Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor" and Stalin

I think, based on my understanding of Stalin and Stalinism, not as an abstract bad things but as something that proceded in a particular way, that Stalin's mode of action and aims can be understood as being similar to those of the Grand Inquisitor.

For people who don't know, the basic story, which is an extract from the Brothers Karamozov, goes like this: it's Spain during the Inquisition. Christ returns to earth and starts preaching. He's arrested by the Inquisition and faces the Grand Inquisitor. Christ himself says nothing but the Grand Inquisitor gives a lengthy speech talking about what he's doing, why he's doing it, and what he hopes to accomplish---and why the appearance of Christ could be the undoing of it.

The crux of the matter is that the Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's story wasn't being cruel solely for cruelty's sake. Instead, his aim was to provide a basically Christian society where people could be happy. Where people could be content and live in a stable, predictable, way. The brutality, the torture, the executions, were all in the service of clearing the way for the manifestation of this state on earth by weeding out all those tendencies that might oppose the maintenance of this state of affairs. The Inquisitor admits that this is not really the Christian ideal in its classical sense, but that it's close and presumably good nonetheless, and possibly the best that folks can hope for in this world. So says the Inquisitor. In other words, he wanted to destroy Christianity in order to create a roughly Christian society.

One of the truths of Stalin's approach was that he sought to destroy half of Soviet society by terror and violence in order to build his ideal of what a completely socialist state should look like. By relentless purging of the opposition and of any power group that could articulate a different vision of society, along with the forced discipline of the people at large, he sought to manifest his idea of pure socialism, accomplished by a total authoritarian revolution in the name of the people. This is often referred to as the Revolution from Above, and should be contrasted with the Russian Revolution as a whole and the Bolshevik state that came out of it. Stalin literally killed the Revolution in order to try to ostensibly 'save' or 'build' socialism, but in reality to impose his idea of socialism on the country.

The Bolshevik state itself before Stalin was not as monolithic as people think. It was sensitive to changes in opinion and internal force and could have been reformed, with independent organs having more power and the Party having less of an influence over things. It could have gone in many democratic directions, although the particular direction of Anarchism, which is what Anarchists mostly care about, was probably unlikely. Stalin changed all of that by committing Soviet society to an ultra-revolution so thorough that it marked it throughout, with Gorbachev undoing some of the damage yet at the same time losing control and letting Russia implode. In fact, the legacy of Stalin has lasted longer than the Soviet Union itself. Russia in the form of the Russian Federation is still highly influenced by the political and cultural legacy of Stalin and Stalinism. Putin is a kind of neo-Stalinist in his stylistic approach to both ruling and to culture, with economics only slightly but significantly entering into the picture.

Stalin killed the entire party, the people who could have lead the Soviet Union in a different direction, and sought to remake the State in his own image. Yes, I'm not making the doctrinaire denunciation of all things Soviet, but, you know, Stalin wouldn't have killed them for no reason. If everyone was just chummy authoritarians with no differences between them, who were just happy to be dictators, Stalin wouldn't have needed to execute and purge them in order to accomplish his goals.

In any case, the Christ in the "Grand Inquisitor" could easily represent the sincere socialist, a member of the Church of socialism, who could have appeared in Stalin's time, but who could have been arrested as a traitor since he didn't sign onto the particular vision of the future that Stalin was offering.

No comments: