Post-Communism, The Civilizing Process, and the Mixed Impact of Leninist Violence

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Post-Communism, The Civilizing Process, and the Mixed Impact of Leninist Violence
Jeffrey Kopstein

University of Toronto
Prepared for Conference Whither Eastern Europe? Changing Political Science Perspectives on the Region, University of Florida, January 9-11, 2014
(Draft: please excuse the incomplete referencing and scholarly apparatus)
As post-communism enters its 25th year, it is perhaps appropriate to reflect on the impact of communist violence on post-communist development. This is not as simple a task as it may seem. In the initial years after the demise of Leninist regimes in Eastern Europe, social scientists interested in democratic transformation focused their attention on three essential tasks of overcoming the legacies of communist violence: the construction of institutions of political representation, overcoming the legacies of Stalinist economic planning, and, in the case of multi-ethnic states, finding reasonable and peaceful modes of intercommunal relations. In all three cases, the legacies of communism are things to be overcome. This was the central assumption of virtually all political science literature on post-communism.
And there was something to this. Removing the arbitrary instruments of power, namely the communist party and the secret police, from political life was a crucial fist condition for establishing democracy in the short run. Who could support the destruction of civil society, the expropriation of private property, the creation of the Gulag, and the wanton destruction of human and physical capital, even in the service of higher political ends? The Black Book of Communism all but ends debate on this matter. As well it should. The communist state was a brutal and fickle Leviathan, and removing it from the global scene could not but be a net gain for humanity and the cause of democratic governance. Only extremists, jesters, or fools suggest otherwise.
But for students of comparative politics, something got lost in the discussion of Leninist legacies. In fact, anyone who pointed to the “positive” legacies of communism, much less communist violence, for democratic development quickly put him or herself in the same camp as Slavoj Zizek or Jodi Dean who lament the demise of the “Red Horizon” for the denizens of the capitalist West and the clarity of thought Leninist violence provided the Left as a whole. This residual nostalgia for communism, for communist violence, I would argue casts an analytical pall over a positive as opposed to a normative analysis of Leninist violence for the prospects for political development over the long run.
Students of comparative politics, however, have a keener sense of irony than this. At a minimum we know that “good” ends can and do sometimes result from “bad”means. This is a central lesson—perhaps the central lesson--of our subdiscipline. Take, for example, Ralf Dahrendorf’s Society and Democracy in Germany (1966), written twenty years after the downfall of Nazi Germany. In this classic of modern social science, Dahrendorf argued that Hitler paved the way for postwar German democracy by destroying the pre-modern social order that constituted the foundation of German authoritarianism. The painful irony for Dahrendorf is that if the aristocratic opposition to Hitler (which Dahrendorf labels ‘counterrevolutionary’) had succeeded in one of their assassination attempts, the future of democracy would have been far less certain than in a defeated Nazi Germany.
This sense of irony in assessing the impact of violence is to be found at the core of much of the classic literature in comparative social science, perhaps no more so than in one of the founders of Sovietology itself, Barrington Moore (Bernhard and Kopstein 2013). It is worth recalling that in the Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, the first chapter carries the subtitle “The Contributions of Violence to Gradualism.” The subsequent chapter on France highlights the importance of terror in ensuring a decisive break with the pre-modern order. And, in the following chapter, Moore’s much neglected case study of the United States, the Civil War is depicted as the “real” American Revolution. He argues that without it the United States would have been left with a society divided between a highly industrialized North and a slave-owning “Junker” dominated South, much more akin to Wilhelmine Germany than Edwardian England. He reiterated this point on liberal democracy succinctly and forcefully in his next book:
“The Revolt of the Netherlands, the Puritan Revolution, the French Revolution, and the American Civil War did help to break down in each case a different historical set of institutional obstacles to the establishment of Western liberal democracy, though it is of course impossible to prove that they were necessary to bring about this result. From the standpoint of a general commitment against human suffering there is nothing attractive about violence per se. Nor does the limited degree of “success” in past violence prove that present and future violence is a good, inevitable, and necessary.”
