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Michael Frizzell

Militarized socialism in the USSR

History, Socialism2 min read

Mark von Hagen, Soldiers in the Proletarian Dictatorship: The Red Army and the Soviet Socialist State, 1917-1930. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Mark von Hagen’s “Soldiers in the Proletarian Dictatorship” is a book that traces the history of the Red Army from its origins as the Red Guard in the revolutions of 1917 to a professional, strict traditional army during the collectivization pushes of the late 1920’s. It is not a work of military history, but rather von Hagen explores the connection between the development of a non-socialist army and the rise of the Stalinist national security state. The story this work tells is one of a military outside of power, and considered dangerous by many, that fights its way back into the center of power, succeeds at somewhat militarizing the nascent union, and creating a different kind of socialism.

In short, von Hagen’s thesis is that the Red Army helped shape the political culture of the Soviet state in what he refers to as militarized socialism. The army was not the only agent of change, but it certainly was at the forefront of the fusion of militarism and Marxism.

The Red Army, according to von Hagen, helped bring about militarized socialism, or Stalinism, in two ways. First, a professional army emerged from the Civil War, in spite of the radicals’ desire for a more egalitarian militia with a “democratic ethos.” After the defeat of the civilian militia in 1924, it was clear a more professional army was needed to secure the state, and that such an army was not a threat, as had long been thought, but would be an aid to further the the Communist Party’s program.

Second, the Red Army became an institution linked to citizenship and upward mobility, and as such became a powerful player in party politics. The army’s inclination against the NEP and collectivization while at the same time becoming what von Hagen calls a “school of socialism” effectively trained soldiers in the army’s version of socialism. The net result of this was a militarized socialism, an interweaving of militarist and socialist values in Soviet political culture.

Von Hagen does warn, however, that this does not mean the Army imposed its will on the Soviet Union, nor that the Army is responsible for the horrors of the Stalin era. Rather, the militarization of the Soviet state was “the conscious aim of a political leadership that is difficult to characterize as either purely civilian or strictly military,” (334). It was never the military’s intention to create full-fledged militarism, and in this sense the Soviet state of the 1920s is not at all comparable to the German Nazi state, instead they sought to shape the political process, helping to create a new political culture.

Von Hagen’s book is a significant work of both social and political history. It sheds light on the Army as a political institution, the rise of Stalinism, and the Soviet national security state. It is a convincing work that represents a new perspective on a not altogether new thesis.

Despite his extensive bibliography of secondary sources, and primary sources that ranged from newspapers to party propaganda, however, the effectiveness of the Army’s education process remains somewhat murky. As the author admits, it is difficult to penetrate below the top level of officers to see what the peasant soldier truly believed.

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