Reflections on the Russian Problem (1944)


Throughout May, our Weekend Reads series will feature selections from books about or related to the Russian Revolution. 

Published in 1985, Marxism, Wars & Revolutions collects essays written by Isaac Deutscher over a period of more than thirty years. "From them," Perry Anderson writes in his preface to the book, "we can see Deutscher as he was, a much more complex and multi-dimensional figure than the terms by which he became best-known in his lifetime would suggest: not simply a scholar, but a thinker, of the Left; and not only a commentator on events, but a participant in them." 

The text below, an assessment of the yet unfinished Russian revolutionary epoch, was written for Political Quarterly in 1944, five years before the publication of Stalin: A Political Biography, while Deutscher was working as a journalist for The Economist and The Observer. 

Isaac Deutscher's
Marxism, Wars & Revolutions and The Prophet are part of our Russian Revolution reading. See all the books on the reading list, here.

No events in human history have given rise to such violent controversy as have revolutions. The great disputes of the seventeenth century turned on the Cromwellian revolution. The French revolution dwarfed all other events of the eighteenth century as a centre of intellectual interest. The great ideological disputes of the nineteenth century were in a sense a post-script to the revolution of the preceding age and a prelude to the social convulsions of our own time. The Russian Revolution of 1917 has undoubtedly been the most significant event in our eventful epoch. Like the others, it has found its enthusiastic admirers; and it has aroused boundless hostility. Enthusiasts as well as enemies have vied with each other in wishful thinking and blindness to facts. And, again, the Russian revolution has — like its predecessors — outgrown and outwitted both foe and friend. The historical process has taken its own course — cutting across all the formulae of the politicians and sweeping aside almost all the calculations of the sociologists. The impetus of the drama has grown beyond the powers even of its participants and actors, many of whom have been crushed and destroyed in the process. Only history will tell who will ride the stormy wave of the Russian revolution until the nation's life flows out into the broader and quieter waters of a non-revolutionary epoch.

The controversies around every revolution have sprung from the obvious fact that a revolution destroys the old established interests, ideals, customs and habits and that it undertakes to replace them by a totally new mode of life. This alone would suffice to let loose all the passions and furies of the human mind and heart. But this is merely a commonplace. What keeps the controversy alive and feeds it during many decades is the complexity of the phenomenon, its fantastic many-sidedness which usually escapes the contemporary mind. Political formulae simplify the problems; yet if there is anything that does not lend itself to simplification, it is surely the terrific process by which the whole life of a nation is turned upside down and reduced to a chaos from which it must then painfully struggle to recover. Grau ist alle Theorie und ewig grün ist der Lebens Baum.1

Historical perspective is essential for a balanced and unbiased judgment. Until men, with their virtues and their vices, their magnificent deeds and their horrifying crimes have been relegated to history, enthusiasts will persist in their admiration for the virtues — genuine and imaginary — while critics will allow the crimes to overshadow the achievements; and this is not only because of narrow motives and prejudices, but because in the one pattern of revolution the virtues are all but fused with the vices.

Every genuine revolution is an orgy of destruction. But no revolution is genuine until it achieves something more, until it shakes a nation for a new upsurge of its creative forces. The era of the English Civil War was full of crime and horror; but some of the roots of the branches and the flowers of English progress are firm in the dirty soil of that era. The guillotine dominated the scene of Jacobin France; its shadow was the more dreadful because it fell on the fresh ruins of the Bastille. Those who fought the French Revolution had their eyes fixed on that monstrosity that grew out of the Cult of Reason. The Cult must have appeared to them as a sanguinary masquerade; and they were certainly right. Yet it was out of the dirt and horror of Jacobin France that French liberalism and French democracy grew. The highest recognition of human rights and liberties was born out of acts in which all human rights and liberties were totally obliterated. The continental sympathizers of the Jacobins outside France behaved as if they were stricken with blindness. They adhered to the great ideals — Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité — proclaimed in Paris. And — to use a modern idiom — the myth of the French Revolution possessed their minds so thoroughly that they mistook the new French tyranny for the reign of liberty. Beethoven was not repelled by the pandemonium of Robespierrre's Terror. Nor was he disillusioned by the cruelties of the Thermidor and the Consulate; it was only the Empire which eventually filled him with disgust. Others of his contemporaries continued to see their liberal dreams embodied in Napoleon's conquests and in Fouché's police-state. The fata morgana of the revolution was stronger than the revolution itself.

