How Far Had the Bolsheviks Created a ‘Totalitarian State’ by 1924?
A totalitarian state, is a where the central government of a state does not tolerate any parties with opposing views and exercises complete dictatorial rule over all or most aspects of life. Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, took many measures in an attempt to create a totalitarian state, including the dissolution of Constituent Assembly, the use of decrees and the establishment of a secret police group called the Cheka. However there were also some ways in which he failed to achieve full totalitarianism.
The most basic characteristics of a Totalitarian state, are lack of free speech and state control over the media. This is important to establish social control over the state. Lenin’s described free speech as ‘bourgeois prejudice’, and thus ensured strict control over the media and speech. Understanding the role of propaganda to strengthen his rule, he established the Pravda. The Pravda controlled what media was available to the public and who could utilize it.
The Bolsheviks were in reality the only group aloud to publish propaganda, and groups such as the Mensheviks, were not aloud to publish. These rules meant that no negative material about the Bolsheviks could legally be published, and all the public would ever see, would be positive Bolshevik propaganda, increasing their support. This is a key characteristic of a Totalitarian state, and thus is evidence that the Bolsheviks had successfully created a Totalitarian state. Another common aspect of a totalitarian state, is the establishment of a secret police force.
Lenin had created a terror police force called the Cheka. Shortly after the establishment of the Bolshevik government, a period knows as the ‘Red Terror’ saw mass killings, torture and oppression conducted by the Cheka under orders of the Bolsheviks. This force meant that Lenin could assert his physical authority over the people and counter any opposition. To supplement the secret police, Lenin also established a system of Gulags and Labour camps, specifically aimed at the opponents of the regime. These would house and contain any ‘enemies’ of the Bolshevik rule.
The creation of the secret police and the establishment of the gulags and labour camps, are signs that Lenin had created a successful totalitarian state, and could assert physical control over the people. The introduction of War Communism during the Russian Civil War, is evidence of Russian moving towards a Totalitarian State. Many aspects of War communism were totalitarian in nature. For instance the creation of a Supreme Economic Council, formed to take complete control over the Russian highlights the central control over the most vital aspect of the state, that the Bolsheviks enforced.
Other measures include the requisitioning of excess grain from the Peasants. Many of these policies were met with opposition, particularly among the agricultural peasants. This opposition was in turn met with brutal force, which was another example of the nature of complete state authority. War communism continued on until the end of the Civil war, by which time the Bolshevik forces had succeeded in crushing all opposition. The success of the red forces meant that Russia was a step closer in becoming a Totalitarian state, as they were now the most powerful party in Russia, with complete control over all its territory.
Upon the creation of the USSR, Lenin introduced new rule that would ensure greater totalitarian control. Only communists would be able to stand for the soviets, and so this meant that the communist party had the true control over the government. Lenin had also created a ban on internal political factions, during the NEP. He called this ‘democratic centralism’. This ensured that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had strict control over all communists.
Alongside the ban on other political parties, these measures are extremely totalitarian in nature, and centralised government control and authority to a high degree, ensuring Lenin and the Bolsheviks had complete political control over the country. There were however many limits to the Bolshevik control over the country. The totalitarian control that the Government enjoyed with its ‘War communism’, was lost by Lenin. The introduction of the NEP, showed Lenin was prepared for loosening economic control in favour of growth to save the economy.
The abandoning of ‘War communism and the introduction of the NEP, shows the Bolsheviks losing control over the economy, and capitalist control emerging. Corruption was thus aloud to prosper, as many took advantage of the loser controls. The failures of the NEP and the corruption it introduced offers evidence of the Bolsheviks failing to create a complete totalitarian state. An important factor when considering Bolshevik totalitarian control are the events of the Kronstadt Rebellion. The naval base at Kronstadt were among Lenin’s most loyal supporters, and home of the revolutionary Baltic fleet.
However they had become disillusioned with Lenin’s rule, and made certain demands, notably the end of the special position of the communists and the restoration of free speech. Consequently the base rebelled. The loss of authority over an entire base, and dangerously close to Petrograd, the capital, is a severe sign that the Bolsheviks did not maintain complete totalitarian control over the state. It could be argued that Lenin lost much totalitarian control, because of the weakening of his Leadership. In 1922, Lenin faced his first serious illness, that affected his leadership.
An example of his weakening leadership, can be found when examining Joseph Stalin, the General Sectary. Up until Lenin’s illness, Stalin had been a strong supporter of Lenin, and did not significantly oppose or cross him. Lenin highlighted his loyalty when describing as ‘that brilliant Georgian’. However when Lenin began to fall ill, Stalin began to oppose many of Lenin’s policies. Accompanying this were divisions within the party that grew stronger when Lenin fell ill. This highlights the loss of control that Lenin had due to his illness, and thus is evidence that he had not created a true Totalitarian state.
The Bolsheviks under Lenin’s leadership had indeed taken steps to create a Totalitarian state. The removal of all and any opposition from the political ‘arena’, the establishment of the Cheka and Gulags all helped to strengthen the central control of government over the state. However aspects of the NEP, political divisions, and rebellions from apparently his most loyal supporters, showed how certain aspects were not completely controlled by the state, and thus that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had not created an entirely Totalitarian state.