Illusion as a Necessity
No. 4 2016 October/December
Boris G. Kapustin

Professor, Senior Lecturer of Ethics, Politics & Economics at Yale University

Ideology and the Fall of the Soviet Regime

Ideology is generally considered as one of the key reasons, if not the main one, for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Italian political philosopher Norberto Bobbio asserts that “the catastrophe of historical communism” was not caused by a systemic crisis or a military defeat, but the fact that “in a seemingly irreversible way, the greatest political utopia in history … has been completely upturned into its exact opposite.” “Sociologized” interpretations of the ideological crisis portray it as the de-legitimization of Soviet power through its own practices (inequality, corruption, nepotism, etc.), which turned the moral principles and goals the country had declared into their grotesque semblance. More “belletristic” interpretations blame it on “the troubadours of perestroika,” who exposed the “lies” of communism and opened the eyes of millions of people deceived by the system (Leon Aron’s book Roads to the Temple is a classic example). In any case, the crisis of ideology that undermined the Soviet regime was manifested in various ways: 1) as a process that disavowed “Marxism-Leninism” (as an ill-fated utopian experiment and “the opium of the people”); 2) as a catharsis that leads from the “world of lies” to the “world of truth” (even though Bobbio describes the latter as just another kind of utopia—that of a free market economy and democratic capitalism); 3) as a pivotal event that brought former communist countries onto the path of progressive and “civilized” development. 

Ideology and Illusions

The fall of the Soviet regime and the collapse of the Soviet Union were truly epoch events. A quarter of a century later the dramatic impacts are just beginning to surface. In order to understand those events and foresee their consequences, it is important to distinguish a correlation between the new and a commitment to the past. It is this correlation—the link between the new and the past—that determines the “nature” of any major social transformation. Alexis de Tocqueville showed this brilliantly in his study of the French Revolution. Commitment to the past comes with “most of the feelings, habits, and even ideas which helped them [the French – Ed.] make the Revolution that destroyed” the old regime. Old institutions (monarchies, feudal privileges, etc.) can collapse, but “most of the feelings, habits, and even ideas” will survive and sustain the operation of new institutions. The radicalism of even the most radical public transformations must not be exaggerated unless we want to become a captive of the ideology professed by radical groups. With this in mind, how can we assess the ideological crisis that many believe affected and undermined the Soviet regime and the Soviet Union?

Let us first clarify the term ‘ideology.’ It is profoundly ironic that the “troubadours of perestroika” cut out the object of their struggle, “Marxist-Leninist ideology,” using its own templates. Consequently, they became captives in much the same way their “orthodox” opponents did.  For both, ideology is a system of views that are implanted in the minds of people through indoctrination. What was implanted in the Soviet people was “a lie” for the “troubadours” and “the truth” for the “orthodox” sector of society, and both considered the opposite ideological phenomena as “false consciousness.” But this makes no difference in political terms. What matters is that neither succeeded much in forging “true consciousness” in their target audiences; that is, “class consciousness” among working people in the former case, and “civilized” and “universal human” (or whatever) consciousness among those whom the fighters against “Marxism-Leninism” aspired to free from its captivity in the latter case.

As understood by both parties, ideology has no relation to “Marx’s Marxism” though. Marxist materialism is based on the postulate that the ideal really exists and that (some) ideas stem from the fabric of material life, such as money, unless it is associated with colored pieces of paper or precious metals. Money is about the commensurability of different objects that may have nothing in common except for commensurability itself, and cumulative control over such objects through control over their interrelation imposed by commensurability. This idea of the commensurability of objects and the idea of monetary and value relationships between them do not exist in physical reality. They cannot be seen or touched. Monetary and value relationships are absolutely ideal. But we all know how much our life of physical being is controlled by this invisible ideal. We know this as a given, without even having to go to school to learn it. But the ideal cannot function without our knowledge of it; it will simply stop being without it. European travelers and anthropologists could witness that when visiting “primitive” tribes in America, Africa, and Oceania. So the ideal (monetary and value relationships in our case) exists in our minds and objective reality at the same time, and that is what it is all about. It simply cannot exist without this duality; that is, only as subjective perceptions or as objective relationships. This is what ideology actually is in its pure and elementary form—it is both the ideal and an element of real public life, of which we are also part, and not just something that belongs entirely to our “inner world.”    

De Tocqueville’s “feelings, habits, and ideas” are a more capacious notion than just the ideal of money and value we have discussed here. Ideology has more levels than just a fundamental one. It is multilayered. Its secondary, tertiary, and other levels are not just a reflection of (“apologetically” or “critically”) its foundation, but they perform necessary specific functions in its reproduction and transformation. This is where we should be looking for what we can call “false consciousness.” 

A classic example of “false consciousness” in a capitalist system is “commodity fetishism,” a perception reflecting the “self-movement” of commodities. It gives rise to other “fetishist” perceptions such as “money works,” “capital flies,” “market demands” and others. Not only do all such perceptions hide relationships between concrete people that manifest themselves through the “self-movement of commodities” (“money operation,” “capital flight,” etc.), but they also adequately present their relationships as “alienated” or the kind of relationships these people cannot control. Without such adequate “fetishist” perceptions people could not be engaged enough in the actual economic (and not only economic) process of capitalism and the process itself would be impossible. (An efficient stockbroker is guided by “true” understanding of the fact that capital does not “fly” or “grow” all by itself, and, likewise, a diligent hired worker sincerely believes in “the truth” that capital is only an alienated form of his own labor). “Fetishist” illusions of capitalism are functionally necessary for the reproduction of its underlying monetary and value ideality. In this sense, the “superstructural” levels of ideology not just reflect its “basis,” but work with it and for (or against) it.  

All of the above leads to the following conclusions. First, no ideology that has ever played a real role in history has lied or deceived. Of course, historically significant ideologies absorbed different illusions, but those were real illusions as a necessary expression of ideality intrinsic in all objective things. Only “armchair ideologies” can lie and deceive, because they are invented by intellectuals, have no relation to objective reality, and therefore are politically impotent and can be of interest only for intellectual powwows organized solely to discuss them.

The second conclusion is that real illusions in historically significant ideologies cannot be exposed. Not because there is no theoretical way to get to their “core” as illusions, but because doing so cannot produce a politically significant effect by lifting the “veil” of illusion from the eyes of its carriers; in fact, this is not any “veil” but perceptions of a given world, quite adequate for it and allowing one to exist in it. Only those illusions can be exposed that have stopped being real and necessary for the reproduction of a certain society; that is, have really turned into “a veil.” These illusions are “prejudices.” The Age of Enlightenment is a classic example of the struggle with such illusions. But the “enlighteners” themselves were overfilled with illusions that they did not consider prejudices, but the principle of Reason. They were actually right, because their illusions were only beginning to establish themselves as the reality of our modern world.   

Ideology and Political Functions

But let us go back to the ideological crisis of the Soviet regime. There is no point in resuming the once popular discussion about how much Marxism there actually was in “Marxism-Leninism,” which from the political point of view is irrelevant. What matters in ideology is not its theoretical content, but its ability to perform certain political functions, such as mobilizing and organizing people (or demobilizing and disorganizing them). In other words, content is important only because it helps perform the political functions of ideology by resonating with the objective ideal. In addition, in different historical situations more or less similar content can “service” different, or completely opposite, political projects. Examples abound in the history of not only Christianity or Islam, but also nationalism, “natural law,” and Marxism.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union had nineteen million members, but only a handful of “putschists” ventured to stand up for it in August 1991 and passed the final sentence on “Marxism-Leninism” as a political ideology. What makes this sentence even stronger is that its defenders and guides from Komsomol leaders of various levels to party bosses found themselves in the vanguard of the movement for privatization and a capitalist economy, and former teachers, who used to teach “scientific communism” quickly became advocates of the most vulgar versions of “bourgeois” political science. The army and the KGB, this invincible shield of socialism, marched together into capitalism, leaving dissidents behind along the way. All this and the collapse of the Soviet system cannot be grasped in terms of political and ideological struggle of the time of Modernity. What happened can be described by the postmodern term ‘implosion,’ as Jean Baudrillard once did. An imploding object bursts inward and annihilates itself. But ‘implosion’ does not make things much clearer either. It only indicates that the self-annihilating object was “dead” and existed only as a simulacrum prior to the “implosion,” thus making it possible.   

Propaganda concepts of totalitarianism churned out during the Cold War (like the one described in Totalitarian Dictatorship Autocracy by Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski) portrayed official ideology as an all-encompassing system of views that had subjugated the minds of people. In contrast, Hannah Arendt believed that the essence and ultimate goal of “totalitarian education” was not to inculcate convictions, but destroy the ability to think independently; that is, destroy the ability to have any convictions at all (Chapter 13 of The Origins of Totalitarianism). This was primarily concerned with political convictions and moral principles. In its ultimate form (never achieved by any totalitarian regime) this tendency reduces multi-layered ideology to its mere foundation, an ideal objectivized in reality, habits, and rituals performed “automatically” and serving as the basis of “totalitarianism.”

Arendt posits that a qualitative evolution of “totalitarianism” is impossible. She adhered to this view after the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, “Khrushchev’s “thaw,” and Brezhnev’s “stagnation,” which she lived to see. When she spoke about habits and rituals, to which ideology is reduced by the “totalitarianism”-induced inability to think, Arendt apparently meant what can only serve as the basis for outright terrorist and expansionist “totalitarian regimes” (which she thought were “movements” rather than “regimes,” thus emphasizing their inability to institutionalize themselves as a stable system). 

