Into the swamp
Review of Yuri Slezkine's 'The house of government: a saga of the Russian Revolution'. Princeton University Press, 2017, pp1096, £30
“People may do him the honour of abusing him; read him they do not.”1
On December 7 1937, Volodia Moroz, a 15-year-old boy who lost both his parents in Stalin’s purges, wrote in his diary:
If a person who had fallen into a deep sleep 12 years ago were to wake up now, he would be amazed by the changes that had taken place.
He wouldn’t find the old leaders. Instead, he would see a government of callow fools, who had done nothing for the victory of the revolution, or aged scoundrels, who had sold out their comrades for the sake of their personal wellbeing. He wouldn’t see the ‘former’ legendary Red Army commanders, the builders and organisers of the revolution, the talented writers, journalists, engineers, artists, theatre directors, diplomats, statesmen, etc. Everything is new: the people, the human relations, the contradictions, the country as a whole (p875).
Moroz made the mistake of speaking his mind. Exiled in an orphanage far from his previous home in Moscow, he wrote a letter to Stalin describing the children of “important, esteemed people”, who “do not respect anything: they drink, lead dissolute lives and are rude to others” (p877). Two months later, he was arrested, sentenced to three years in a labour camp. Moroz died in prison of tuberculosis in 1939 aged 17.
Everything is new
Who were the new “people” Moroz observed were now leaders? Stalin needed an elite and an intelligentsia prepared to treat all workers as slaves. The purges brought into being a new social group that would do this. These were brutalised controllers, who in other settings might be described as sociopaths.
Why did Stalin choose to unleash the purges against the old guard of Bolsheviks? By 1935, the regime had failed to establish full control over workers. Despite the use of slave labour, Stakhanovism and draconian labour laws, workers could move from plant to plant and to other parts of the country in search of different or better livelihoods. This caused shortages and problems with turnover and targets. Other workers turned up for work when they wanted. Absenteeism was therefore another problem.2
Moreover, workers had opportunities for collective resistance. This included mass demonstrations, food riots, strikes, slowdowns and violent attacks against officials. Decrees had been passed to criminalise truancy and introduce internal passports and work books, but many of the old guard of Bolsheviks sympathised with workers and cooperated with their resistance. Some managers turned a blind eye to the decrees.
In order to enforce anti-working class measures, Stalin decided to kill off the generation of Bolsheviks that had supported him into power. They had done this either by avoiding being drawn into the opposition during the debates of the 1920s or changing sides. Despite its loyalty to Stalin, the old guard were tainted with revolutionary ideas, such as workers’ control, industrial democracy and an abhorrence of forced labour. Members of the old guard had the potential to organise an opposition based on workers’ interests and needs. They might become critics of the regime. They were therefore suspect and had to be removed as “wreckers and saboteurs”. Once a new group of controllers were in charge, Stalin believed the draconian labour laws could be enforced. By June 1940, he was able to criminalise workers who tried to change their jobs. Workers who did not turn up for work were also punished harshly.
What were the new “human relations” the purges brought into being? The aim of the purges was to achieve full control of the surplus product, so that the elite could function as a class. The fact that this failed became apparent 40 years later when the regime disintegrated and the elite was assimilated within the capitalist class. In the interim period, the enormous police powers the KGB possessed meant that the population remained thoroughly atomised. Atomisation meant that collective forms of resistance were impossible. Terror disciplined both the workforce and the intelligentsia in a system of command. This was at every level in Soviet society and gave the regime a stable appearance.