In short, the road to democracy was not evolutionary, not crafted by clever elites, not institutionally designed, but a road that was paved in the blood born of voluntarist violence and unexpected consequences. Half a century after the fact, perhaps we, too, have the luxury of considering the role of communist violence in democratic development with the cool eye of the social scientist. Moore himself does not rule this out as a possibility:
“When de Tocqueville wrote about the French Revolution, he could present a reasonable case to the effect that the change had not been worth the cost in human suffering; a century later we can see the situation differently and have at least some grounds for concluding that without the French Revolution, French history might well have taken a turn in the general direction of fascism. A hundred years hence there might be similar arguments about the Bolshevik Revolution.”
Moore nudges us in the direction of the long run. Perhaps in the case of communism, the wounds are too fresh for this sort of dispassionate analysis. At a minimum, however, it is worth considering the differences between the short run and long run impact of this violence. One place to begin is in the differences between the individual psychological and macro-sociological effects.
We know a great deal about the impact of violence on the structure of the human personality. It is, in a word, devastating. Victims of violence are traumatized, they form bonds of affection less easily than others, more likely to commit acts of violence themselves, and they are less likely to place their trust in strangers or even intimates. Anyone who has spent any time in the post-communist world understands the importance of this point. A quarter century after the demise of the communist Leviathan, normal people still hesitate to express their opinions, talk on the telephone, or join organizations. Research on post-communist civil society confirms the reductive impact of communism on generalized trust and civic engagement, even controlling for the impact of other kinds of dictatorship (Howard 2003). State-directed violence destroys interpersonal trust and one can expect these bonds to be reestablished only gradually. It is the work of generations. Lack of generalized trust most likely impedes the construction of resilient and robust democracies.
Even so, considering the cases of East-Central Europe, it is remarkable how resilient democracy has been, or even where backsliding has occurred, how inhospitable the terrain is for would-be authoritarians. Given the inexperience of the post-communist political elites, the rapid collapse of the post-communist economies, and the profound reconfiguration of the region’s geopolitics, it would not have been surprising had these countries quickly returned to the “equilibrium path” of dictatorship of the 1920s and 1930s. Yet this did not occur.
This disjuncture between the individual level short run, psychological effects of state-directly political violence and the long run sociological effects is fascinating and it is where I want to focus our attention briefly.
We must first, however, consider the main extant rival hypothesis in explaining the inhospitable environment for would-be autocrats in post-communist Europe: external factors. Many scholars, myself included, have pointed to the rule of the EU in securing democratic change in countries with no history of competitive politics. Yes as important as external factors were to regime outcomes, the first several post-communist states admitted into the EU were already well functioning democracies (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovenia) prior to accession. Clearly the EU, as well as other forces of Western linkage, played a more important role in stabilizing less unambiguous cases (for example, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Serbia). And in some areas such ties have proved insufficient (Ukraine, Belarus, and of course, Russia). While the EU was neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for democratization in the region, it made democratic outcomes more likely in many cases, and serves as a potential buffer against backsliding into authoritarianism. Given this more nuanced perspective, it is important to understand the deeper social structural changes wrought by force by communism itself in accounting for why EU democratic conditionality was so widely embraced or at least mimicked.
The claim here is not that democracy is the “highest” and “final” stage of communism or that this outcome was in any way the intention of communist leaders. Far from it. In fact, the core insight of so much of comparative social science (starting with Weber’s insight that the Protestant did not wish to make capitalism) is the law of unintended effects. The legacies of communism, it follows, were mixed. Two areas where these mixed legacies most obviously mattered were in class structure and ethnic composition.
Communism not only leveled incomes in the region but, perhaps more importantly, destroyed the basis of status societies virtually everywhere it ruled. It is worth recalling Tocqueville’s characterization of the United States as a country of equality, by which he meant not primarily equality of condition but equality of status: poor Americans did not view rich Americans as their social betters. Part of what democracy unworkable in places such as Poland and Hungary was that these were societies of deep and abiding status inequalities, the kinds of inequalities that are not easily overcome by money alone. The elites of these societies were clubbish and essentially impenetrable by ordinary people (Kopstein 2003). Of course, 40 years of communist violence and tyranny was probably more than developmentally “needed” (with all due caution regarding the functionalist logic implicit in this word)—and could probably have been dispensed with altogether in the Czech lands (and may have not been enough or have been too crude in Central Asia or the east Slavic domains). But just as Ralf Dahrendorf argued for the case of the Nazis, the ironic effect of communism was to destroy the traditional bases of authoritarian rule and bequeath the successor regimes social structures much more favorable to democracy than had existed before 1945.
