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Pragmatism and Ideology: Soviet Foreign Policy Under Lenin

Updated on April 14, 2012

Soviet foreign policy under Lenin can be defined as neither purely stemming from pragmatism or ideology. Instead, both these principles must be considered as part of the dialectical process. While some will suggest that pragmatism replaced ideology in the early Soviet Union, it would be more accurate to suggest Soviet pragmatism was tied up with ideology, rather than being contradictory to it, it was supplementary, a reaction to the material conditions facing the Bolsheviks in which Marxist ideology provided a guide to action. A slight understanding of Marxism-Leninism is required to truly appreciate the many apparently contradictory facets of early Soviet foreign policy. The essence of this piece should thus be the contextualisation of Soviet action within the material conditions which faced the Bolsheviks and the global proletariat in this era of history, By taking this approach to the subject matter analysis will reveal the inter-connectivity of pragmatism and ideology, as opposed to one being promoted at the expense of the other.

The first major foreign policy decision of the Bolshevik government related to the question of how to approach the great war. Ultimately, the Soviet government decided to end the Tsar’s war with the central powers and thus accept the dictated German peace terms. In terms of territory, the Bolsheviks lost imperial Russia’s gains of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. This amounted to vast material losses including 50 million of the population, one third of the rail network, three quarters of Iron production and 90% of coal production. Acceptance of these harsh terms may be described as a pragmatic approach to foreign policy, just like any other state the Soviets were simply looking for the best possible deal available to them.

The inner party debates which led to the Soviets taking this stance shed light upon the inter-connectivity of both ideology and pragmatism. Bolshevik leaders were initially split along 3 lines. The first was the position eventually adopted, this camp was headed by Lenin. The second was Trotsky’s position of ‘no war, no peace‘, this position entailed calling a ceasefire to war, but signing no treaties. The final grouping was headed by Bukharin and favoured a position of ’revolutionary war’. Bukharin had hoped that Russia would continue the war, gaining the support of the German proletariat who would thus refuse to aid the war effort against the Bolsheviks. A crude understanding of communist ideology would perhaps lead one to believe that Bukharin’s ‘left communists’ were the pure Marxists due to their internationalism. Such an approach though is to ignore a central tenet of Marxist ideology; the calculation of the relation of forces, which entails a ‘rational estimation of the situation’. As Lenin himself said “This is the main point in Marxism and Marxian tactics.“ Rather than understanding the subtleties of ideology the ‘Lefts’ were resorting to “Proud Phrases” which stemmed from emotions. The calculation of the relation of forces dictated that the ‘lefts’ position if enacted would aid imperialism by forcing the Soviets into a disadvantageous war. Despite their honest intentions they had become according to Sorin; “tools of the bourgeoisie”. They had thought that there was only a polarised option between international revolution and securing the Soviet state. This did not appreciate that securing the Soviet Union was a means of promoting international revolution, as would become the work of the Comintern. It was this analysis which formed the intellectual basis of Stalin’s policy of Socialism in One Country.

As the inner party debates took place the material conditions of the war were continually changing in an unfavourable way. The army was demoralised and losing the war, justifying Lenin’s calculation of the relation of forces. For this reason the Trotskyites joined forces with Lenin and were able to command a majority in the central committee.

Soviet foreign policy may also be charged with compromising ideology in relation to attempted integration into the world political community. Integration was to be primarily economic. The pragmatic Soviet aims were to gain trade rights by offering the capitalist states access to Soviet natural resources. As before it is impossible to separate pragmatism from ideology on this issue. Once again a crude understanding of Marxism could easily lead one to view this as a surrender of ideals. However, the policy was actually driven by ideology. It was believed by the Bolshevik leadership that commercial ties would gain enough support from the benefiting capitalist states, which in turn would intensify the antagonisms between the capitalist states, thus preventing the formation of any kind of anti Bolshevik alliance. The rationale for this seemingly contradictory policy was multi layered and so was justified by other means also. In simple terms the second argument was that economic ties requires diplomacy. In turn, good diplomatic relations would then bring access to advanced capitalist technologies and so boost the economy and military in a way which would allow the effective promotion of international revolution.

Capitalist rapprochement was part of Lenin’s plan for ‘peaceful coexistence’, which should also be viewed in light of Lenin’s acceptance of ‘incomplete socialism’. This was a recognition that international revolution was not around the corner and so an isolated socialist Russia would have to survive in the meantime alone. Such conditions made possible the sending of mixed messages often appearing totally contradictory. Such an example of this is the ‘struggle for peace’ policy which coincided with statements regarding the inevitability of war. Claims to the inevitability of war seemed apparently justified by imperialist intervention in the Russian civil war. Instances like this gave ideology even greater weight as it resulted the notion of ‘anti imperialist struggle’ being central to all policy formation. The Bolshevik position was one which considered the conditions which were the case at the time and the conditions they believed would arise out of necessity. The conditions in place meant that the Bolsheviks perceived their best option as being the same as it was at Brest-Litovsk; to gain breathing space. It would allow for the building of socialism to take place while simultaneously preparing for the inevitable war which they believed the future would bring.