However, “totalitarianism” as the world saw it during Brezhnev’s “stagnation period” raised doubts about Arendt’s views. In his The Power of the Powerless, Vaclav Havel says “totalitarianism,” which he notably calls “post-totalitarianism,” continued to be based on the inability to think politically and morally. But this inability is rooted in the habits and rituals that are different from those meant by Arendt. “Post-totalitarian” habits and rituals are characteristic of consumer society and develop in private life to which depoliticized “post-totalitarian” man is confined. Post-totalitarianism itself emerges at the junction of totalitarian dictatorship and consumer society. It is not isolated from global processes and, moreover, it absorbs the utilitarian “hierarchy of values existing in developed Western countries.” This is the core of the problem for Havel (and other Eastern European dissidents): no radical transformation of society is possible on the basis of utilitarian ideology realized in the post-totalitarian system. Manifested in everyday habits and rituals, utilitarianism produces conformism with regard to the status quo. So resistance can be exerted not through enlightening exposure of the “lies” in communist propaganda, but through everyday, often barely noticeable, work that really changes deep-rooted habits, rituals, and practices in a post-totalitarian society. This is a strategy of small steps, “pre-political policy,” a good example of which Havel saw in proper beer brewing. 

Post-Totalitarian Transition

Given this, how do we understand the ideological crisis of the Soviet regime? Was it caused by the fact that the “troubadours of perestroika” had heroically exposed the “lies” of “Marxism-Leninism” on which the entire system was supposedly based? We have already found out that only something that is already dead or is agonizing as a real motive for mass actions can be exposed. In fact, the “troubadours of perestroika” held a wake for “Marxism-Leninism,” which had been “killed” or “fatally wounded” much earlier by its defenders who had turned revolutionary teaching into a demagogic call for “catching up with and overtaking America,” naturally using America’s rules of the consumer society game. 

Similarly, the “divine right of kings” was “killed” in the 18th century not by Republican revolutionaries, but by the devoted servants of monarchy; i.e. mercantilists and German cameralists who sought to make monarchy stronger by turning the “mystical political body of the king” into a bureaucratic machine of “enlightened absolutism.” In fact, they succeeded in improving state governance just as party functionaries did in building “a consumer society” in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, albeit quite moderate by Western standards. The real problem, though, was that unlike “the mystical body of the king,” a machine is not sacral. Not only is it open to criticism, but a mere handful of people are prepared to give their lives for rescuing a machine whenever its existence is threatened. 

Was the ideological crisis of the Soviet system not caused by the fact that the firmly established and propagated utilitarian habits and rituals had failed to ensure the required level of political apathy and conformism among people at the right time? A certain part of society, small but assertive, had engaged in public politics, bringing grassroots democratic confusion into what otherwise could have happened smoothly and more orderly under proper administrative supervision. For instance, some “rulers of men’s minds” longed during perestroika for the “iron hand” and savored warm memories of General Pinochet, who had shown “the right way” for transitioning from the excesses of socialism to capitalist order and prosperity.

They were partly right. In fact, could the last Soviet premier, Valentin Pavlov, do what Boris Yeltsin and Yegor Gaidar did to convert Russia to capitalism much more effectively and professionally? He certainly could have if his political foothold had not been knocked down by the accelerating collapse of Soviet institutions and by mistrust among the “democratic masses,” the small part of society that had monopolized public and political activities while the majority remained apathetic. Indeed, the “democratic masses,” bigger and better organized than those in the Soviet Union, prevented the People’s Republic of Poland’s last premier Mieczys?aw Rakowski from carrying out “reforms” that were no less radical than the well-known Balcerowicz Plan.

And finally, Hungary is a perfect example where the transition to capitalism was not disturbed by any mass democratic action. Rather it was regime change effected purely through a deal between elites, which even preserved (but slightly amended) the old Constitution.

Continuity between the old and the new during “post-totalitarian transitions” may seem somewhat paradoxical. In fact, utilitarian habits and rituals and matching political apathy were among the main mechanisms employed to stabilize “post-totalitarian” systems (this is precisely what is meant when references are made to an unofficial “social contract” between the people and the authorities during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods). But they also made the Soviet system vulnerable to attacks by its own elites (or their reform-minded parts). The same mechanisms, complemented either by openly suppressing grassroots activity, as was the case in Russia in 1993, or emasculating and driving it out of public politics, as during the rapid decline of Solidarity in Poland after the “victorious” year 1989, allowed post-Soviet elites to craft capitalism on the fly.      