On the basis of this, Stalinism pretended to be a viable alternative to capitalism. The result of the purges was therefore a society with one man in total control, a fully atomised population and no possibility of collective opposition - especially workers’ opposition. Marxism was permanently extinguished. This enabled Stalinism to survive as long as it did.3
What were the new “contradictions” Moroz observed? The purges brought into being a system that failed. Stalinism never gained complete control over the labour process. However atomised workers were, they could still resist individually. They could turn up for work drunk, they could work at their own rate and they could sabotage machinery and the product. This was one of the reasons Soviet goods were of such poor quality and planning was impossible. Individuals could not act independently of the state. They were dependent on the state for everything. Nonetheless, they could not be forced to produce a surplus of sufficient size and quality either to satisfy the needs of the population or the elite’s desire to become a ruling class. The idea that a combination of nationalised property relations and forced labour is a viable alternative to capitalism is now totally discredited.4
Volodia Moroz was the son of the former head of the Cheka investigations department, Grigory Moroz - a member of the old guard of Bolsheviks. Moroz senior had sided with Stalin during the period of the Left Opposition. In 1927, he organised a raid of the homes of allies of Trotsky, such as Smilga and Preobrazhensky. The oppositionists had organised a demonstration calling for the fulfilment of Lenin’s Testament. This was broken up by a crowd that had thrown ice, potatoes and firewood at them. Moroz supported the crowd, some of whom broke into the oppositionists’ apartments and started beating them up. He locked the oppositionists in a room until they had a chance to escape (pp296-97).
Moroz’s reward was promotion to the post of head of the Union of State Trade and Consumer Employees - a grand name for a trade union official in charge of trade. He and his family were also given an apartment in the House of Government in Moscow. This was relatively luxurious.
But Moroz’s loyalty to Stalin was of no help to him in the long term. The family lost the apartment during the purges and Moroz was denounced as a “rightist”, arrested and disappeared in July 1937. His wife was arrested two months later. Apart from the eldest, the children were sent to orphanages (p789).
The Moroz family apartment was one of 505 in the House of Government. They had typically a study, a studio, a living/dining room with a piano, children’s rooms and a kitchen with space for a maid or nanny to sleep in. They were in the largest residential building in Europe at the time, located in Moscow in an area called “the Swamp” across the Moskva River from the Kremlin. It contained a shop, café, clinic, crèche, hairdresser’s salon, post office, telegraph, bank, gym, laundry, library, tennis court, theatre and cinema.
In 1935 there were 2,655 tenants, 700 of whom were state and party officials. The others were dependents, including 588 children. The building also housed 600-800 waiters, gardeners, painters, plumbers, janitors, laundresses, floor polishers and 57 administrators (pxi). Although Stalin’s relatives lived there, Stalin himself stayed across the river in the Kremlin. Much of the Soviet elite of the 1930s lived in this building with their maids, nannies and governesses. Almost a third of the residents of the building disappeared during the purges of 1937-38.
Moroz and his family are a few of the people whose lives are described in The house of government. The book records the fates of about 80 tenants and their families. This is a lost social group and it is to the author’s credit that he restores their existence and experience. The author, Yuri Slezkine, is a Russian-born American historian, writer and translator, who has written about Russian and Jewish society.5 He subtitles the book a “family saga” and most of his attention is on those tenants and their children who left literary traces of their existence. It is the story of children born to Bolshevik families after the revolution in the 1920s and 1930s whose parents were purged. It is in their own words, using diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, letters and novels as primary sources.
There is a therapeutic function to the author’s work - its stories should encourage the few remaining survivors of the purges to talk about the trauma they and their families experienced.
Slezkine gives a special focus to the lives of the children of the purged old guard Bolshevik elite (p980). These children were sent to orphanages or cared for by relatives - many of them were reintegrated within the elite as adults. As the quotes Slezkine selects show, they learned to stay silent, put a positive slant on what had happened to them and talk about safe subjects, such as Pushkin, poetry and patriotism. If still alive, they would be now in their 80s or 90s. This generation will have families, including many people living today that have been directly or indirectly affected by the distress their relatives suffered as children. I guess that Slezkine, born in 1956, may well be one of these.
The literature Slezkine selects shows how far, from 1928 until 1934, the subjectivity of the old guard became increasingly irrational. Their uncritical belief in the possibility of socialism in the Soviet Union was utopian. It required a form of worship of the Communist Party and its leaders as the embodiment of a mystical historical progress. The selections show that this loyalty led to quasi-religious forms of behaviour during the purges, including the confession of sins against the party and calls for repentance.
