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USSR, Socialism and Brutal Dictatorship

One of the quuestions that arises is whether the authoritarian turn for the USSR was caused by the personal characteristics of Stalin or whether there were other underlying factors such as culture, ideology, institutions, international politics, that led to the authoritarian nature of the USSR. This question also applies to subsequent regimes as well.

Deudney makes the case that these regimes turn to authoritariansim because the ideology upon which they are built has no discussion of internal violence and abuse of power. Marxism in contrast to republicanism, discusses international conflict, but fails to take into account the problem of abuse of institutional control. Marxism itself has no discussion of the state under communism which it assumed would whither away, but Lenin’s discussion on the vanguard state is explicitly concerned with the other capitalist states and not the abuses this vanguard state might undertake.

There is some confirmation to this view. First, the fact that even Lenin had authoritarian tendencies and conducted a red terror of his own with the Bolsheviks. After all it was Lenin who formed the Chekka, the early version of the KGB. Second, even though there was a tempering of paranoia and witch hunts after Stalin’s death, subsequent leaders continued to be authoritarian. Third is the problem that all socialist states were authoritarian, the only states that managed to successfully prevent the abuse of authority over its citizens were the democratic socialist ones. This might be due to the influence of the USSR, but it is in line with the argument about Soviet ideology. This also contradicts the cultural explanation as we see this occur across a number of cultures. Here I mean by authoritarianism, not the absence of democracy, but abuses by those in positions of authority over their people in unaccountable and violent ways, including the miniscule control of everyday actions.

Another explanation pops up in reading the literature on the history of the KGB in the USSR. There are two versions of this argument. The first is that international hostility to communism and the Bolsheviks led these regimes to react by moving towards authoritarianism. Under intense international hostility and plots to overthrow their regimes, paranoia and authoritarian rule becomes a necessary turn. The second version of this argument is that the belief that a worker’s state was an existential threat to capitalist state led the leaders of Socialist states to expect continuous and intense efforts of capitalist states to subvert them. In this version, the capitalist states don’t really have to do anything, rather it is inscribed in the communist ideology that capitalist states will be threatened by worker states and try to undermine them. Therefore written into the soviet ideology is the need for continuous vigilance against plots when there is no overt fighting with capitalist states. When these plots fail to appear, it must be because the Soviet union missed them rather than their non-existence. This would lead to increased paranoia and intense suspicion which would end up in brutal authoritarian rule. What’s interesting about this explanation is that it explains regime type through ideology, but it does so not through an absence of consideration with power abuse, but because of an expectation of international conflict.

The Mitrokhin files seem to confirm this argument, when the KGB (or its predecessor) acquired documents on British SIS operations, they were confused by the absence of major operations in the USSR, and the almost complete absence of agents. Although the sources were quite accurate, the KGB head concluded that the source was trying to trick them. They cut off communications for a while from this source because the information provided failed to confirm the expected plots that were ideologically expected to be taking place.

This provides an interesting parallel to the other authoritarian state tendencies. There is often a rhetorical return to the threat the regime poses to the US or the liberal world which is used to justify acts of repression. While I do not doubt that such operations exist, it still doesn’t change the fact that inscribed into the ideology, or mentality of these regimes is the expectation of conflict, which pushes these regimes to paranoia and authoritarian rule.

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