Culture (34 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
You're making a pretty big assumption: that they are not continuing to try to implement their ideals once they become dictators.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:55 PM on January 26, 2016 [11 favorites]


Not to be pat, but "power corrupts."
posted by cabingirl at 1:01 PM on January 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think the simpler answer is as showbiz_liz says: their ideology remains the same. They truly want the things that they believe in. They want to make the world that follows the ideals they want to see. But no matter what ideology it is - no matter the best ideology in the world - there will always, always, be people who disagree with it, people who don't want to see that world that you want to see.

And in order to become a revolutionary in the first place, you must convince yourself that the greater good is more important. That you might take some actions that might be regrettable in the short term, but in the long term, they will all be irrelevant. Because the best world will be created.

And there's never a good dividing line. When do you stop? Where do you stop? That power to change everything, to bring the world you see, is right fucking there, and it's so easy. So easy to just Make. Them. Do. It.
posted by corb at 1:02 PM on January 26, 2016 [19 favorites]


if there is a strong association between an idea and a person then the idea becomes reified in the person, who is then placed at the head of society. but i very much doubt that applies to every case - i'm sure there are times when it's just a particularly aggressive, selfish personality.
posted by andrewcooke at 1:05 PM on January 26, 2016


My sense is that a lot of the people who are ideologically motivated but less dictatorial tend to get killed in the revolution or the events leading to it, or purged. (At least, I feel like this happened in the Chinese revolution, and that's the one I'm most familiar with.)

But another factor: revolutionaries, unless they are very, very lucky, are faced with violent international opposition from capitalist countries and violent opposition from the wealthy and connected within their own country. This escalates things quite a lot.

If you look at Salvador Allende, who was a great man and who really tried to bring social revolution peacefully and democratically, and who was popular and beloved - well, he was killed and a US-backed dictator was installed. Thus also with the Iranian communists. It's a hell of a needle to thread, is what I'm saying.

And for that matter, the kind of people who survive the long era of repression that tends to proceed a revolution often aren't what you'd call really nice and sensitive - people who've been in war, people who've been tortured, people who've been in prison, people who have seen their friends and family killed.

I often think about Lenin, for instance, and wonder who I'd be if I'd survived the shit he'd survived. How cautious and merciful a person would I be, and how much space would I have for caution and mercy?

I wonder if you could look at the Zapatistas, though - they don't control a nation-state, but they are pretty successful and control territory, and they're pretty good. It seems like they've done a lot of thinking about how to be - even though everyone knows of Subcommandante Marcos and Subcommandante Ramona and the other famous people, I think everyone knows the Zapatistas as a popular movement more than a movement with one strong leader. Also, they haven't had the problem of needing to deal with a major industrial area - they're out in the back country. And they've been able to draw on a pre-existing set of indigenous cultural practices rather than make everything up out of whole cloth.
posted by Frowner at 1:11 PM on January 26, 2016 [19 favorites]


also, kind of drifting away from the question somewhat, it will depend on the kind of power structures that a society expects. to the extent that you believe in hofstede or similar, then you might expect more dictators in countries where power distance is valued over individualism.
posted by andrewcooke at 1:20 PM on January 26, 2016


Changing a country is hard, and the vast majority of people were used to the old way and aren't particularly invested in the new way. Dictatoring is the most efficient way to change the system, and if your ego is big enough to say My way is the best way for all these other people, then your ego will continue to say I am the only one who can make the people proceed along the best way.
posted by Etrigan at 1:25 PM on January 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


Generally, it's the ideology. There are counter-examples, the obvious one being George Washington. But in Washington's case, his ideology was one of limits on power. Becoming a dictator was inconsistent with his ideology. In fact, you probably wouldn't even call it an ideology at all. More of a procedural revolution.

By contrast, most other revolutionary ideologies are teleological - they are trying to achieve some outcome. It's utilitarian; the ends (whatever outcome they're pursuing) justify the means (dictatorship).

There's something inherently defensive about revolutions, as opposed to peaceful change, as Frowner noted. By definition, there is at the very least internal opposition (otherwise, a revolution would not have been necessary), and often there is external opposition as well, especially since WWII. There are real threats out there, so some defensiveness is justified, but it can easily bleed over to paranoia.