By far the most interesting parts of the book are the selections from diaries, memoirs and letters of the people purged (pp699-812). Reading these scripts, one experiences a profound sense of shock and non-comprehension. Some writers reassure family members that it is all a mistake and the misunderstandings will be sorted out soon. Others are letters from labour camps, full of optimism, positivity and patriotic praise (written in the vain hope that the censors who read them might be persuaded the charges against the writers are false). Some are desperate appeals to the oppressor’s humanity and intelligence.
The old guard seemed to have no idea of what was happening to them. In their imagination they could conceive that there might be people who were part of a plot to overthrow Stalin. But, until interrogated, tortured and forced to ‘confess’, this didn’t include them or anyone they knew personally. They had remained loyal to Stalin and the idea of socialism in one country. How could Stalin ever consider turning against them? The author shares this sense of puzzlement with his subject matter.
Without a political economy of the purges, Slezkine is at a loss to explain the terror his raconteurs experienced. According to the author, the purges were the consequence of a siege mentality that infected the elite (p712). The Soviet Union was a “besieged fortress”. It was under threat internally from hidden or unknown enemies. These had connections with external enemies, such as Nazi Germany and Japan. This theory coincides nicely with the justification of the purges given by the regime and its apologists - including the characterisation of Trotsky as a fascist.
It is true that the civil war, the boycott of the USSR and the defeat of the European revolution isolated the Bolsheviks and, by doing so, contributed to the rise of Stalin and the emergence of Stalinism in the 1920s. However, the purges further enfeebled a country weakened by war and famine. It was less able to defend itself. The purge of military officers made the USSR even more vulnerable to hostile invasion. The Axis powers fully exploited this during World War II. As a consequence, there were millions more unnecessary deaths.6
Marx as scapegoat
In the absence of a coherent explanation, Slezkine looks for a scapegoat. Someone is to blame. But who is it? The author turns to Marx. Until the purges, the Bolsheviks were followers of Marx and the purges were therefore the natural consequence of Marxist theory. Marx becomes the evil demiurge responsible for both Stalinism and fascism. According to Slezkine, Marx’s early essays, On the Jewish question and A contribution to the critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right, are the foundation of the “entire edifice of Marxist theory” (pp109-10). He declares of the former that Marx “wanted to abolish money by abolishing the Jews” (p110). Of the latter he states that Marx thought that the emancipation of humanity “depends on the resurrection of Germany” (p113). In other words, Marx was a German nationalist and an anti-Semite. According to Slezkine, both Hitler and Stalin were descendants of Marx: Hitler by identifying a tribe - the Jews - as the enemy; and Stalin by targeting a class - the capitalists (p714).
Our author is a historian, not a novelist.7 A reviewer has stated this is “not an ordinary academic book”.8 Yet, however extraordinary a book is, surely a historian should use some criteria of accuracy and truthfulness. While there is no evidence that Slezkine deliberately tries to misrepresent Marx, he does seem to suffer from a virulent form of anti-Marxist prejudice. An example is his pejorative description of Marx’s writings as “obscure, oracular formulas” (p113). This prejudice appears to have clouded his judgement. Slezkine is unconcerned whether his peers confirm his judgement or not. One would think that, given the controversial nature of his opinions - making him vulnerable to being attacked for poor scholarship and misleading his readers - he would have looked for and tried to find more allies prepared to defend his anti-Marxist prejudices.9
To explain how Stalin behaved during the purges, Slezkine sets out to prove that Marx was the founder of a religion. Slezkine believes that Stalin tried to turn the Soviet Union into a cult modelled on the sectarian nature of the Bolshevik Party. In order to do this, Slezkine undermines the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, and between the secular and the religious by outlining two approaches to defining a religion and suggesting that Marxism is a religion on both counts.