The judgment of the French historian has — in spite of all that isbeing said in Vichy-France now — come much nearer to the attitude of the believer of Jacobinism than to that of its implacable foes. And the cry: “Back to the ideals of the French revolution” has become the battle-cry in France's present struggle for survival. The guillotine and La Terreur have assumed much smaller proportions in the historical perspective — they have appeared less essential than that permanent contribution to human progress which was made by revolutionary France.

The Pandora box of the Russian revolution is still open. It still releases its monsters and its fears. It would be foolish and dishonest to deny this. No motives of political expediency can be strong or convincing enough to do away with this aspect of the problem. It would be futile to portray Stalin's Russia as the realm of democracy. It would be an unpardonable stupidity to take the “freedom-loving” phraseology of the Kremlin at its face value. The Russian version of the guillotine — the firing-squads of the GPU — has not yet disappeared.

The same arts that did gain
A power must it maintain —

This is as true of Russia's Protectorate as of England's.

But Russia is Janus-headed. The other face shows strain, effort, suffering and hope. The revolution has stirred and stimulated a wealth of creative forces hidden underneath the surface of Russian life. It has awakened many dormant energies which could find no outlet under the old regime. This is the fundamental fact without which no understanding of Russia's role in this war is possible. First, there is the record of material achievement: the vast centres of a new industrial civilization which have sprung up, almost overnight, on the borderlands of the Eurasian continent. The weight of Russia's new industries — developed on the Volga, in the Urals, in Siberia, in the taigas of the north and on the plains of the Far East — tells already on the battlefields; and it will tell on the scales of the peace. Here is a new factor which is playing and will play an enormous part in shaping the destinies of the world. The war has revealed its existence and its overwhelming strength which grew unnoticed and ignored in the years before the war. Here is a mass of many, many millions of forsaken human beings who have learned to read and write. The whole achievement might perhaps be dismissed as just another accumulation of lifeless matter, as one heap more of iron and steel destined to be scrapped by the contempt of history, had it not been for the tremendous upsurge of mental powers and moral energies by which it has been accompanied. Those mental and moral energies may still be — as indeed they are — unconscious of their own purpose. But they cannot be conjured out of existence. Nor can their basic soundness be denied. No collective Frankenstein would be able to raise itself to the heights of heroism and sacrifice to which the Russian people rose among the ruins of Sebastopol, Leningrad, and Stalingrad. The ruthless will-power of the leaders, the weight of a prodigious military machine, the cleverness of the strategy — all these would not have sufficed to do the job. They can all be found in the armies of the Third Reich, developed to an even higher degree of efficiency and perfection. They were enough to drive forward disciplined human masses intoxicated by unparalleled victories. But they would not have sufficed to sustain and keep together a nation which had drained the cup of defeat almost to the last bitter dregs. The dynamic of post-revolutionary Russia has not been merely material. It must have been anchored in some deep ideals which live in the minds and hearts of the people. Nobody can yet say into what those ideals will ultimately crystallize or towards what purpose they are going to be directed. Russia's dynamic may be used for evil or for good. But hope still lies at the bottom of the Pandora box which has been open since October 1917.

It is a fallacy to treat a revolution en bloc. Every revolution goes through a series of metamorphoses. The starting-point is left far behind; and the road of history is a tortuous one. The onlooker tends to fix his eyes on the starting-point and to overlook the zig-zags that follow; and the revolution itself is entangled in its own illusions and myths. At every twist and turn of the course which carries it away from the starting-point, it looks back to its origins and repeats an oath of allegiance to them. At every stage of its evolution, the revolution reasserts its own identity. The illusion is not altogether illusion. The continuity of the revolutionary process is a fact. But continuity itself implies change and the recurrent disruption of continuity.