(Side note, Frowner seems to be using "revolutionary" to mean "leftist", although the same logic applies to rightist revolutions as well.)

The corrupting nature of power doesn't help.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:26 PM on January 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


On andrewcooke's point: if you look at the societies that existed right before a lot of those revolutions, they were pretty shitty. That means that when the new person attains power, he still has all the problems of the old society, and the tools to change things have to be made from scratch. It's not like he's got a great state bureaucracy only now suddenly it's on his side, or like having the revolution made a massive housing shortage and a starving peasantry go away.

I also think it might be interesting to consider how people who are revolutionary but didn't become dictators behaved, and what circumstances they found themselves in. Jean Bertrande Aristide, for example, or the Sandinistas. Or people who had some ambivalent qualities but were certainly no Stalins- Ho Chi Minh, Hugo Chavez.

I think Chavez is a good example - he did a lot of great things for working class Venezuelans, he survived a US-backed coup, he didn't have show trials and death camps, etc, and a lot of the less great things he did were....well, not that great, but a lot more understandable when you consider the immediate example of Allende and the fierce, entrenched opposition of the elites who had tried to oust him in the coup. To me Chavez illustrates how even a basically decent leader can get to a point where he's doing some undemocratic stuff because the whole system itself is so broken.

The thing about Allende - people begged him to arm his supporters, because they saw a coup coming - that was the history of the region, you elect a reformer and the US knocks him down. But he wouldn't do it; he said it wasn't how he wanted to run his administration. On the one hand, Chile was spared a bloody civil war and just got years of a murderous dictator instead; on the other hand, those fuckers had a walk-over.
posted by Frowner at 1:31 PM on January 26, 2016 [6 favorites]


The OG revolutionary-turned-quasi-dictator is Robespierre during the French Revolution. His circumstances: interior and exterior war. The results: he was executed, his government replaced by the ineffective Directoire, which was eventually replaced by a military dictatorship.

One possibility is that revolutions that don't end up in dictatorships tend not to have a single person who embodies the revolution, for instance the 1848 French Revolution or the 1830 Belgian Revolution. Being in a situation where external pressure is reduced is also less conducive to dictatorship, so a relatively powerful country is at an advantage here.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:43 PM on January 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


In many cases, the person who ended up as dictator began as a petty criminal, and then progressed to major criminal, finding along the way that pursuing revolutionary politics was one means of aggregating power.

After he prevails, he can pretty up his legend as he wishes for public consumption.
posted by megatherium at 1:55 PM on January 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


Also Castro.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:57 PM on January 26, 2016


In the book In Sickness and in Power, David Owen proposes that
Something happens to some leaders' mental stability while in power that is captured by Bertrand Russell's phrase, the intoxication of power. Hubristic behavior with excessive self-confidence is almost an occupational hazard for heads of government, as it is for leaders in other fields, such as business and the military, for it feeds on isolation and excessive deference. Owen argues that a medically definable condition called Hubris Syndrome affects some heads of government the longer they stay in office or after a specific triggering event such as 9/11. Recent leaders such as George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Margaret Thatcher have developed Hubris Syndrome. Symptoms include patterns of reckless behavior, bad judgment, and operational incompetence, often compounded by delusions of personal infallibility and divine exemption from political accountability.
posted by Corvid at 1:57 PM on January 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


If you're dreaming of overthrowing your government to change society, you are probably really, really convinced that You Know Better. And if you are going to actually go through with overthrowing your government to change society, you are probably not just convinced that You Know Better, you are also zealous about your idea to the point that you Will Not Be Stopped.

So if you're convinced that You Know Better and that You Will Not Be Stopped, and then you get control of a country, then....
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:01 PM on January 26, 2016 [9 favorites]


One reason is because ideological people tend to refuse to turn over their power over time. Mugabe would have been better remembered if he was eight years and out. They hang on until they fail and then continue to hang on. Not by any means a dictator, but Mayor Bradley of L.A. personifies hanging on for too long. If he had left at the end of 1984 Olympics, he would have bowed out a hero. Instead he hung on until the King riots.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 2:07 PM on January 26, 2016


Because the people they trampled on the way up are still there, and the moment they give up power they will be wanting payback.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:29 PM on January 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


Well, the question is not as simple as it first appears.