The first is that religion entails the belief in supernatural entities. Marxists are materialists who question the existence of such phenomena. Yet Slezkine does not mention the notion that a supernatural entity consists of a non-material substance. Instead he argues that the idea of a communist future is supernatural because it is “incapable of falsifiable verification”. He takes this idea from the liberal philosopher, Karl Popper. But it is arguable that Popper is wrong to believe that the Marxist prediction of a classless future is unfalsifiable. Surely it would be falsified if a new form of class society emerges out of capitalism. This was a real consideration during the cold war, when people imagined that Soviet-type regimes would evolve out of bureaucratic relations within capitalism.10
Slezkine derives a second definition of religion from Durkheim - a religion consists of a moral community united around some sacred thing. Slezkine argues that “every society is religious by definition” if it includes “a comprehensive ideology (including secularism)” that creates and reflects a “moral community” (p75). For example, we should consider US politics to be religious, because a moral community has grown up around the idea that the US constitution is sacred. It follows that to state that one is not religious is also a statement of religious belief if one is part of a moral community (say of humanists) and hold that secularism is sacred.
According to Slezkine, Marxists have built a moral community around the idea that a classless future society is sacred. It is therefore a religion. But what makes something “sacred”? In origin it is its association with the supernatural, spiritual or divine - in which case, to describe secular phenomena as “sacred” is metaphorical. It means that something is revered, respected or argued for passionately. It does not mean it is “religious” except by analogy with the uncritical enthusiasm that religious people sometimes exhibit.
The uncritical enthusiasm born of terror that people showed towards Stalin suggests that to say his personality was “sacred” is meaningful - thus references to his cult of personality. By analogy, Stalin’s book The history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): short course could also be described as “sacred”. No-one dared criticise it. On the other hand, if the only reason people in the Soviet Union read it was to escape being purged, then, despite pretence, there is no evidence of genuine reverence or respect for the text. There would be then no justification for describing it, like the Bible, as “sacred”. I do not know a single person - Marxist or non-Marxist - that has any reverence or respect for Stalin’s writings. I am also unaware that a moral community existed around Stalin. These considerations throw doubt on one of the strongest candidates for a secular religion - Stalinism.
The Marxist belief in the possibility of a classless future is thoroughly secular. The notion of classlessness depends on the ideas that it is possible to end the capitalist division of labour, create an abundance of products sufficient to meet people’s needs, shorten the time necessary to reproduce society through the use of robots, enlarge the amount of time individuals have to develop their creativity and sociability, generate surpluses controlled by producers and democratise the planning process within a global society. All these ideas are contestable, falsifiable and subject to critical reflection. Marxists may be wrong to think that conditions within capitalism pose the possibility of classless social relations, but the attempt to explain the nature of these conditions and whether they can be superseded is a scientific activity, not a religious one. History will tell whether or not Marxism became the dominant paradigm in the social sciences.
The house of government has over a thousand pages, it is in six parts and has 33 chapters. Consistent with Slezkine’s characterisation of Marxism as religion, each part is titled according to an ideal progress in the life of a millennial sect. Thus part 3 is titled “The second coming”; part 4 “The reign of the saints” and part 5 “The last judgement”. So the book’s purpose is to prove that the Bolsheviks were religious fanatics. In Slezkine’s words, they were “millenarian sectarians preparing for the apocalypse” (pxii).
This thesis preoccupies his account of 1917. He describes the Bolsheviks as “the most exclusive and immanentist of the Russian millenarians, most suspicious of the swamp of daily routine ... and most willing to fight not only against the swamp, but also against those who are turning towards the swamp” (p129). The swamp was full of philistines - people uninformed of Marxism or disdainful of studying it. Marxists, Slezkine alleges, are motivated by the “sheer power of their hatred” for people who are not Marxists (p58).
In order to show that Bolshevism was a religious sect, he states that it was not a political party. Bolshevism was dedicated to bringing into being “life without politics” - in other words, a rejection of the real world and its replacement with a world of the religious imagination. If it had been political it would have been interested in “securing power within the Russian state or society” (p58). Bolshevism was “a secret community of the self-chosen” (p55). Secrecy was needed in order to secure the sect’s rejection of the world (p59). Evidence of this involves the Bolsheviks’ refusal to participate in electoral politics. This is, of course, piffle. As every student of the October revolution knows, the Bolsheviks actively participated in electoral politics.11 Moreover, secrecy was a response to oppression - a survival strategy - and not, as the author suggests, a rejection of the world. It is a pity that Slezkine’s extensive work on the sociology of sects is wasted on the Bolsheviks. Their immersion in secular politics disproves his thesis.
