Moral Revolutions

Moral Revolutions

Leon Aron has written a fascinating and instructive essay on the collapse of the Soviet Union ("Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union Is Wrong," July/August 2011). His insistence on taking seriously both the moral aspirations of those who drove events and the desire for human dignity of ordinary people has implications for our understanding of revolutionary events in general. As political theorist Kenneth Minogue once observed, there have been few more potent motivating factors in history than humiliation and the desire to overcome it.

Yet much as I learned from Aron’s essay, I wonder whether he is not subsuming too much under what he calls "the magnificent moral impulse, the search for truth and goodness." In modern history, and particularly in the history of revolutionary regimes, there are hugely consequential distinctions to be made between three very different phenomena: first, the sort of moral impulse that Aron salutes in Mikhail Gorbachev and the leading dissidents; second, an intolerant and fanatical moralism; and third, the desire to overcome humiliation. The interplay between the three is complex and often has paradoxical effects.

Thus it is worth pointing out that there have been few more ostentatiously moralistic figures in modern history than the Jacobins of the French Revolution or, for that matter, the early Bolsheviks. Lenin and his followers claimed to be acting on very much the same sort of moral impulses that Aron attributes to Gorbachev, and though we may write Lenin off as a cynical manipulator, we can hardly say the same for everyone who followed him. How do we distinguish the "moral impulses" we approve of from those we don’t? If we want to attribute historical agency to them, we cannot avoid the question.

And, of course, the desire for human dignity and overcoming humiliation does not always line up very well with "the search for truth and goodness." Sometimes it is satisfied better by revenge, victory, or prosperity. It is worth noting that it was precisely the most immoral regime in Russian history — Stalin’s — that probably did the most to assuage the humiliation and thereby affirm the dignity of the Soviet people. It did so by winning the "Great Patriotic War" against the Nazis. The Stalinist regime, with its vast and terrible immorality, was probably far more popular, in the years after that war, than its successor of the early 1980s, with its far more petty and limited immorality. (And did not the sense of being unable to compete with Ronald Reagan’s America contribute to the sense of humiliation that helped drive perestroika and glasnost?) So, again, the "moral impulse" in history does not always work in one direction.

And for this reason, alas, I cannot share Aron’s optimism about Vladimir Putin’s regime being overcome by the same forces that brought the Soviet Union to an end. For all the injustices it perpetrates, is Russia today really prey to the same powerful senses of privation, humiliation, and frustration that afflicted Gorbachev in 1985?

David A. Bell
Professor of History
Princeton University
Princeton, N.J.

Leon Aron replies:

I am grateful to David Bell for his thoughtful note. Of course Jacobins and Bolsheviks most spectacularly harnessed the moral revulsion I identify among the key causes of revolutions. My ambition was to point out a neglected causal link to radical change and not to endorse all the actions of the leaders and national political cultures that powerfully shape it, and often bend them toward murderous violence. Whether we approve of what happened afterward is important for us but irrelevant to the causality I am seeking to establish.

I never stated that truth and goodness were the only motives or that they did not (or could not) coexist. World War II is a perfect example, but it needs to be put back on its feet from the head on which Bell has stood it. It was an overwhelming moral rejection of Nazi slavery by millions of "simple Russians" that saved the regime, not the other way around. We know from dozens of unimpeachable witnesses — Soviet journalists and writers, all of whom were soldiers or front-line reporters in the Great Patriotic War — that millions who fought were moved by a profoundly moral urge for dignity in citizenship and freedom, choosing to die for their country and the people, and thus dying free. As to whether Stalinism was "popular," how does one know what terrorized people think?

And, yes, the immorality of Leonid Brezhnev’s regime was not on the Stalinist scale, but it was more acutely felt, to paraphrase Alexis de Tocqueville — just as the indignities of Louis XVI were suddenly more intolerable than those of the far more objectively offensive and oppressive Louis XIV. Egypt under Hosni Mubarak was far more prosperous and less morally offensive than under Gamal Abdel Nasser — just as Ukraine under Leonid Kuchma, Georgia under Eduard Shevardnadze, and Kyrgyzstan under Askar Akayev were far less immoral than under their Soviet predecessors. Yet all had "color revolutions" remarkable in the commonality of their unmistakably moral causes.

From ForeignPolicy.com:

STURGIS52: The demise of the Soviet Union cannot be understood without giving proper credit to Gorbachev. If a leader of the ilk and attitude of Brezhnev had been in power throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the demise of the USSR would not have come as rapidly, or as peaceably.

FORLORNEHOPE: Every Russian reform movement, from Ivan the Terrible through Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Lenin, Stalin, and Gorbachev, has been imposed from the top. The moment the leader has died, been removed, or lost their drive it stops. What has changed?