First off: what is a "dictator"? What qualities does one need to have or actions does one need to take before one's rule is dictatorial? Does one need to be a dictator alone or can s/he be part of a clique? Was Hugo Chavez a dictator, as he was often referred to in the US press, even though he took power through a free and fair election? And even of the people who are pretty uncontroversially dictators, at what point did they become dictators? Did Stalin's personal dictatorial reign begin after he purged Trotsky from the Bolshevik Party? Before then? Why?

Secondly: suppose we know what a dictator is. To what extent can we attribute the individual's dictatorial qualities to personality, and to what extent to historical circumstance? Did Napoleon seize power in a coup because of personal ambition, or was it a historical necessity due to the inoperability of the decaying revolutionary government? Did Lenin argue for a ban on party factions within the Communist Party because he wanted to quash all opposition in his quest to consolidate power, or because it was an urgent task for the party to unify in the face of civil war?

Thirdly: what is a "revolutionary"? One who participates in a revolution? Well, what is a revolution? Simply a discontinuous change in government power? Is Sisi a revolutionary because he deposed the Morsi government? Or does one need to have some coherent ideology to be called a revolutionary? And who says Sisi doesn't? How massive do social changes need to be before they can be called a revolution? Was the American Revolution a revolution, even though it left most social relations relatively intact?

History offers interesting questions, but no easy answers.

Lastly, and maybe I am reading this into the question, but there seems to be an implication that dictatorship is a bad thing. If this seems an uncontroversial point, there were political movements that explicitly advocated a dictatorship before they got into power as the basis of their political program -- e.g. the Bolsheviks with the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" -- and successfully won the masses with that pitch.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 3:11 PM on January 26, 2016 [4 favorites]


Those dictators were forcing their world view on their people. They were conquerors of their own countries. The populations as a whole did not share the ideology.
posted by LoveHam at 4:49 PM on January 26, 2016


My history professor in college told us:

Dictators always come from the underdog.

Revolution happens when things start to get a little better.
posted by brujita at 4:57 PM on January 26, 2016


I think you first need to break the notion that a revolutionary is automatically a good person with valid goals. One man's revolutionary is another man's gangster.

Saddam Hussein was a revolutionary. Power didn't corrupt him. He was already corrupt and then he gained power.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:09 PM on January 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


We ought not to equate "revolutionary" with "good". It just isn't necessarily so. Who would trumpet the truth about their motives if they were motivated by lust for power and greed? It's much more effective to present yourself as a crusader for the common good.

Regardless of motive, people are often unwilling to relinquish the personal command and power that accrued to them before they achieved victory. This is why leaders like Washington and Mandela stand out. It is easier to succumb to temptation

Lack of doubt -- the unshaken conviction that you, and only you, know what History/God/ThePeople require -- is an elixir that fosters all kinds of crimes.

In the end, it's what leaders do, not their ideology, that counts. The more you are driven by ideology, the less likely you are to trust the democratic process. Why bother voting when you know The Truth?
posted by justcorbly at 6:01 PM on January 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is why leaders like Washington and Mandela stand out.

George Washington decided not to run for a third term, which was allowable according to the Constitution at that time. The story goes that King George III, upon learning that Washington would not seek re-election and instead would simply return to his previous life, the king said: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:17 PM on January 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Sorry, but I am doing toooooo much Revolutionary War reading right now: that quote was about George W. turning down being king and going back to farming after winning the war, not re-election. But still: Washington awesome.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:01 PM on January 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's a terrific quote but I call bullshit on that Benjamin West quote. I can find no sources for that quote prior to the start of the current century. I stand to be corrected, but if it is for real there has to be a source contemporaneous to, or not long after, Mr. West's lifetime.
posted by beagle at 7:19 PM on January 26, 2016


Most of the dictators led upstart military campaigns ...which requires large measures of cunning, ruthlessness, and opportunism. Staying in power (defending the revolution) means paying your supporters back; re-seeding the sort of malignant nepotism that got the whole thing going to start with.

People like Havel and Mandela didn't lead fighting forces.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:21 PM on January 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


One way to read this is that extreme political and social instability frequently leads to dictatorships. The professed ideology of the dictator is irrelevant.