Marxism is not a world rejecting religion, but a world embracing science. To argue the contrary, Slezkine would have to show that Marx’s critique of capitalism rejects the world in some meaningful sense. In other words, he would have to refute the notion that Marx was a materialist. He would have to deny that instead of rejecting capitalism Marxists aim to understand the nature of capital accumulation in order to create the conditions for its supersession. This means that a classless society preserves and develops certain features presently associated with class societies, such as labour-saving machinery and the application of science and technology. He would also have to refute the notion that there were historical circumstances specific to the genesis and degeneration of socialist political groups in the 20th century. These encouraged members to be ignorant of Marxist literature and political economy in general, and to disrupt and denounce the ideas of other socialists. To do this Slezkine would need to make a clear distinction between Marxism and its nemesis, Stalinism. Sadly he does none of this.
Regardless of his hostile interpretation, Slezkine’s observation that Marxism ceased to have any useful function after the purges seems to be correct. Slezkine states that the old guard Bolshevik elite “never figured out how to get their children to inherit their faith” (pxii). After the purges, no-one seemed to take Marxism seriously. It had failed as a potential state ideology. Unlike Christianity, which became the successful ideology of feudalism, the Soviet elite abandoned Marxism.
Slezkine states that the House of Government children inherited their parents’ tastes in literature, but not their interest in Marxist theory. The children had no knowledge of Marx’s political economy. If they had any awareness of Marx’s and Lenin’s contributions to world culture, it came from history book summaries and speeches. It appears that no-one bothered to read the Marxist classics and only a few highly privileged individuals were allowed to discuss them. The literature the children of the purged old Bolshevik elite read confirms this. There is no mention of Marx - not even of Lenin. After the purges no-one wanted to have anything to do with their ideas any more.12
These are important observations. The elite’s rejection of Marxism began in 1924 and found its fullest form in the purges. I can think of three reasons why this might have happened. Firstly, Slezkine notices there are two kinds of socialists - Marxists and nationalists (p23). When a socialist becomes a nationalist, they cease to be a Marxist. The essence of the doctrine of socialism in one country was the substitution of Soviet patriotism for Marxism. From the time of Lenin’s death in 1924 to the defeat of the Left Opposition in 1928, there were hopeless attempts to justify the doctrine in Marxist terms. It could not be done. The children therefore inherited the patriotism of the old Bolsheviks loyal to Stalin - not their Marxism.
Secondly, Marxism contradicted the children’s experience of the regime they lived in. Marxism is egalitarian, but the regime boasted of its own inequality. Marxism is opposed to anti-Semitism, but the regime was anti-Semitic. Marxism proclaims the idea of workers’ emancipation, yet the regime oppressed and exploited workers. Marxism is opposed to fetishism, yet the regime fetishised Stalin and the party. To show knowledge of Marxism would make an individual vulnerable to loss of status, livelihood, freedom, sanity and life. As a result the brutalised post-purge elite took no interest in Marxism and did not believe or understand it if they did.
Thirdly, the children inherited a form of self-interest from their parents. Self-interest had motivated the old guard’s loyalty to Stalin and the regime. The parents were rewarded with both powerful positions and a relatively luxurious lifestyle in the House of Government. There were gross levels of inequality between the workers and this privileged elite. After all, self-interest meant agreeing with Stalin that egalitarianism is a petty bourgeois idea.13
However, the purges proved that self-interested loyalty to Stalin was insufficient for survival. In order to cope, the children were forced to internalise their post-purge, atomised condition by becoming anti-social and anti-human and dissociating themselves from family and friends. In Moroz’s words, they drank, lead dissolute lives and were rude to each other (p877). In order to survive they had to treat social relations with distrust and suspicion. They had to stay silent, when faced with controversial opinions to do with politics, economics or religion. They had to pretend that a malfunctioning, oppressive regime was a workers’ utopia. They had to think of workers as animals.
