Groping Toward Democracy

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The Russian road to democracy is not going to be easy. In the forty-five-volume edition of Vladimir Lenin’s collected works, the index shows no entry for Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Adams, or James Madison. George Washington gets three mentions, but they all relate to well-wishers suggesting that Lenin is the George Washington of Russia. Monroe is listed four times—each time for the Monroe Doctrine, with nothing about the debates over the U.S. Constitution.

This striking indifference of the founder of the Soviet state to the American heritage of democracy and its authors is hardly a positive harbinger for the hopes of the many Russians (and their well-wishers on our shores) for the rise of a new and democratic state from the ruins of the dictatorship of Lenin, Stalin, and their successors.

Most Russians, when asked what they understand by the word democracy , assert: “Why, just the kind you have in America.” But, in fact, they have little or no idea of what that democracy is or where it came from. They are hardly aware that there ever was an American Revolution.

The Russian ignorance is much like that of the young American radicals of the 1960s who proudly wore Mao buttons but confessed that they had never read a line of Mao, not even his Little Red Book . “We’re spiritual Maoists,” they would say. Russia’s “spiritual democrats” are just as ignorant of the American democratic process, how it came about and how it has evolved.

This, as Pravda used to say, “is no accident.”

Lenin, following dutifully in the footsteps of his ideological father, Karl Marx, did not consider the American Revolution a true revolution. It was simply an insurrection of rich colonial planters and merchants inspired by considerations of trade and profits. Taxes, not class struggle, lay at its core. Lenin paid more attention to the almost forgotten Shays’ Rebellion. That had a real class character.

Marx—and later Lenin—fixed attention on the French Revolution; neither bothered with Jefferson or Adams. Marx drew his theories from Hegel and the English social critics John Locke and Adam Smith, and was fluent in the theories of the French Encyclopedists. Lenin did not broaden Marx’s base. He was interested in America but not as a source of democratic theory. He saw the United States as an imperialist state—what he called the highest form of capitalism. The American capitalist state was creating the structure, the tools, and the mechanism that Lenin believed would inevitably be inherited by the proletariat, which would rule not by democracy but by the “dictatorship of the proletariat”—that is, by Lenin and his core group.

Lenin spent no time reading the Federalist Papers, but he was greatly attracted to the innovation of American industrial pioneers like Henry Ford who invented ways of reducing the cost of production. He was deeply interested in the Taylor system, an early time-labor-motion-study technique that had been introduced in American factories over the violent protest of labor unions. Lenin thought Taylorism was just the thing to spice up the sluggish inefficiency of Russian factories.

The first event in American life that really engaged the interest of Karl Marx was the American Civil War. He saw the United States as still in a semifeudal state and became a violent partisan of the North because of Abraham Lincoln’s abolition of slavery. Of course it never occurred to either Marx or Lenin that the fledgling democracy of Jefferson, Adams, and Washington contained the germ of a social state far superior to Marx’s dogmatic concept of a classless society in which the exploitation of man by man would come to an end. Both Marx and Lenin were, at least until revolution actually occurred, Utopian extremists.

It was this absolutism in philosophical theory that caused generation after Soviet generation to grow up in almost total ignorance of the nature of democracy—or, even worse, with a cartoonlike distortion of it.

A quick look at the most recent edition of the Bolshaya Sovetskaya Entisclopedia discloses one column of print devoted to Jefferson, giving him credit for achieving the separation of church and state, for writing the Declaration of Independence (contents not elaborated on), for the Bill of Rights (nature not disclosed), for opposing slavery, and for fighting against “feudalism.” No discussion of Jefferson’s philosophy. Turn to the entry “Democracy,” and there is even less enlightenment. The reader is treated to extracts from Lenin, Stalin, and even Stalin’s doddering Soviet president Mikhail Kalinin on the evils of “bourgeois democracy.” It was precisely this morbid system, the encyclopedia proclaimed, that gave rise to fascism in Italy, to Franco in Spain, to Hitler in Germany, and through the Marshall Plan was attempting to enslave the world.

 

Only the dictatorship of the proletariat, the encyclopedia resonated, could liberate the people of the world “from the yoke of false bourgeois democracy.”