Look at what just happened in Egypt. There was a revolution. The social order was all up in the air. The most powerful actor (in this case, the military) filled the vacuum with a totalitarian regime.
posted by latkes at 8:02 PM on January 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


> I often think about Lenin, for instance, and wonder who I'd be if I'd survived the shit he'd survived. How cautious and merciful a person would I be, and how much space would I have for caution and mercy?

What shit? He grew up in a happy, bourgeois provincial family (his sister remembered "a special feeling of close and friendly family unity"); the shit he survived in later life was entirely the result of his own decision to become a revolutionary. At no point did he evince any concern for the lives of ordinary people; as a young man his reaction to a massive famine was to oppose any aid to the people on the principle (favored by revolutionaries the world over) that "the worse things get, the better" (i.e., people will be more inclined to revolution). Once you take that attitude, there's pretty much no mental barrier to choosing to be a dictator if you get the chance.

> there were political movements that explicitly advocated a dictatorship before they got into power as the basis of their political program -- e.g. the Bolsheviks with the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" -- and successfully won the masses with that pitch.

No, they won the masses with a pitch of land, peace, and "all power to the soviets." The dictatorship was an intra-party goal which, unlike the promises to the people, was actually accomplished (the land was taken away as soon as practicable, the peace became endless war, and the soviets were turned into toothless subsidiaries of the party). And anyway, how would the ability to sucker the masses make dictatorship a good thing?
posted by languagehat at 11:37 AM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's a terrific quote but I call bullshit on that Benjamin West quote. I can find no sources for that quote prior to the start of the current century.

The Farington Diary, [1793-1821]: July 13, 1793, to August 24, 1802, Volume 1, Chapter LXXVIII, 1799-1800, Royal George and George the Republican, If America were Independent (page 278):
The King began to talk abt. America. He asked West what would Washington do were America to be declared independant. West said He believed He would retire to a private situation. - The King said if He did He would be the greatest man in the world.
Not published until 1922-28, but considered genuine.
posted by Etrigan at 11:54 AM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


What shit?

His brother was executed by the Tsar; he was expelled from school for participating in political protest; was jailed and exiled for sedition; was part of an persecuted underground revolutionary network for decades; narrowly escaped assassination attempts; saw many comrades fall in the course of revolutionary struggle; and, if any single person can be credited for it, opened up a new era of world history (The Short Twentieth Century). I mean, be fair, the dude saw some shit. You don't need to agree with his decisions or think he was an angel to recognize that.

By the way, I've never seen that "the worse things get, the better" quote sourced. Do you have one? (But I can find many that evince "concern for the lives of ordinary people." That was the whole ostensible point of the revolution, after all.)

No, they won the masses with a pitch of land, peace, and "all power to the soviets."

The Bolsheviks grounded their theories in Marxism. Marx expressly calls for a dictatorship of the proletariat to shepherd a transitional phase to communism. Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, elaborated on that idea just prior to October 1917. The Bolsheviks in 1917 constantly polemicized against the "bourgeoisie democracy" which they believed had so badly discredited itself by endless war, counter-revolutionary conspiracies and endless internal bickering. They counterposed that form of government to the government that they would bring into being, which was a workers' government.

Contrary to your assertion, the Bolshevik government did satisfy at least two of the terms in the "Land, Peace, Bread" slogan. The treaty of Brest-Litovsk ended Russian involvement in World War I. The Decree on Land gave poor peasants the land. And the Soviet was the made the supreme political body. Granted, one can argue about how things degenerated later, and there is much to say on that topic, but the Bolsheviks did make good on their revolutionary program immediately after the October Revolution.

The Russian masses were not "suckered" into supporting the Bolsheviks in 1917 any more than any other people is "suckered" into supporting a certain political party. The fact is the Bolsheviks had broad popular support because they were the only political faction that had not discredited themselves via advocating for continuing the war and/or attempting to crush the nascent revolution.

