The communist ideology

The main events of the latter half of the 20th Century remain a topic of intense debate with the reasoning behind these events still a source of speculation. This essay will examine the key events in Soviet Foreign policy through the four leaders of the period between 1945-1991; Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev and will be contrasted against the teachings of Communist ideology in an effort to determine whether ideology had greater influence in the foreign policy decisions made by said leaders or if state interests played a more significant role.

Marxism-Leninism was the ideology of the Soviet Union. Thus, Marxist-Leninist ideas influenced foreign policy. For a Marxist-Leninist, the world is divided into classes rather than individual states and in strict Communist doctrine, the key objective of foreign policy was the ultimate achievement of world revolution by the proletariat. As a result, Marxist-Leninism has no theory of international relations. It was well expressed by Trotsky[1] when he was appointed People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs in 1917, “I will issue a few revolutionary proclamations to the peoples of the world and then shut up shop.” Revolution would displace the state system and end the need for diplomacy. On the other hand, failure of a world-wide revolution to take place meant that the sate interests of the USSR quickly acquired great importance for Soviet foreign policy-makers. The Soviet Union increasingly turned to building a Communist society at home, believing that strengthening Communism within the USSR was the way to ensure a Communist society outside of its borders: “Socialism in One Country”, and that once strengthened, the Soviet Union would prove strong enough to lead the whole world to Socialism.

There are other Marxist-Leninist ideas that strongly influenced foreign policy, one of which was the necessary antagonistic nature of Communism towards Capitalist states, which Stalin strongly believed would inevitably lead to war[2]. Related to this idea was the concept of “correlation of forces” – the Russian equivalent to our “balance of power”- where the overall strength of capitalism was measured against communism. The idea that capitalism suffered from such profound contradictions; states competing for resources, economic problems, led Communists to believe that their system would prevail and therefore were always on the look out for the “correlation of forces” to change in their favour. It also reinforced the effect of the Leninist conception of imperialism. Lenin held the view that war would bring the prospect of revolution as the ruling classes became demoralised by the burdens placed by war on the states concerned and the working classes plummeted into misery.

As previously mentioned, communism was not adverse to war if the outcome would be revolution. This was a belief strongly held by Lenin. Alternatively, Stalin, was more interested in war that served his interest. An example of which is the Second World War – officially known in the Soviet Union as ‘The Second Great Patriotic War’. He reasoned that World War I was brought about by capitalists, who inflicted damage and destruction on each other, but is seen as positive as it led to the emergence of the USSR. After the Second World War, the USSR was left absolutely devastated, the class struggle also had to be balanced with the desire of the Soviet population for peace so that they and their country could recover. Soviet leaders were aware of this desire, which tempered any revolutionary ardour they may have felt. Nevertheless the years to follow were also years of great triumph for the USSR. The destruction of the German army meant the USSR was the only great European military power, had become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and it had broken out of the capitalist encirclement of having allied states on its borders.

Stalin sought to increase Soviet power beyond what the Tzars had accomplished now that he had Communist ideology driving him. He was the dominant creator of Soviet foreign policy, the subject of which remains under dispute by several historians. One such historian, LeFeber entertained the notion that “(Stalin) displayed a realism, a careful calculation of forces, and a diplomatic finesse that undercut any attempt to explain away his actions as paranoia”[3], while another criticises Stalin’s foreign policy as “inexplicable in its parts as incoherent in its whole”[4].

It has been argued that Stalin’s foreign policy from 1945 onwards was a direct result of material interests and power play with the United States of America, that the USA was now perceived as “Glavny Protivnik” (greatest adversary) and that Stalin was scared of war because of its strength.

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The exact origins of the Cold War remain under dispute, even with new archival evidence from former Eastern-bloc states. The role to which Stalin’s foreign policy played in the build up to the Cold War can be categorised in a small number of groups. The ‘orthodox’ view, which entertained Stalin’s aggressive and expansionist policy, his desired expansion along all of the USSR’s borders from the Pacific to the Atlantic, which can be argued to be in following with Marxist-Leninist theories of expansion[5], even though he permitted discussion on what governments could be formed within newly acquired states. It is interesting to note that Stalin’s aggressive and expansionist policy has been attributed to his own declining mental health. He had even been diagnosed, albeit incorrectly, in 1927 as a paranoid schizophrenic nevertheless this diagnosis was proved to be inaccurate. The ‘revisionist’ view, perceived by Marxist and Marxist-Leninist historians, depicted the USA as an aggressive power, to their own people and others around the globe, imposing its empire on an unwilling world, ignoring the security interests of the Soviet Union and conforming to the classic Leninist model of Imperialism.[6] This view gained credibility later in the 1960’s, partly owing to the Vietnam War. Other historians, not Marxist in inspiration, claim that the USA wanted to establish an economic system across the globe which would promote trade and economic growth from which the USA would benefit. Separate to the ideological views is the notion that the conflict was inevitable and thus both superpowers were responsible for it. That the Cold War was the natural result of a situation in which two superpowers with differing ideologies remained. Tactically speaking, the USSR had only three strategic enemies, of which Japan and Germany had been defeated and China was embroiled in a civil war. In addition, the Soviet Union had the largest army with mobilised resources, it was also geographically the largest country in the world. The USA on the other hand was a massive economic power and its population had not been morally exhausted by recent war nor were they at odds with their own government. The resulting clash between the two would turn into a global disaster. At this time, it appears Stalin preferred to avoid a military confrontation with the USA and having determined that military probes into Europe would be too hazardous, Stalin sought to expand Soviet influence into regions where there would be less risk of confrontation with the USA and so he turned to Asia[7].

