The Hour of the Demagogue

The Hour of the Demagogue

Mini Teaser: As fate has it, Russia is given to the power of extremes,.

by Author(s): Stephen Sestanovich

As fate has it, Russia is given to the power of extremes,...and what we need here is not pale, unemotional theories, but fiery, new ideas.

--Nikolai Berdyaev,

The Russian Gironde" (1906)

The attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev obliges us to take a new and closer look at the dynamics of the anticommunist revolution.  From the moment that the old Soviet Empire began to shake in 1989, participants and observers alike saw the principal threat to democracy in political extremism.  These countries had, after all, only the thinnest constitutional traditions, and the tough policies needed to get postcommunist economies working right were bound to be an excruciating test.  Amid political confusion and social tension, the enemies of democracy--whether unprincipled rabble-rousers or generals in tanks--were expected to find their opening.  By contrast, politicians guided by a spirit of conciliation and compromise were sure to lose out.

Is this what has happened in the Soviet Union?  The coup against Gorbachev certainly confirmed the threat of neo-authoritarianism, but what of the threat to democracy we once detected in radical populism?  Yesterday's threat became today's salvation.  The statements of Western officials and commentators suggested that the future of freedom in the Soviet Union depended on the ability of one angry man to raise the masses in a rage against their oppressors.

This ironic result should not have been so unexpected.  The post-revolutionary experience of Eastern Europe, and the Soviet revolution still underway, refute our fear of "extremists," who in almost all these dramas have strengthened--not subverted--democracy.  An indispensable role has been played by a character many considered a simple contradiction in terms: the liberal demagogue.  This unlikely political figure taps popular hatreds, resentments, and grievances in the mundane work of creating and fortifying a pluralist constitutional order.

Support for the firebrands of the anticommunist revolution, in short, should not have been treated simply as an affair of the heart (although it is that, too).  Liberal demagogy has helped the revolution to succeed and endure, and unless we recognize how much it has achieved we will neither understand the requirements of future success nor be able to contribute to it.

1917: A Cautionary Tale

Demagogues can, of course, be the gravediggers of popular government even if they are not overtly hostile to it.  Without dictatorial ambitions of their own, they may make it impossible to protect democratic institutions against committed enemies.  The locus classicus of this kind of demagogy is the sad case of Alexander Kerensky: his failure to preserve Russia's brief democratic experiment in 1917 is the cautionary tale in whose light which we should judge the work of today's reformers and revolutionaries.

Too little is remembered of Kerensky now, beyond the fact that he lost his showdown with Leninism.  His historical image is that of the hapless reformer, unsuited to a turbulent time.  In fact, as he emerges in Richard Pipes' extraordinary new history, The Russian Revolution, Kerensky was "all impulse and emotion."  He was the great firebrand of the Russian political scene, whom others had to respect because he could move a crowd.  In a word, a demagogue.

If rhetoric is sometimes an instrument of power, Kerensky clearly overestimated what it could do for him.  Confident of his ability to sense and manipulate the public mood, he was carried along by the passion of his own attacks on the old order.  He neglected and even antagonized institutions and individuals that might have supported him when he needed it most.  In March 1917, for example, the Provisional Government hastily dissolved the old provincial bureaucracy.  This mistake was, in Pipes' view, "a unique instance of a government born of a revolution dissolving the machinery of administration before it had a chance to replace it with one of its own creation."

Most dangerous of all, Kerensky's disdain for existing political institutions led him in late August 1917 to take on the army, in the person of General Lavr Kornilov, the minister of war, whom he accused of plotting to overthrow the government.  Pipes makes a completely convincing case that this famous charge was a fiction: not only was there no such plot, but the generals--including Kornilov--were in fact prepared to work with Kerensky to strengthen him.  He was hardly to their taste, but they hoped he could hold the country together.  (They too, it seems, overrated the power of rhetoric!)  Because it divided Lenin's opponents, the Kornilov affair paved the way for the Bolshevik takeover two and a half months later.