The Comintern was to be the Soviet sponsored apparatus for this promotion of revolution. Through this they would aid the communist parties of the capitalist world; perhaps to the detriment of stable relations with those states. Comintern membership depended on meeting 21 conditions which were laid out by the Bolsheviks in order to separate them from the socialists of the 2nd International. This was a purely ideological move. Added to this was the ideological language of Comintern debates which often centred around issues such as ‘right deviation’, ‘united fronts’ and ‘left opposition’. Even in the Comintern apparently pragmatic policies ended up being pursued. As in December 1921 the Executive Committee of the Communist International adopted a new position. This involved working with the social democratic parties of Europe and the trade union movement. Lenin described this as a ‘necessary evil in an evidently non revolutionary situation.”

The dialectical method is further evident with regards to the issue of disarmament. This is another area were policy seemed to completely reverse. Until 1921 Soviet policy had been strongly anti-disarmament. The party line was that talk of disarmament was the language of the bourgeoisie, designed to stave off anti capitalist sentiment by making peace appear possible within the capitalist system, thus emasculating the revolutionary struggle. The switch to a pro disarmament position could thus appear pragmatic, particularly in light of Lenin’s words; “While there is oppression and exploitation on earth we must strive not for disarmament, but for universal popular armament.“ This switch in policy may be viewed as u-turn or pragmatic or even opportunist to some. It would seem more fair to see the switch of position came from the necessity to respond to the material conditions which had arisen. The change of policy can be seen as an ideological one by again referring to Marx. He stated that

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past”.

These circumstances meant that similarly, domestic policy also shifted from war communism to the New Economic Policy, showing that conditions had dictated the change in the parties policy formulation. These conditions meant that by 1920 food production was half of its pre-war level and industrial output stood at 20% of what it had been at the outbreak of hostilities. A disarmament project had clear material benefits for the Bolsheviks in that it would put the unused troops of the Red Army into the productive labour market and boost these unsustainable and unacceptable production figures.

The policy would bring other beneficial elements to the global political table from the Soviet perspective. By following a path to disarmament the Bolsheviks would help nurture an image among the global proletariat which was central to spreading revolution; that of a peaceful socialist Russia. This is an image Lenin wished to project as it made Russia appear as a proponent of world peace and would act as a positive example. Again it is clear to see that Bolshevik pragmatism is wrapped up in, stemming from and dictated by ideology.

What should then be evident from this analysis is that pragmatism and ideology did not act in a vacuum. They were not isolated qualities, nor were they inter-related in a way which meant that promoting one must come at the expense of another. Instead pragmatism was a central tenet of the scientific socialism advanced by the Bolsheviks. It formed part of the dialectical process of the subjective and objective conditions facing them. It was concerned with where the Bolsheviks were and where they would by necessity get. Understanding the dialectical method is surely central to determining whether soviet foreign policy under Lenin was primarily pragmatic or ideological. Without this understanding of Marxist ideology one would certainly be drawn to arguments suggesting the pragmatic nature of Soviet foreign policy and thus assume a void of ideology in the security sphere. However, by approaching Marxist theory systematically one learns to contextualize Soviet security policy within the framework of the objective material conditions from which the party operated. By doing this one may appreciate the truly ideological and revolutionary policy of the period, even though on the surface this appears not to be the case.


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    • informationdesk profile image


      5 years ago

      Lenin was the great man . Long live Lenin , Long live mlm.....

    • jandee profile image


      7 years ago from Liverpool.U.K

      I enjoyed it and deffo.. think there is a need for it on this site . Is there any reason why you cannot do both ?best from jandee

    • Josak profile image


      7 years ago from variable

      Well I am no expert on hubs but it seems to me that the site is more oriented towards opinion pieces than true essays such as this one, maybe its just my impression. Having said that I am interested to see what you write in future so I will follow.

    • Comrade Joe profile imageAUTHOR

      Comrade Joe 

      7 years ago from Glasgow, United Kingdom

      Thank you for the feedback. Why do you think hubs may not be the best place for it? I'm not necessarily in disagreement, just curious to know your thinking.

    • Josak profile image


      7 years ago from variable

      Good essay, hubs might not be the place for it IMO but still interesting, I would agree with your conclusion but say that I think under Lenin the international policy was more driven by ideology but still a combination, the mark of a good leader is the ability to do the best that can be done within what can be done.


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