Note to the OP: you can see how controversial issues of revolution and dictatorship are!
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 2:48 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


Speaking of Lenin, we can also use his writings to return to ponder an aspect of the original question: what is a dictatorship? Lenin would argue that all class societies are dictatorships of a certain class:
The essence of Marx's theory of the state has been mastered only by those who realize that the dictatorship of a single class is necessary not only for every class society in general, not only for the proletariat which has overthrown the bourgeoisie, but also for the entire historical period which separates capitalism from "classless society", from communism. Bourgeois states are most varied in form, but their essence is the same: all these states, whatever their form, in the final analysis are inevitably the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 4:12 PM on January 27, 2016


> His brother was executed by the Tsar; he was expelled from school for participating in political protest; was jailed and exiled for sedition; was part of an persecuted underground revolutionary network for decades; narrowly escaped assassination attempts; saw many comrades fall in the course of revolutionary struggle; and, if any single person can be credited for it, opened up a new era of world history (The Short Twentieth Century). I mean, be fair, the dude saw some shit. You don't need to agree with his decisions or think he was an angel to recognize that.

Like I said, the shit he survived in later life was entirely the result of his own decision to become a revolutionary. If he'd been pissed off about his brother's death (which was, of course, the result of his brother's decision to become a revolutionary) but gone on to become a lawyer (perhaps working for the improvement of the lot of the average Russian, like so many members of that class in those years), there's no reason he would have had any more shit than your average Russian. If you spend your entire waking life trying to overthrow the government, you're going to take some shit; he knew that and was fine with it. He would have laughed at anyone who tried to use it as some sort of psychological excuse for his actions.

> By the way, I've never seen that "the worse things get, the better" quote sourced. Do you have one?

It's not a quote (and I didn't say it was one), it's the principle on which he acted. See, for instance, his response to the famine of 1891-92, which I referred to above; to quote Salisbury's Black Night, White Snow (a magnificent, compulsively readable book I recommend to anyone interested in the Russian revolutionary period):
There were no reserves of rye and wheat in the villages. All had been sold for export. Raging cholera devastated the countryside. It was one of the worst disasters to hit Russia in the late nineteenth century. Tolstoy played a leading role in organizing aid for the starving as did the author V. G. Korolenko. Hundreds of progressive and liberal young Russians went to the Volga area to help out... Vladimir scoffed at the relief efforts. He contended that the more intense the suffering of the peasant, the more violent would become his hatred for the ruling order, thus advancing the cause of revolution.
This is not even a little bit controversial, and Lenin operated on that principle all his life.

> But I can find many that evince "concern for the lives of ordinary people." That was the whole ostensible point of the revolution, after all.

The operative word being "ostensible." It's the same principle as "We had to destroy the village to save it."

> Contrary to your assertion, the Bolshevik government did satisfy at least two of the terms in the "Land, Peace, Bread" slogan. The treaty of Brest-Litovsk ended Russian involvement in World War I. The Decree on Land gave poor peasants the land. And the Soviet was the made the supreme political body. Granted, one can argue about how things degenerated later, and there is much to say on that topic, but the Bolsheviks did make good on their revolutionary program immediately after the October Revolution.

Come now. The treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in March 1918, months after the Revolution; many, many Russians died unnecessarily in the meantime, and by that time the Civil War was already well under way. Lenin brought not peace but a sword. Russians were still fighting and dying years after every other European nation was at peace. And the Decree on Land "gave" poor peasants the land only because they were already in possession of it and at the time it was impracticable to try to take it away from them; giving the land to private owners was entirely against Bolshevik principles (they stole the slogan from the Socialist Revolutionaries, who were genuinely a pro-peasant party), it was presented in Party circles as a temporary expedient, and (as I said above) the land was taken away as soon as practicable (and many, many peasants were butchered in the process). Again, none of this is controversial, but if you're determined to think well of Lenin, I can understand how you'd prefer not to think about it.
posted by languagehat at 8:06 AM on January 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


I've always thought that the power corrupts narrative was a false.

Revolutionaries are people willing to kill to achieve what they think is right. Willing to cause/incite death on potentially massive scale to achieve what they believe in.

Dictators are people willing to kill to achieve what they think is right. Willing to cause/incite death on potentially massive scale to achieve what they believe in.
posted by French Fry at 1:01 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


What you say is true, of course, but it's also true that power corrupts. Plenty of people who achieved high office with the noblest of aims wound up doing terrible things. It's very, very hard to avoid being subsumed into the narrative of power once it surrounds you.
posted by languagehat at 2:22 PM on February 2, 2016


No, they won the masses with a pitch of land, peace, and "all power to the soviets."