The legacy of communism in terms of social structure was the creation of two large and highly educated urban classes who had experienced adequate provision of modern human needs for at least two generations (Kopstein and Bernhard 2013). These were a large blue collar class of professionals and semi-professionals. In the countryside, communism left behind a highly uniform peasantry whether concentrated on large collective or state farms, smallholders, or both. The social structures that made the area so unfit for democracy—the existence of latifundia, large immiserated peasantries, small middle classes highly dependent on state employment, and a small working class isolated in a few islands of modernity had long passed. Democracy was ultimately installed when these societies already had a modern social structure, rather than when that transformation was going on , as in Western Europe, Latin America, and Eastern Europe itself of bygone eras.
If traditional social structures undermined democracy in Eastern Europe, so too did the persistence of “pre-modern” social cleavages, especially ethnic cleavages and the resulting politics of conflict. Ironically, Communism in some locations “solved” this problem, too, by reshuffling ethnic groups and borders without regard for conventional moral restraints. Like their Nazi rivals, Communist regimes were what Amir Weiner refers to as ethnic gardening states. Their net effect was to leave East-Central Europe ethnically more homogenous (though where ethnic divisions persisted, so too did ethnic conflict in the postcommunist era). Altlhough cross national research has failed to find a consistent relationship between ethnic homogeneity and democracy, it is hard to believe that it is not easier and cheaper to construct a democracy where there are fewer ethnic groups demanding accommodative resources, and one suspects that the inconsistency of results are more statistical artifacts than accurate reflections of underlying realities. Like other forms of violence, this effect is certainly not one to be celebrates, much less emulated, but it is one to be noted and fits neatly into the broader narrative of comparative politics on the impact of pre-modern social cleavages for subsequent democratic development.
One could easily identify other “positive” legacies of communist violence, but the point would remain the same. “Good” effects are sometimes produced by “bad” causes. Just as England’s violent 17th century may have contributed to its 18th and 19th century gradualism, so too may the violence of 20th century European communism have contributed to the relative moderation of the politics of transformation in the 21st century post-communist world. It is true that following a decade of chaos in the 1990s, Russians ran back to an authoritarian order. But Putin and his successor political technologists elsewhere in the East Slavic world should not be mistaken for Czars. They are not in charge of deeply modern societies that do not accept the current order unquestioningly.
Rather than replicate this analysis by focusing on other “positive” legacies from a sociological standpoint, I wish to turn for one moment to another ironic effect of violent communist social engineering,: the creation of societies deeply imbued with bourgeois social norms and practices. In understanding this process, I rely on a modified version of Norbert Elias’s notion of the “civilizing process.”
Elias’s understanding of the civilizing process revolved around an analysis of how the bourgeois virtues of self restraint, manners, and delayed gratification won out among ever larger portions of society well before the rise of capitalism itself as a result of an unintended effect of Kings wishing to rule over the nobility; it was a strategy not of liberal democracy but of late medieval statecraft and especially absolutism.
How might this apply to Leninist rule? Andrew Janos (1996) usefully distinguishes two communist traditions. The first, which he labels insurrectionism and most closely associates with Rosa Luxembourg and some of the early Bolshevik idealists, viewed the revolution not only as a break with the previous political and economic order but also as a break with previous cultural understandings of literature, consumption, and even the family. This culture included “an exuberant anarchism, and iconoclastic anti-traditionalism manifest in the artistic modernism of the 1920s, in poetry, music, theater, and film-making, in Mme. Kolontai’s panegyrics to “free love” and “feminism.”….This first tradition, however, lost out under the rigors of the international and military global order to a “statist” conception of revolution in which a departure from global capitalism not longer meant casting aside bourgeois culture, but instead harnessing selective aspects of it to the broader revolutionary cause. Rather than breaking the nuclear family, Stalinism promoted it; rather than redefining traditional gender roles, Stalinism reinforced them; rather than dispensing with military ranks, Stalinism introduced new ones, tougher with insignia and golden braids for generals; rather than pursuing radical egalitarianism, Stalinism all but trumpeted its effectiveness and justice as long as it served revolutionary ends.
