“Men like Trotsky and the other leaders of the Bolsheviks wrote of the merciless prosecution of revolution, but Stalin was ruthlessness personified. He was not like the intellectuals; he had no interest in their theories and delusions”
The 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution is approaching. It was a revolution based not merely on hope but on the certainty that the human condition could be filled with equality, plenty and freedom. It created a regime that was willing and felt compelled to go to any lengths to create that perfection, but that regime ended in 1991, exhausted by the squalor it had created.
The Russian Revolution was inspired by the work of Karl Marx, and that work was the reductio ad absurdum of the French Enlightenment. The Enlightenment had argued that humanity was engaged in progress – knowledge was constantly accumulating and, with that, the human condition was constantly improving. At the centre of this process was reason, which would drive progress. And its main thrust was that the most perfect government was one that promoted the principle of human equality.
The agent of all of this was the intellectual, who placed reason at the centre of all things, and therefore was the one who would deliver progress. The intellectual would understand the necessity of improving the human condition and therefore understand that anyone who impeded this was the enemy. The intellectual became a politician seeking power, and then driving the masses toward a transformation of human life.
But the Enlightenment presented a paradox.
If human progress was certain, then why should the intellectual have to undertake the effort and risk of driving it forward?
But there was another paradox. The intellectual was also hungry for a significance beyond those with whom he shared his life. He hungered for power and recognition, and therefore the vision of progress being his to deliver to humanity was tremendously seductive. The paradox needed examination by the contemplative. But the contemplative bypassed the paradox and presided over the French Revolution. And those who thwarted progress had to be eliminated. The intellectuals displayed the ruthlessness of pure logic, a logic that saw the people as tools to be shaped.
Marx took the Enlightenment’s impulse to its logical conclusion. He believed not only in progress, but in progress that would result in the perfection of humanity. That perfection would lead to the end of scarcity and the emergence of true human equality. This was inevitable because capitalism’s internal contradictions would ultimately destroy it, freeing the proletariat to impose a dictatorship that would forge this reality.
The problem, however, was that the proletariat, shattered by capitalism, would be unable to rise up and build the new order. Again, the tension between the inevitable and the necessity of human action showed itself. Marx tried to solve the problem by arguing that a revolutionary party would emerge from the proletariat and impose a dictatorship that would be the agent to both organise the workers and forge a new humanity.
Vladimir Lenin focused on building a communist party. The problem, he argued, was that the working class suffered from “false consciousness.” It did not know what its own interests were because of its condition and therefore couldn’t free itself. The Communist Party had to be built from those who had pierced the veil of false consciousness and saw clearly what needed to be done. It wouldn’t simply lead the working class; it would compel the workers toward progress. And the people who could see through false consciousness were the intellectuals, who came to be the leaders of the