Why did Kerensky turn on those who were ready to support him, and whose support could mean so much?  Kornilov was becoming a hero of conservatives, and Pipes concludes that by confronting him in this way Kerensky hoped to "pose as champion of the Revolution."  It was a demagogue's mistake: pick a fight with a representative of the old order so as to win popular acclaim at the expense of one's rivals.

Kerensky saw politics as a popularity contest.  His preoccupation with winning it kept him from seeing that the country's desire for firm leadership could not be satisfied by talk alone.  To consolidate his position in the middle of a revolution, he had to offer--but couldn't--relief from uncertainty and disorder.  Only the institutions that he tried to discredit and weaken could have helped him meet this need.

This indictment of Kerensky parallels a common critique of today's democratic revolutionaries: too thrilled by talk and big ideas, not prepared to run the country.  Yet precisely because the same view of contemporary demagogues is so widespread, it is worth weighing a wholly different assessment of Kerensky--that he was not demagogic enough.  Far from being undone by his own demagogy, he made too timid use of the new form of power that he had created.

It is, for example, astonishing that while relying on the support of the Socialists-Revolutionaries (the [cm;1]sr[cm;0]s), essentially a peasant party, Kerensky had no land reform program.  There were perhaps plenty of good moderate reasons not to push the issue.  A radical program would have added yet another front to the war that he was waging; it would have won him new enemies, and added to social instability.  Yet it would have proved--something that Kerensky otherwise failed to do--that he aimed to reward those who supported him.  The farm boys who filled the ranks of disgruntled soldiers in Petrograd might have stayed on his side.

Similarly, although the obvious way to tap the sr[cm;1[cm;0]] s' popular support outside cities was to speed up nationwide elections, Kerensky delayed.  The Constituent Assembly would have enabled him to escape the dual power structure--the division between the Cabinet and the Soviet--that made it hard for him to govern.  Yet, by the time the Assembly met, the Bolsheviks had already seized power.

Finally, to succeed, Kerensky would have had to be more ruthless in dealing with his nominal allies on the Left.  Pipes argues persuasively that, after the Bolsheviks' first (bungled) attempt to seize power, Kerensky should have made a determined effort to destroy Lenin with a full-blown trial for treason, laying out all the evidence of his reliance on German money.  For such a strategy to work, however, more than mere cooperation with the criminal justice system was needed.  Decapitating the Bolsheviks would, despite their small following, have brought on a deep political crisis.  It could easily have provoked an all-out battle for control of the streets, and even with the support of the army and police, victory would have depended on an effective campaign for the people's loyalty.  It would have tested not only Kerensky's ability to use existing instruments of power, but all the resources of his demagogy as well.

Mazowiecki vs. Walesa

Kerensky has become our textbook case of a democratic revolution being derailed--"devouring its children"--but it yields no simple moral about the virtue of moderation.  Nor does the post-1989 record of Polish politics, although many have tried to read a similar lesson into the struggle that a year ago split the leadership of the Solidarity trade union movement.  When Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki became the victim of an electoral insurgency led by Lech Walesa, now president, it seemed that a good democrat had been laid low by a bad demagogue.  The demagogue's subsequent conduct in office has, of course, made the forecasts that he would soon become a dictator look a little ridiculous.  Yet this is all the more reason to take another look at what happened for the light it sheds on the dynamics of anticommunist revolutions.

Despite Walesa's heroic past, there were reasons to worry about the way he made his bid for power.  After taking office in the summer of 1989, good-democrat Mazowiecki had clearly done all the right things, prescribing the harsh medicine necessary to cure Poland's economic disease.  It had even begun to work, but with dreadful social side-effects: unemployment, the wiping-out of people's savings, steep price increases for necessities like food and fuel.  As popular anxiety rose, the bad demagogue sought to take personal advantage of it, demanding early presidential elections and using irresponsible rhetoric to whip up popular anger.  Walesa alleged that Mazowiecki had allowed too much of the old Communist partocracy to stay in place and was letting its members grow rich in the process of privatization.  He even made some unsavory insinuations about Jews in the ranks of the good democrats (who are mostly middle-class intellectuals, journalists, and professionals).  Feeding on popular unhappiness and promising that he alone could set things right--"with an ax," as he put it--he was swept into office.

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