A little over a hundred years ago, in March 1917, an uprising in St Petersburg overthrew the venerable Russian autocracy of the Romanov czars.
This was a real revolution, conformable to the models of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, and a provisional government – broadly based and moderately left wing – was established pending the election of a constituent assembly.
But the government didn’t live to see that election. On the 7th and 8th of November it was ousted by the Bolshevik Party, which had a strong base in the urban proletariat and its workers’ councils, or soviets.
Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, took power. When the constituent assembly was elected, it turned out to have a large plurality for the Bolsheviks’ rivals, the Socialist Revolutionaries. It was promptly dispersed by force: Russia’s first democratic election was also its last for more than 70 years.
Readers probably know the rest of the story. The Bolsheviks consolidated their power through victory in a civil war, aided by the talent of their military chief, Leon Trotsky. They renamed the country the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and themselves as the Communist Party. Soon they controlled a network of like-minded parties throughout the world.
Compared to its March predecessor, the November revolution (usually known, confusingly, as the October Revolution, because Russia was then still on the Julian calendar) looks more like a putsch than a popular movement. But that doesn’t mean it was unimportant. On the contrary, it was one of the pivotal events of the twentieth century.
Over the next few decades, Communism drenched much of the world in blood. Lenin was cruel and ruthless, although principled in his way; his successor, Stalin, was downright psychopathic. They provided a model for equally barbaric Communist regimes in other countries, most notably China (where it still survives, unlike the USSR).
But the bloodshed did not stop there. Bolshevism provides the essential context for the rise of fascism; fascist movements played off fear of the Bolsheviks while imitating their methods and ultimately matching their homicidal record.
No doubt there would have been left-wing agitation at the end of the First World War in any event, and therefore presumably a violent reaction from the right. But without Lenin and Stalin it’s hard to imagine that it would have taken quite such a malignant form.
So, is there anything good to be said for the Bolsheviks? No doubt, many of them were idealists, firmly believing that they were acting for the good of the people and that a world of freedom and prosperity was just around the corner. Maybe even Lenin really thought of the dictatorship as a temporary and regrettable necessity. But the ease with which his successors gave up that belief must cast some doubt on its genuineness.
The Soviet Union did win the Second World War; without it, one might say, the Nazis would have conquered Europe. But without it, perhaps the war never would have had to be fought in the first place. And in any event, a democratic Russia might have been a more effective ally: for a start, it wouldn’t have just shot most of its leading generals, as Stalin had.
The Communists did try to eradicate many harmful things within their sphere of control, but by their inhumanity they often provoked a reaction in favor of those very things. Would feminism, for example, have quite so many enemies today if it were not for Lenin? More than anyone, he was the man who gave modernity a bad name.
Anti-communism, so necessary and obvious in its own terms, distorted the political spectrum. While those on the left tied themselves in knots trying to pick and choose from the elements of the Leninist program, those on the right blamed Marxism and socialism for all of the ills that Communism brought.
But the indictment was unfair: what Lenin was doing was not Marxism. Marx could have told him that at Russia’s stage of development, bourgeois liberalism was a progressive ideology, and that Marxists should be supporting the progress of capitalism, not intervening to derail it.
No Marxist party that has repudiated Lenin has ever repeated his brutality. If Marx had never existed, Lenin would probably have found some other convenient ideology to justify his schemes. But if Lenin had never existed, Marx might be remembered as a prophet of social democracy, not of dictatorship.