But there is no paradox here. Any dominance is based on the political apathy of people, regardless of the political and economic means used to reproduce it. It also ensures the continuity of successive forms of dominance. This is what de Tocqueville meant when he stressed the importance of “feelings, habits and even ideas,” which were not only preserved by the French Revolution, but made it possible the way it happened. He had no illusions about democracy that was to replace the “old regime.” His epic Democracy in America ends with thoughts about an “orderly, gentle, peaceful slavery” becoming established “under the shadow of the sovereignty of the people.” 

A National Idea and Patriotism in Modern Russia

Russia has searched for a “national idea” since the 1990s. While the proposed content may differ, its authors seem to agree that Russia cannot remain united and deal with enemies without a “national idea.” Attempts to generate a “national idea” are usually understood as “an exercise in ideology.”  

In political terms, playing with a “national idea” is just as grotesque as was the unmasking of “Marxism-Leninism” during perestroika, the same kind of closed-door get-together for intellectuals. “National ideas” are no different from “armchair ideologies” even if they are created in high offices. They can have no relation to the strengthening of Russian society. Its stability, like it or not, depends on the reproduction of the real (translated into reality) “dual” ideology we considered above. Under the current circumstances it means the ideality of commodity and value relationships with all the matching “superstructural” ideological layers in the form of utilitarian habits and prescriptions. The fact that even the Russian Communist Party sees no alternative to this real ideology unambiguously shows how strong it actually is. During this year’s election campaign Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov stated this quite clearly and called for practicing beekeeping rather than “storming the sky,” or for becoming concerned about the “withering away of the state,” which Lenin regarded as a criterion of genuine Marxism. This is exactly what has ensured the stability of the current vector of Russia’s political and economic development. 

One often hears nowadays that patriotism is the ideology that unites all Russians. This could be accepted as true, but with some important reservations. Current mass patriotism is a sort of natural reaction to the humiliation and deception Russia experienced in the 1990s at the hands of their own rulers just as much as their Western “partners.” This is not always “nostalgia for an empire.” But the question is whether the current rise in patriotism performs the mobilization and organizational functions the implementation of which attests to the real strength of ideology in “a time of trouble.”  In other words, what exactly does it do to unite the Russian people as opposed to how they express it in online blogs or on the street?   

History has seen many examples of how a national patriotic upturn led to the growth of inter-class solidarity due to the redistribution of a part of the rich’s wealth in favor of the poor. Nothing like that is happening in today’s Russia. The appalling gap between the rich and the poor at a time when Russia is in war with terrorism and confrontation with the West is just as wide as it was in the calm and wealthy years. And there are no signs that the hordes of corrupt bureaucrats, who surely understand how their activities impair the country’s security, are going to limit their appetites, even for the sake of patriotism. But nor can one see any selfless feats or sacrificial surrender of one’s own interests for the benefit of the country in the face of danger. Mass patriotic enthusiasm exists, but there are practically no patriotic deeds of any significance for the country and its people. What could be the reason?     

Excluding the many exceptions, one can come to the conclusion that patriotism in contemporary Russia is some kind of compensatory mechanism for people who largely remain depoliticized and confined to their private lives. It does not turn them into citizens in the moral and political sense, rather than in the juridical sense; that is, into those who act for the “common good.” The absence of real civil and political activity on the part of such people is compensated by their seeming participation in “the common cause,” an illusion created by “patriotic sentiment.” In fact, this is very similar to how a CSKA or Chelsea fan, whose real connection with the favorite team is limited to the purchase of a ticket to a match, feels like a “part of the club” as a great imaginary whole. Modern mass patriotism in Russia is a political ideology, but it is an ideology of “private individuals,” not citizens, and it actually encourages them to remain so.    

Like any ideology, patriotism comes along with an illusion of being part of “a big common cause.” However, illusion here is not deception, but an objective necessity, something that has to be hidden for society to continue to exist and at the same time adequately conceived on a conscious level. The patriotism of “private individuals” camouflages their political apathy and its causes—the absence of real public and political life in Russian society, and the concentration of politics entirely in the hands of the powers that be, which actually transforms politics into the process of administration. But it objectively reflects reality and becomes its part: becoming a patriot is the only way for a person to preserve self-respect as a citizen of Russia and keep his self from realizing that he is subordinated to the administrative machinery that has replaced real politics. Perhaps patriotism is just as much “false consciousness” as the consciousness of the capitalist manufacturer is “false” or “fetishist.” However, under the current circumstances, reproaching a patriot for being “false” is no wiser or better than condemning, with the full power of “Marxist-Leninist” tutelage, the “false consciousness” of the proletarian who is struggling for his own survival and the survival of his family amid capitalist competition.  

It may take a long time for “the exercise in ideology” in our country to turn from the generation of “national ideas” into what is called Ideologiekritik (critique of ideology) in Germany. And yet I do believe that sooner or later we will have an opportunity to have a broad and thorough discussion on various ideological mechanisms in the life of contemporary Russian society and explore their history that dates back to the ideological crisis of the Soviet system.