The Bolshevik's main slogans before the insurrection were "Land, Bread, Peace" and "All Power to the Soviets." However, the idea of a dictatorship was certainly pitched to the public and not simply an intra-party debate. For instance, here is Lenin in The Workers' Path, the main Bolshevik organ of the time (Pravda had been shut down by the Provisional Government):
Only the dictatorship of the proletariat and the poor peasants is capable of smashing the resistance of the capitalists, of displaying truly supreme courage and determination in the exercise of power, and of securing the enthusiastic, selfless and truly heroic support of the masses both in the army and among the peasants.
This is not even a little bit controversial, and Lenin operated on that principle all his life

Actually, this goes to the heart of differing historical interpretations of Lenin. There's the opinion that you've articulated, which is that Lenin was a power-hungry maniac who would stop at nothing to aggrandize himself. I think that requires ignoring the emancipatory intent and effects of the revolution, which is surely what Lenin is known for more than any opinions he expressed when he was a new convert to Marxism.

The treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in March 1918, months after the Revolution; many, many Russians died unnecessarily in the meantime, and by that time the Civil War was already well under way.

True, the treaty was signed months after the Bolsheviks took power, but that's not something you can blame Lenin for! (There was an immediate armistice signed, which the Germans violated.) There were three positions with regards to the treaty: Lenin, who wanted to sign the treaty immediately (because he realized the crumbling, demoralized, deserting Russian army to which the Bolsheviks promised peace was in no state to fight effectively); Trotsky, who put forward the strategy of "no war, no peace"; and the so-called Left Communists, who wanted to wage revolutionary war. So if you want to assign blame for the delay in signing the treaty, it would be better to point the finger at, say, Bukharin or the Social Revolutionary party, who were in the Left Communist faction.

Russians were still fighting and dying years after every other European nation was at peace.

Yes, much of that had to do with the upwards of a dozen foreign forces that invaded and worsened/perpetuated the civil war. Had it only been domestic opposition, surely the situation would have been different. Again, you seem to be putting blame on the wrong party.

And the Decree on Land "gave" poor peasants the land only because they were already in possession of it and at the time it was impracticable to try to take it away from them; giving the land to private owners was entirely against Bolshevik principles (they stole the slogan from the Socialist Revolutionaries, who were genuinely a pro-peasant party), it was presented in Party circles as a temporary expedient, and (as I said above) the land was taken away as soon as practicable (and many, many peasants were butchered in the process).

Yes, the Bolsheviks adopted the SR position on the peasants as a crucial component of their platform in order to take and maintain power. This was obviously a wise political move. The SRs, by the way, had been part of a governing coalition immediately preceding the Bolsheviks that did not put this policy into place. (And if you think the policy was merely recognizing reality -- which it was to some extent -- then surely you must have the same critique of the policy when the SRs held it.)

I dispute the assertion that the SRs "were genuinely a pro-peasant party" in the sense that they were faithfully representing the will of the peasants. If they were, why was one of their main post-revolutionary positions, as mentioned above, continuing the war that the peasants wanted so much to end? They were willing to so far as to assassinate the German ambassador to attempt to provoke Germany into attacking Russia! The SRs were a fractured and confused party. One faction -- the Left SRs -- joined the revolutionary government. Other factions resorted to terrorism to try and get what they wanted. Even when the SRs had a majority in the Central Executive Committee, they didn't challenge the Bolsheviks for power, in part because they didn't have a cohesive grouping, nor a will to exercise power, nor a coherent platform that differed too much from what the Bolsheviks were doing. Once the Bolsheviks adopted their land policy, the SRs had very little to distinguish themselves.

The "war communism" economy was adopted out of necessity as a means of fighting the civil war and preventing social collapse. But the Bolsheviks turned a necessity into a virtue and proceeded to centralize way more than was possible or realistic given the state of affairs. Undoubtedly, this caused great suffering for the peasantry. This is definitely something for which the Bolsheviks deserve criticism. And indeed, Lenin did recognize it was necessary to make a tactical retreat from Bolshevik ideology and establish the NEP in 1921, which gave the peasants the free market in agriculture that they wanted and halted the violence in the countryside. Much bloodshed would have been averted had this decision been taken sooner. (However, I will note that the peasants largely supported the Bolsheviks throughout the civil war, knowing that the alternative, a restoration of capitalist power which would roll back their land seizures, would be far worse for them.)
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 12:06 PM on April 16, 2016


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