After repeatedly denying approval of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung’s proposed military attack of South Korea, the Soviet Union unexpectedly began secretly providing large technological and military assistance to North Korea. This U-turn decision has been cited by both Gaddis and Westad to support their assertion that Marxism-Leninism was of crucial importance in Soviet foreign policy[8]. Westad also provided another theory to Stalin’s unexpected decision change in that Stalin had seen Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist victory and had been unnerved by it. Stalin therefore gave approval for the attack on South Korean when he realised his rival in Mao would support North Korea with Stalin or without and Stalin did not want to appear less revolutionary than Mao[9]. Regardless of the ideological reasons, be it enthusiasm in response to Mao’s ambitions or jealousy and an attempt to outmanoeuvre Mao by condoning North Korea, even an avoidance of the USA to prevent a catastrophic war, it is indicated that ideology was a factor in Stalin’s foreign policy involvement in Asia.

Stalin died in March 1953. He was succeeded by a collective leadership with Nikita Khrushchev soon emerging as the main figure. The new leaders quickly realised that changes in foreign policy were necessary; the main reason for this being the arms race which was now becoming more prominent in world events. In 1952, the USA had detonated the worlds first thermonuclear device followed in 1953 with the USSR testing its first hydrogen bomb. In the years that followed, both powers created and tested various delivery systems for these new weapons that resulted for the USSR in the creation of Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) which had the range to strike the USA. Khrushchev called these weapons “the Gods of War”[10]. The realisation of the enormous power of these new weapons caused Stalin’s successors to abandon key principles of Marxist-Leninist ideology. The precept of the inevitability of war between capitalism and communism, which in Stalin’s eyes, would be won by communism, had to be discarded as a conflict would result in the mutual assured destruction of both the capitalist and communist states. In addition, the principle of revolution that, although perceived as inevitable and the only way to a Communist society according to Marxist-Leninist doctrine, could now be the cause of a war that would also end in complete devastation for the warring states and thus it was at the 20th Party Congress in 1956 that a set of initiatives were launched which came to be known as ‘destalinization’ which established a policy of long-term peaceful cooperation with the capitalist world. The superpowers had inadvertently become partners, with the incentive to prevent thermonuclear war.

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Although there initially appeared to be a change of direction from Marxist-Leninist doctrine there were still elements of it that were pursued even with the new initiatives in place. The Party leadership was quick to introduce the idea that a peaceful transition to Socialism was still very much possible. The changes to foreign policy included the commencement of armistice talks in areas of conflict, for example, the Korean war. The Soviet regime also attempted to strengthen its satellite states in the bloc and draw them closer to the USSR. This all culminated in 1955 with the creation of the Warsaw Treaty Organisation. In addition, a massive amount of economic and technical assistance was given to the communist nation of the People’s Republic of China. This assistance has been described as the greatest transfer of technology in world history[11]. The regime also encouraged trading and other forms of communication with the Western world, it opened up to tourism, Soviet citizens were permitted for the first time to visit other states not in the Eastern bloc of which the reverse was also the same. Stalin, would have avoided this as, in his view, it would have potentially opened up the USSR to hostile foreign influences. Competing ideological tendencies and institutional interests allied with Khrushchev’s own over-ambition in foreign policy were the prime factors resulting in his fall from power in 1964[12].

During the Khrushchev years, Brezhnev had supported the process of ‘destalinisation’ but as soon as he became leader, Brezhnev changed direction and reverted to a more regressive, Stalin-type attitude, even taking the title General Secretary, which Stalin’s held until 1952. Brezhnev’s overriding aims were to ensure the primacy of the USSR in the world communist movement. Establish strategic parity in the US and on that basis, to secure western acceptance of the post-war order in Europe while extending Soviet power in the developing world[13].

The first foreign policy crisis of the Brezhnev regime occurred in 1968 when reforms began sweeping through Czechoslovakia, initiated by leader Alexander Dubcek, that posed the reduction of importance of the ruling Communist party. The Soviet leadership attempted to limit the impact of Dubcek’s reforms through negotiation but their efforts proved in vain. Soon after, Soviet and Eastern bloc troops invaded Czechoslovakia tasked with restoring it to Marxist-Leninist doctrine. This became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine.[14] The doctrine was used to justify the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and also used to put an end to liberalisation efforts that had the potential to disrupt Soviet control within the Eastern bloc. The concerns of the Soviet Union fit an ideology based explanation of Soviet actions. It is interesting to note that while the western states heavily criticised the invasion, they were unable to challenge the Soviet military force in Europe without risking nuclear war.

