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Towards the end of the 19th century, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:
"I wish that Socialism were discredited by a few great experiments showing that, in a Socialist society, life denies itself and cuts itself off from the roots. The earth is big enough, and man still has enough to spare, even though such practical instruction, such a demonstration ad absurdum , would seem undesirable, given its immense cost in human lives."
Nietzsche died in 1900. Little did he know, but such "great experiments" were to take place in the coming decades, with the "immense cost in human lives" coming to tragic fulfillment. The experiment was the Russian Revolution of 1917; the cost, tens of millions of lives. In The Black Book of Communism, the French historian Stéphane Courtois estimates that communism was responsible for the deaths of c. 100 million people. Little wonder Stalin’s maxim:
"A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic."
The Russian Revolution of 1917 refers to two distinct but interrelated revolutions: the February Revolution (March in the Gregorian calendar) and the October Revolution (November in the Gregorian calendar). The former witnessed the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the establishment of the Provisional Government; the latter witnessed the overthrow of that government by the Bolsheviks and the eventual establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
The Russian Revolution was without doubt one of the most momentous and controversial events in human history. Even in Russia today there is no officially approved narrative. The factors, short-term and long-term, behind the Russian Revolution of 1917 are complex and much-debated. They range from poor living and working conditions on the part of the growing industrial proletariat to Russia’s disastrous performance in the First World War to the Tsar’s reluctance to democratise and modernize the country. In 1917, there were genuine grievances in Russia. The Bolsheviks seized on these grievances and exploited them for their own ends.
To some, the November Revolution is invariably characterized as a "workers’ revolution" or a "popular uprising." It was anything but. The November Revolution was nothing more than a coup d'état; an usurpation of power by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. This was completely in line with Lenin’s interpretation of Marxism; a "vanguard" was required to lead the workers into revolution. Lenin’s objective? Power. Lenin’s means? Violence. Lenin’s inspiration? Karl Marx.
According to Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism, history is the product of irreconcilable conflict between opposing class interests, the present class conflict being that between the bourgeoisie, the owners of the means of production, and the proletariat, the wage-workers who lack control of the means of production. Due to the nature of said conflict being irreconcilable, the only way it can be resolved is via revolution on the part of the proletariat. Marx presented his as a scientific theory but, as Daniel Hannan writes in The Conservative:
"Every prediction that [Marx] made – every single one – turned out to be false."
All sorts of mental gymnastics are employed by those who still cling to Marxist dogma to work around this inconvenience. They claim that the Bolsheviks were not true Marxists, or that Communism was never successfully implemented in the USSR or that…and so on and on the excuses are made. The reality is that the Russian Revolution was the world’s first Marxian experiment, and it ended disastrously.
Those who did support the Bolsheviks — predominantly the industrial proletariat who were taken in by Lenin’s cry of "land, bread and peace" — eagerly anticipated an improved existence for themselves. They would be thoroughly disappointed. Machiavelli foresaw this much in the 16th century:
"What happens is that men willingly change their ruler, expecting to fare better. This expectation induces them to take up arms against him; but they only deceive themselves, and they learn from experience that they have made matters worse."
Once in power, the Bolsheviks systematically dismantled civil institutions. Private ownership of land was abolished. The boat that was Russian society, built up over centuries of tradition and experience, was cut adrift from its anchors. This inevitably made it all the more difficult for any post-Communist administration to take root. The country was plunged into civil war, eventually won by the Bolsheviks. Those suspected of being political opponents of the revolution were rounded up and summarily executed. In July 1918, the royal family were executed.
Lenin promised free and fair elections. When the Bolsheviks lost in the elections, Lenin ordered the Red Guard to shut down the elected assembly, putting himself in charge of the country. Lenin, like Stalin and all other Soviet leaders after him, governed as a dictator.
The failure of socialistic programmes to turn Russia’s economy around compelled Lenin to implement the New Economic Policy, which essentially allowed farmers to retain profit through their surplus crop. These farmers — labelled "Kulaks" — were subsequently subjected to enforced collectivization under Stalin, Lenin’s successor. Millions of Kulaks were exiled, arrested or killed. Herein can be seen a central feature of Soviet Russia; the drive to punish talent and enterprise. In this sense, socialism in Russia was nothing less than a design against that which it means to be human; the instinct to better oneself and, in so doing, better one's community.
"No believable economist," writes Max Hastings in The Spectator, "would claim that the Russian people benefited from Leninist or Stalinist social and economic policies. It is easier to project an upward trend for Russian living standards after 1918 had the Tsarist regime survived than to make a case that the Soviet system profited anyone, save the commissars."
To consolidate his power, Stalin relied on the practices implemented by his predecessor: purges, show trials, exile, and mass murder. One major instrument of Stalinist oppression was the forced labour camp, where everyone from petty criminals to political prisoners were sent to at the hands of the NKVD, Stalin's secret police. Millions were sent to such camps and never returned. Between 1932 and 1933, Stalin deliberately orchestrated a famine in Soviet Ukraine, the Holodomor (literally, "death by hunger"), resulting in the deaths of millions of Ukrainians, his intention possibly being to stamp out a Ukrainian independence movement. Estimates of the total number of people killed as a consequence of the Stalinist regime vary widely, but the consensus is that at least 10 million, if not 20 million, were killed.
History testifies that mass murder and state tyranny are an invariable motif of states built upon Marxist doctrine. That was the lesson of Stalin's Russia. That was the lesson of Mao's China. That was the lesson of Pol Pot's Cambodia. This motif is hardly an accident or historical curiosity: the collectivization of private property; the overturning of society; the consolidation of the Revolution, etc. all require the exercise of immense coercion from above. It comes as little surprise, then, that socialist states throughout history — Russia being no exception — have constructed walls not to keep people out, but to keep them in.
Essentially, all that 1917 brought about was a change of Tsar; one authoritarian regime was exchanged for another. The Russian people, of course, were those who suffered. As the record of history demonstrates, every "great experiment" in socialism has witnessed the concentration of power into the hands of the few and the concomitant impoverishment of everyone else.
The internal contradictions (to borrow a Marxist phrase) of the USSR ultimately caused the system to collapse in 1991. The West had won the Cold War and Marxian science was debunked — or so one might have thought.
As Alexandr Vondra points out, Marxism may have been completely discredited in the lands it was forced upon, yet it remains intellectually attractive in the West. Hence the propensity of contemporary students to sport trendy Che Guevara t-shirts and to display posters of Communist mass murderers on their bedroom walls, woefully ignorant of the immense human suffering endured under their reigns of terror.
Communism was one of the two great tragedies of the 20th century — the other being Fascism. Both were branches of the same root: Collectivism; the subordination of the individual to the group. The fact is that the Russian Revolution was not a triumph; it was a tragedy. It should not be commemorated; it should be mourned. One Tsar was exchanged for another, and for the Russian people in whose name the Revolution occurred the 20th century was the century of state oppression, mass murder and tyranny.
Eminent minds of the former century appreciated that "great experiments" ought to discredit socialism. Their mistake was to assume that these experiments would not come to pass.