What we learned from the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion

National Post (Latest Edition) - - ISSUES & IDEAS - Fr. Ray­mond Souza de

That day in Novem­ber 1917 when Vladimir Lenin and his Bol­she­viks seized power in Rus­sia may have been the dark­est day in the his­tory of hu­man­ity. What was in­tro­duced into his­tory that day, in Rus­sia first, but later in China and else­where, was the most lethal phenomenon ever wit­nessed.

To­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism was not new; the af­ter­math of the French Rev­o­lu­tion had al­ready brought that bloody and bru­tal re­al­ity to the heart of Europe. The French ter­ror was an early form of sec­u­lar ex­trem­ism, but Lenin went fur­ther and in­no­vated in that re­gard; the Soviet Union was the world’s first of­fi­cially athe­is­tic state. State athe­ism, in Moscow and Ber­lin and Bei­jing, would make the twen­ti­eth cen­tury a slaugh­ter­house.

What was novel was the reach of the Soviet com­mu­nists. There was no area of life that state co­er­cion would not touch — the econ­omy would be planned, ed­u­ca­tion would be com­pletely re­vised, re­li­gion would be elim­i­nated, so­cial classes would be re­con­structed. All of it would be su­per­vised by an om­nipresent state, en­forced by a se­cret po­lice that un­der the cover of dark­ness could ship any­one off to Siberia, or Lubyanka, or di­rectly to the grave. Over time, the com­mu­nists wouldn’t bother wait­ing for dark­ness, but wrought their tyranny in the light of day.

The Sovi­ets had im­pe­rial am­bi­tions. It be­gan with the sub­ju­gated na­tions of the in­ter­nal em­pire — Ukraine, Ge­or­gia, the Baltic na­tions, the cen­tral Asian re­publics — and ex­panded to the en­slaved na­tions of Europe, im­pris­oned be­hind the Iron Cur­tain. Fur­ther afield, com­mu­nists in Africa, Asia and Latin Amer­ica had ready sup­port from Moscow. To­day, peo­ple will die in Venezuela be­cause of what Lenin wrought.

The com­mu­nist phi­los­o­phy, be­ing en­tirely ma­te­ri­al­is­tic, had no room for free will. Hu­man free­dom does not lie in ma­te­rial re­al­i­ties; it does not re­side in this mol­e­cule or that atom. It is part of what is tran­scen­dent in man, and the ul­tra- mun­dane pol­i­tics of Marx­ism had no room for tran­scen­dence. It there­fore had no room for free­dom, and there­fore no room for those who chose to ex­er­cise it.

Hence Marx­ist- Lenin­ist pol­i­tics, plunged to even deeper lev­els of de­prav­ity by Stalin, had to dis­pose of any­one who claimed free­dom. The death toll was stag­ger­ing, mea­sured in the tens of mil­lions, to which a vast cat­a­logue of tor­ture, im­prison- ment, dis­place­ment and ex­ile must be added.

Yet the reign was rel­a­tively short. Not as short as the Thou­sand Year Re­ich of Adolf Hitler, which missed that mark by 988 years, but by 1991 not only had com­mu­nism been wiped off the map of Europe, but the Soviet Union it­self no longer could be found on it.

Eric Hob­swawn, the Marx­ist his­to­rian, wrote of the “short twen­ti­eth cen­tury,” from the Great War to 1991, a pe­riod dom­i­nated by the rise of to­tal­i­tar­ian com­mu­nism and its to­tal de­feat. The Great War brought an end to the royal houses of Rus­sia, Ger­many and Aus­tria, and dis­solved both the Hab­s­burg and Ot­toman em­pires. Yet what rose in Rus­sia was far more au­thor­i­tar­ian and im­pe­rial than what pre­ceded it.

At the dis­tance of a cen­tury, two things stand out. The first is the Soviet cen­tury was not even that, and its dis­so­lu­tion was both com­plete and (largely) non­vi­o­lent. The res­o­lu­tion of free peo­ples proved re­silient in con­tain­ing com­mu­nism, and the peace­ful rev­o­lu­tion of con­science and spirit within the evil em­pire proved more po­tent than Lenin or Stalin could imag­ine. That the van­quish­ers of com­mu­nism would be led by priests (John Paul II) and play­wrights ( Va­clav Havel) gave the lie to the com­mu­nist slo­gan that power pro­ceeds only from the bar­rel of a gun.

At the same time, the short Soviet cen­tury was long enough to teach us that so many ex­perts and so many lead­ers got it so ter­ri­bly wrong. Some were sim­ply com­plicit for base mo­tives, like the New York Times, which cov­ered up the Ukrainian ter­ror famine. Oth­ers were fel­low travellers who liked the pro­gres­sive fris­son of com­mu­nism from a dis­tance. And still oth­ers thought that what ev­ery­one knew to be true — that com­mu­nism was ro­bust and the way of the fu­ture — was cer­tainly true.

Into the 1980s it was not dif­fi­cult to find econ­o­mists who were singing the praises of the Soviet econ­omy. For­eign re­la­tions ex­perts clucked de­ri­sively about the an­ti­com­mu­nism of Ron­ald Rea­gan and Mar­garet Thatcher, mak­ing anti- anti- com­mu­nism a unit­ing force for the global left. The pro­fes­so­rial Krem­li­nol­o­gists who in­sisted that the Soviet em­pire was a per­ma­nent fact of life had no idea that their own fac­ulty ten­ure was more en­dur­ing.

The con­sen­sus of re­spectable opin­ion turned out to be spec­tac­u­larly wrong. Re­spectable opin­ion to­day should be chas­tened, and those who lec­ture oth­ers about what opin­ions are per­mit­ted in the re­spectable con­sen­sus should be re­minded of that.

Novem­ber is the month of re­mem­brance. This Novem­ber we re­mem­ber the fear­ful toll of tyranny, and sa­lute those, who at great cost, de­feated it.

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