The events surrounding the collapse of Communism and the relatively quiet dissolution of the Soviet Union can be attributed to the euphemistically named ‘Sinatra Doctrine’. It was the name that the Soviet government of Mikhail Gorbachev used to describe his new policy of allowing the eastern bloc Warsaw Pact nations to determine their own affairs. This was a complete change of direction from the Brezhnev Doctrine which tightly monitored and controlled the internal affairs of the satellite states. For Wohlforth, once Gorbachev was in office, his perception of the USSR’s relative decline grew steadily more pessimistic. He had to accept retreat after retreat from the Soviet’s great power commitments, which let to the sudden end of the Cold War[15].

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Gorbachev had many issues facing him, one of which was the prevention of anti-Soviet violence from breaking out. Previously, any dissident uprising would have been resolved by military intervention, however if a crisis erupted now, then a massive amount of military intervention would be necessary. It was decided that Soviet policy should aim to achieve two basic goals: avoid direct military intervention at any cost[16] and for the rapid transition to a new political order to be achieved peacefully. Gorbachev obviously could not see that the changes he initiated would lead to the demise of the Soviet bloc, it can be argued that he was depending on like-minded leaders to emerge from the Communist groups in Eastern Europe.[17]

The question of whether communist ideology played a role in the transformation of Soviet policy still remains. If Gorbachev had decided to maintain the orthodox Communist rule in the Soviet bloc and enforce the Brezhnev doctrine, the Soviet army would have ensured his success. It appears that it was Gorbachev’s own choices, on domestic priorities and a desire to ‘lay to rest all remnants of Stalinism…'[18] that led the Soviet Union down the path to disintegration.

While it is undeniable that the ideological differences of Capitalism and Marxism-Leninism provided the Cold War with a catalyst, it is not outside the realm of possibility that differences between the two superpowers left in the power vacuum after the Second World War would not have provided the fuel to ignite the conflict themselves. Some of the specific policies adopted by the Soviet leaders could have just as easily been pursued by a non-communist government responding to a tense global situation, however that does not mean ideology had no relevance. It appears that the USSR’s state interests were themselves influenced by Communist ideology and thus influenced the foreign policy decisions of the leadership.


  • Craig Nation, R. Black Earth, Red Star: A History of Soviet Security Policy, 1917-1921 (1992)
  • Fink, C., Junker, D. Gassert, P. (eds) The World Transformed :1968 (1998)
  • Gaddis, J.L. The Emerging Post-Revisionist Synthesis on the Origins of the Cold War (1983)
  • Khrushchev, S. N Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev Volume 1: Commissar, 1918-1945 (2000)
  • Kramer, M. Ideology and the Cold War Review of International Studies (1999)
  • Kramer, M. (ed.) The Collapse of the Soviet Union (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, (2000)
  • LaFeber, W America, Russia and the Cold War, 1945-1992.
  • Rosser, R.F. Introduction to Soviet Foreign Policy (1969)
  • Taubman, W, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (2003)
  • Tompson, W. The Soviet Union under Brezhnev (2003)
  • ‘K zasedaniyu Politbyuro 6/X-88 g.’ 6 October 1988 (secret), reproduced in Tsena svobody: Refornatsiya Gorbacheva glazami ego pomoshchnika (Moscow: Rossika-Zevs, 1993)
  • Westad, O.A. Cold War and Revolution: Soviet-American Rivalry and the Origins of the Chinese Civil War, 1944-1946
  • Wohlforth, W. Realism and the End of the Cold War. International Security, 19:3 (1994/5)
  1. Craig Nation, R. Black Earth, Red Star: A History of Soviet Security Policy, 1917-1921 (1992) p.1
  2. Rosser, R.F. Introduction to Soviet Foreign Policy (1969) p.74
  3. LaFeber, W America, Russia and the Cold War, 1945-1992. p.20.
  4. Westad, O.A. Cold War and Revolution: Soviet-American Rivalry and the Origins of the Chinese Civil War, 1944-1946, p.55
  5. Rosser, Introduction p.80
  6. Gaddis, J.L. The Emerging Post-Revisionist Synthesis on the Origins of the Cold War (1983) p.172
  7. Kramer, M. Ideology and the Cold War Review of International Studies (1999) p.542-543
  8. Kramer, Ideology p.541
  9. Kramer, Ideology p.542
  10. Khrushchev, S. N Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev Volume 1: Commissar, 1918-1945 (2000)
  11. Taubman, W, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (2003) p.337
  12. Tompson, W. The Soviet Union under Brezhnev (2003) p.28
  13. Tompson, W. The Soviet Union under Brezhnev (2003) p.28
  14. Fink, C., Junker, D. Gassert, P. (eds) The World Transformed :1968 (1998) p.163-8
  15. Wohlforth, W. Realism and the End of the Cold War. International Security, 19:3 (1994/5) p.109
  16. ‘K zasedaniyu Politbyuro 6/X-88 g.’ 6 October 1988 (secret), reproduced in Tsena svobody: Refornatsiya Gorbacheva glazami ego pomoshchnika (Moscow: Rossika-Zevs, 1993) p.368
  17. Kramer, Ideology p.569
  18. Kramer, M. (ed.) The Collapse of the Soviet Union (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000)
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