This reorientation in revolutionary tactics from insurrectionism to statism was backed up and reinforced by harnessing the virtues of the bourgeois culture (or at least the communist vision of that culture) to the revolutionary project. This was done, as well know, with ruthless suppression of the old Bolshevik cultural apparatus and many of the Soviet Union’s most distinguished artists of the post-revolutionary era.
At the time and since, Stalinist aesthetics were seen by the intelligentsia of the left as a form of crude philistinism but this analysis reflected their own parvenu’s keen sense of inferiority rather than a solid analysis of what was actually happening. One can only imagine the sense of relief for all concerned when the impenetrable poetry of Mayakovsky was replaced with the Stalinist musical comedy. Vera Dunham’s analysis of the reintroduction of bourgeois (what she terms “middle class”) values in Stalinist fiction of the 1930s is more to the point (Dunham 1976). Rather than dispensing with bourgeois conceptions of the good life, Stalinism started the communist project down the road of promising to provide this life for everyone, at least as it existed in the 1930s—as Dunham notes: apartments with lace curtains and even the a pet bird in an old fashioned cage. The way there included forced doses of high culture. One can today laugh at the image of workers being brought kicking and screaming and shuffling into the Bolshoi to watch Swan Lake or Peter and the Wolf, but the intention was not only to give them what the intelligentsia already knew but also to turn them into “cultured” (as opposed to nekulturnyi) communists.
The act of forced embourgeosiement went beyond high culture and into everyday life. Some of my most treasured items of Stalinist trash in my personal library include East German Benehmbuecher (Etiquette Books) from the 1950s and an especially lovely piece of junk in Russian, Kak Sebya Vesti (How to Behave), a sort of Stalinist Miss Manners, revealing to workers how good communists start with the fork on the outside and move inward, always put their napkins on their laps, wait until everyone is served before eating, listen politely before responding, remove their head covering when entering a room (indicating probably few Jews among the “authors”), and introduce strangers to each other at a dinner party. All fairly distant from the revolutionary insurrectionism of the 1920s but perfectly compatible with Elias’s notion of the civilizing process (in fact, exactly these are precisely the same sort of raw materials that he used in his own study of the Court Society). Part of the communist project, although it did not intend to do so, was to turn workers not into communists but into patient and polite bourgeois, excellent raw material for liberal democracy at a later stage.
It was not the intention of the communists to turn their societies with tremendous brutality at incalculable cost into one of high bourgeois modernity, but that was increasingly the outcome. How successful was all of this? I would argue excessively so, although of course one can find plenty counter examples, as one could find in virtually any culture. The communist vision of bourgeois modernity was one that was frozen in time, the 1920s and 1930s, and it never really changed. It was simply reinforced over and over again. Prescribed tastes in fashion (men in fedoras in the 1980s!), gender roles (women do pretty much everything), personal comportment (earnest, no irony), housing (indoor plumbing plus electrification equals communism), furniture (bad scandinavian), what constituted “the good life” (sausage, a day off, local alcohol, a car of sorts, and straight sex) were all those of the 1920s and 1930s, and this persisted well into the 1980s. Of course Western counterculture made inroads but it was by no means hegemonic and in any case was largely filtered through a bourgeois lens of what life must be like “over there” (drueben, in German, tam in Russian).
A final and perhaps cautionary note is in order. My argument is not that all revolutionary violence is good. Too many people suffered under communism for no discernable reason and with no short or long run benefit to any social order. At the same time, communist state violence was largely directed at bringing about a particular vision of the just society; it so happens that the tools they used and the values they reinforced may have helped pave the way, in certain places, for the very order they were so determined to destroy.

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