The starting-point of every social revolution so far has been the promise of full and unqualified equality to the oppressed and the disinherited. What followed was a painful and stormy drift away from Utopia. The oppressed and the disinherited storm the Bastilles and the Winter Palaces, and every revolution appears to them as the Doomsday in which they are the supreme judge. Their anger and their passion are the battering rams which break the old order. The sansculottes of the Parisian suburbs and the Red Guards of Viborg and Krasnaya Presnya performed the same function with the same zeal and the same hopes. On the morrow of their victory, the new regime proved unable to fulfil the promise. The claim to equality is the terrific liability on which the new regime is bound to default. The triumphant revolution is entangled in a tragic net from which it can get loose only by chopping off its own limbs. The more it mutilates itself in the process, the more desperately must it look for props and crutches to support its precarious “balance.” It must also look for new stabilizing factors in the social environment of the postrevolutionary era.

Before Cromwell could firmly base his Protectorate on the merchants of London and on his major-generals, he had to silence John Lilbourne who had persistently voiced the original claims of the revolution. The stage for the Empire of Napoleon was set in the long series of “purges” which started with Hébert, the leader of the most radical wing of Jacobinism, engulfed Danton and Robespierre and finished with Babeuf, the last epigone of the egalitarian spirit of the revolution. The repetition of the process in Russia looks almost like a plagiarism committed by history on its own previous performance. Yet there are new elements in this plagiarism.

The revolutions of the seventeenth and the eighteenth century drift away from Utopia into the haven of a bourgeois society. It is more difficult to see the port towards which the Russian revolution is sailing through the storms of war. Those social layers which managed to stabilize the life of seventeenth-century England and eighteenth-century France are absent in Russia. The bourgeoisie has been destroyed. The proletariat and the peasantry have been reduced to political silence and harnessed to the planned economy; they are not the ruling or dominant classes of contemporary Russia. The new “elite” is still in the stage of formation; and its outlook has not yet been clearly defined.

The American sociologist Burnham has coined the phrase the “managerial revolution.” He forecast a stage in which modern society can be dominated neither by the capitalist nor by the worker and in which the industrial manager becomes the dominant figure. As a sweeping generalization, this is too tempting to be true. Managerial Society, technocracy and so on have gained much more ground in the books of some theoreticians than in real life. Yet if any nation on earth has come near the pattern of a managerial society, it is Russia. So far the only “stabilizing” force which has emerged from the Russian upheaval has been the “class” of administrative and industrial managers. Their role can in many respects be compared to that played by the City merchants of the Cromwellian era. It is they who have, probably not fully consciously, undertaken the task of taming the “unruly elements of the revolution.” It is they who have put their stamp on the psychological outlook of the country, on its industrial aspirations and endeavours. It is undoubtedly their “style of life” which has manifested itself in such unique strokes of economic strategy as the leap-frogging of whole industrial complexes and combines, with their machinery and labour, over hundreds and thousands of miles to Russia's east. The imaginative novelty of that “economic strategy” corresponds to the “dynamism” of a young and vigorous social force making its first ambitious appearance in the national arena.

It must not be forgotten that the several hundred thousand technicians and industrial managers who are fighting this war in Russia's mines and factories received their training only some three, five, or six years ago. A few figures illustrate the magnitude of the process. Not much more than ten years ago only about twenty thousand engineers were employed in Soviet industry. The programme of industrialization called for hundreds of thousands of technicians. The “output of industrial officers” became an inseparable part of the successive five-year plans. The number of engineers in Russia increased about thirty times during the pre-war decade. More than 160,000 young Soviet citizens graduated from technical colleges in the course of the second plan. These figures reflect the leaps and bounds by which a new social group has emerged. The new industrial manager has been given a privileged social status. His slogan is “Away with the uravnilovka2; his faith, machine worship, and his ideals, absolute obedience of the workers, ruthless discipline in production and one-man control in factories. The managerial phalanx, itself an offshoot of the revolutionary plebs, has brought to a close the plebeian phase of the revolution.