As a result, basic humanist and rationalist assumptions informing Marx’s work were out of kilter with the children’s strategies of survival. Slezkine gives an excellent example of the anti-humanism of one of the children in his account of the life of Andrei Sverdlov - son of the revolutionary hero, Yakov Sverdlov. Sverdlov junior joined the NKVD and became responsible for many arbitrary atrocities and betrayals of former school friends (pp883-86).
Finally, the purges cannot be explained, as Slezkine tries to do, by reference to a mindless form of quasi-religious irrationalism. Certainly the purges were mindless. It is true that neighbours denounced neighbours in order to get better accommodation. It is a fact that children were encouraged to denounce their parents in order to get praise from their teachers.14 However, the purges would not have happened if the attempt to extract a surplus from workers and peasants through forced collectivisation and industrialisation had succeeded. Stalin needed an elite and an intelligentsia that was prepared to enforce draconian labour laws with a more extreme form of brutality than before. The nationalised property relations of the former USSR enabled him to generalise the overall move to the atomisation and bureaucratic control of the whole of the population.
The problem with the old guard Bolsheviks were that they had memories of the revolution and a time when workers had some collective democratic control of the labour process. This group’s attachment to workers was suspect. It might organise an opposition basing itself on workers’ interests and needs. The purges made sure this would never occur. As a result, Stalin made sure the inequalities between the elite, intelligentsia and workers would be preserved within the new, more brutal, post-purge society.
This was neither capitalist nor socialist. It was an unviable social formation, incapable of planning, unable to generate a surplus sufficient to sustain its atomised social relations, powerless to reproduce itself and destined to disintegration and collapse.
Paul B Smith
1. J Macdonnell, ‘Karl Marx and German socialism’ (1875); quoted by M Gabriel Love and capital London 2011, p464 and p662.
2. D Filtzer, ‘Labour and the contradictions of Soviet planning under Stalin: the working class and the regime during the first years of forced industrialisation’ Critique Nos20-21 (1987). See also Filtzer’s Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialisation London 1987, p233; and JJ Rossman Worker resistance under Stalin Harvard 2005.
3. HH Ticktin, ‘The political-economic nature of the purges’ Critique No27(1995).
4. See S Weissman, ‘The role of the purges and terror in the formation of the USSR’ Critique No27 (1995).
5. He is also director of the Institute of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of California, and author of The Jewish century Princeton 2004.
6. See R Medvedev Let history judge Oxford 1989.
7. Some reviewers have compared the book to a work of fiction. They suggest it is in the style of a novel by Tolstoy or Grossman (see S Fitzpatrick, ‘Good communist homes’ London Review of Books July 27 2017). Slezkine disagrees. He states emphatically the book is a “work of history” in his frontispiece.
8. S Fitzpatrick op cit p3.
9. Slezkine cites one ally in note 94, p1009. This is JJ Talmon, the author of Political messianism: the romantic phase (London 1960). Unfortunately for Slezkine, Talmon would not have supported his belief that Marxism is anti-Semitic: “While Fourier, Toussenel, Proudhon, Pierre Leroux and Bakunin loathed the Jews, ... Marxism was in spite of Marx’s spleen against his own race fundamentally not anti-Semitic.” See www.cambridgeforecast.org/MIDDLEEAST/TALMON.html.
10. In 1941, James Burnham, a former Trotskyist, argued something like this in his book, The managerial revolution.
11. See, for example, A Rabinowitch The Bolsheviks come to power London 2017, pp91-93.
12.S Fitzpatrick op cit p7.
13. In a 1931 article titled ‘New conditions, new tasks’, Stalin attacked egalitarianism as “petty bourgeois stupidity” and denounced the ideal of social equality as “not socialist”. See D Filtzer Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialisation London 1987, p106.
14. In May 1934 a 13-year-old boy was declared a hero for reporting his mother to the authorities. She stole grain to feed the family. See E Ammende Human life in Russia London 1936, p103. See also how the state propagandised the myth of Pavel Morozov - another 13-year-old boy who allegedly denounced his father to the political police for forging documents and selling them to enemies of the Soviet state in 1934. See O Figes The whisperers: private life in Stalin’s Russia London 2007, pp20-31.