The Means Of Destruction

Russia's economic model focuses on destruction rather than production which, in turn, legitimises violence 

28 November 2023

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Future of Ukraine Fellow

The surrealist Marxism of the Soviet Union laid the foundation for contemporary Russia’s military-industrial complex.

61 percent of Ukrainians have a negative attitude towards Stalin; only 4 percent have a positive one. In Russia, the ratio is reversed: 60 percent have a positive attitude (from respect to admiration), and 11 percent have a negative one.

These figures illustrate the different paths the Ukrainian and Russian societies have taken in recent decades.

Inverted Marxism 

Contemporary Russia is based upon the Soviet model in many different ways, but one of them is often overlooked. This is what I call “inverted Marxism”, and it partially explains Russia’s cruel war against Ukraine.

One of the key ideas of Marxism was that modern societies are built upon production and that the key question about inequality is a question of who owns the means of production.

Modernity and its scientific and industrial revolutions (from the 16th until 19th century) saw itself as breaking with pre-modern ways of life, as it defined its key aspiration not in adapting to nature but in conquering nature. Conquering nature was to be made according to nature’s laws, of course, but these laws were needed to create a second nature, a human-dominated nature. This is why the production of a new reality has been seen as much more important than the reproduction of the old.

Therefore, owning the means of production was considered by Marxism as a key factor for the buildup of society during the Industrial Revolution. As the economy is driven by those who produce, power belongs to those who own the means of producing, Marxism said.

At the same time, Marxism’s revolutionary theory contained important destructive elements. Contrary to philosophers like Alexis de Tocqueville, who saw the French Revolution as not only a rupture with the past but also its continuation, Marx and Engels had a radical theory of change. They believed that revolutions are violent ruptures with the past. They imagined a “bourgeois” French revolution in this way, and they imagined a communist revolution in this way too. A communist revolution should be a radical new start without compromises, they believed.

Destruction over production

Entering the Russian soil, Marxism faced an important challenge. The reality on the ground was far more remote from the reality that should have formed a basis for a revolution, as Marx and Engels thought. There was no developed industrial capitalism, and therefore, there was no developed proletariat. The revolution in Russia should have not only ensured the dictatorship of the proletariat; it should have created this very proletariat.

In a way, therefore, Marxism in Russia was based upon a fantasy, a dream. It was surrealist – if by surrealism we mean an idea or fantasy should become prevalent over reality. But in Russian Marxism, the role of the fantasy went even further: not only should the fantasy prevail over the reality, but the reality should be completely subservient to this fantasy.

Leninism was not only unorthodox Marxism, it was a surrealist Marxism. Surrealism here did not mean aesthetics; it meant politics: a theory of power.

What is more important, this reinterpretation of Marxism also contained the legitimisation of violence. If fantasy is so remote from reality and should transform and “reforge” reality, then this reality should be brutally changed. Radical destruction has been considered as a key for the future. This is the source of repressions, forced starvations, massive executions and the forced collectivisation that Russian Marxism is known for.

If you have any illusions about the communism of Lenin, read his works of the revolutionary years, especially his letters and telegrams containing his orders and instructions. You will be surprised by how cruel his orders were and how often you will find instructions to execute random people. It is wrong to believe that massive violence by the Bolsheviks started only with Stalin. Stalin only systemised and industrialised violence that Lenin had injected into history.

And here comes my major point: what I call here “inverted Marxism”.

Facing the challenges of radical and violent transformation of the society, and a need to conduct wars on numerous fronts during the very early years, Lenin’s “military communism” created an ideological foundation of the Soviet Union. During the first 5-year plan, Stalin systemised it. World War II elevated it to a new level. The Cold War turned this ideology into the very fabric of the state, impossible to overturn.

Here is the major point of the inverted Marxism: the “military-industrial complex” not only becomes the basis of the economy and society; it becomes the very essence of the economy and society.

Marxism’s key idea is this: whoever owns the means of production has power.

The inverted Marxism’s key idea is this: whoever owns the means of destruction has power.

Legacy of destruction

The nature of the Soviet Union was centred upon the idea of accumulating the means of destruction. This is why an enormous part of the economy was concentrated around the “military-industrial complex”.

An attempt to go away from this highly militarised society and economy in the 1990s, which would imply liberalisation of both society and economy, faced huge opposition from all those parts of the society who were involved in the army, “siloviki”, or simply military economy. These people and those who sympathised with them were the primary force that elected Putin as their president.

Excessive production of weapons explains why, even over 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia still has a huge stock of arms and ammunition to conduct a large-scale war against Ukraine with millions of people involved and hundreds of thousands already dead. In most of the cases, the Russian soldiers (and partially Ukrainian too) are still fighting this war with the weapons produced by their fathers and grandfathers.

The prevalence of the military idea in Russia is rooted in the fact that both the Soviet Union and then Russia as its reincarnation were based mentally much more on the idea of destruction than on that of production.

An important question today is what will happen next. Will this war lead to de-militarisation of Russia? Will it exhaust the resources it accumulated during the Soviet times? And will this exhaustion lead to a new idea of Russia which will ultimately not be based upon the idea of destruction and death as it is now? Or alternatively, will this war lead to Russia’s re-militarisation and the Soviet pattern will be reaffirmed and only strengthened?

Both options seem plausible, and the second option is no less realistic than the first one. This means we should be prepared to resist Russia’s new militarism in the long run.

Whatever the answer to this question is, our common goal should be formulated very clearly. We should direct our efforts to stop this empire of destruction from committing crimes both now and in the future. This is not only a geopolitical task; this is primarily a moral task.

It is a moral task because ideologies formed upon the idea that you can have power by creating a machine of destruction and death should be defeated. It is a moral task because the mindset focused on destruction and not on creation should be proved forever wrong and contrary to the very idea of humanity.

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This article is published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

A Slovak translation of this article was published by SME.

The featured image uses Oleksandr Ratushniak, Bucha main street after Russian invasion of Ukraine (3to4), Hue, filter, by VI Team, CC BY-SA 4.0

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher, journalist and writer. He is the President of PEN Ukraine and the current Analytics director at Internews Ukraine, one of the largest and oldest Ukrainian media NGOs. He is also the Editor-in-chief of UkraineWorld.org, a multimedia project in English about Ukraine and an Associate professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He has been published in numerous outlets, such as The Economist, Le Monde, Financial Times, New York Times, and Newsweek.

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