But the end is not yet. The structure of the Russian Protectorate has itself not taken on any final shape. In a totalitarian state which was arming itself to the teeth the officers' corps reappeared on the stage, rehabilitated and elevated to a peculiar position of social respectability. A rigid military hierarchy was reintroduced at the end of the thirties, and a distinctive esprit de corps has taken hold of the commanders of the Red Army. The war has added incalculable momentum to this development. Towards the close of 1942 not less than five hundred officers were promoted to generals in the course of a few weeks. The promotions to the lower ranks of colonels and majors must have been proportionately more numerous. No doubt, promotions on such a scale were dictated by the actual needs of the war. But whatever the immediate reasons, the fact itself could not fail to affect the social outlook. The new officers' corps has evoked the old Imperial military tradition which the revolution was supposed to have renounced “once and for all.” The historian will probably describe the set of military reforms which were carried out towards the end of 1942 as a concentrated ideological counter-reform. Not only was the political commissar, the errant shadow of the civil war, banished from the army; not only were the new Orders of Suvorov and Kutuzov, the national heroes of old monarchist Russia, placed above the orders of Lenin and the Red Banner; in addition, the officers' corps was ordered to sew on epaulettes, the symbols of the old Imperial army, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Red Army; and the Regulations of Peter the Great were recalled to the memory of the Russian soldier as a source of inspiration and as a valid code of behaviour. Pravda, the official party paper, honoured the military leaders as the “sovereigns of the people,” a description as flattering as it was “anti-constitutional.”

The revolution seems to renounce its own origins and its own programme. It seems to abdicate step by step to the new social groups which may be able to stabilize a new social hierarchy. Yet this is only half the truth. The continuity of the revolutionary process is still something more than merely an outward appearance. It is symbolized by Stalin himself, the living link between all the phases of the process. Stalin is the underground leader of the Tsarist days and the member of the Central Committee of October 1917. He carries with him his somewhat obscure legend of the civil war and the prestige of the only authorized successor to Lenin. He is at the same time the tamer of the “old Bolshevism” of Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin. He has paved the way for the new hierarchy of industrial managers and generals. He has bowed to and endorsed the new hierarchy by assuming, at the age of sixty-two, his first military rank — the rank of Marshal. But he has not only bowed to the new hierarchy, he also keeps it under control. It is he who creates the marshals and it is he who is potent to hurl them down from the Tarpeian rock of the revolution. In the history of revolutions only the Lord Protector was equal to Stalin in embodying the unity of the revolution throughout all its transient metamorphoses. No French Jacobin career is comparable. Stalin is Robespierre and the First Consul in one person.

The new hierarchy is very strong, but is it equally stable? It may still take much time and many a convulsion before the vortex of changes stops swallowing new and new victims. At this point all the analogies with previous revolutions fall short. The problem may briefly be put thus: Cromwell's England and Napoleon's France could bring the revolutionary process to a standstill because the merchants of the City and the French bourgeoisie grew and matured as social forces under the pre-revolutionary regimes. They possessed the social tradition and confidence which were needed for the task of stabilization. The industrial managers and the new marshals of Russia possess no such qualities. Their capacity for “stabilization” is still an unknown quantity. The Russian revolution has uprooted the old order much more radically than any of its predecessors could possibly do. It has irrevocably barred the way to any restoration, and it has not yet firmly paved the way for any new permanent solution. This has, of course, little to do with the stability of Stalin's personal rule, which may survive a number of new phases, provided Stalin's stupendous adaptability does not fail him. But the issue is much wider than the fortunes of Stalin's personal rule.

This, then, is the vicious circle. The Russian revolution is still drifting away from its starting-point, but the haven at which it could cast anchor is not yet in sight. The task of post-revolutionary stabilization has become immensely difficult and complicated in the “century of the common man,” when so many old social hierarchies lose their balance and the new ones seem to totter as soon as they are set up. Any post-revolutionary hierarchy resembles a throne established on the crater of a volcano. The degree of its stability or instability depends on whether the volcano has already disgorged the whole of its lava content or not. Here, the student of history can only put the question-mark without attempting to formulate any reply.


1. “Grey is all theory : ever green is the tree of life.” A shortening of the well-known lines from Goethe's Faust of which Lenin was particularly fond. Ed. note.

2. Uravnilovka. egalitarian wages policy.