Totalitarian fanaticism is still with us.
One hundred years ago this October, Russia fell into the abyss of the communist revolution, a scourge on humanity that that resulted in hundreds of millions of deaths. Its influence extended far beyond the borders of the Soviet Union and produced similar authoritarian and brutal regimes wherever its ideology took root.
The October Revolution did not replace, as many think, the authoritarian and incompetent Romanov dynasty that led an unprepared Russian military into the slaughter of World War I. In February of 1917, there was a democratic revolution that resulted in a moderate provisional government.
When Lenin returned from Switzerland to Russia in April of 1917, the Russian Revolution was already six weeks old.
Stepping off the “sealed train” that brought Lenin from Switzerland to Petrograd’s Finland Station, Lenin promised a revolution to a somewhat bewildered crowd that already experienced the revolution against the Romanov dynasty.
Although Lenin’s faction in the Communist Party was the minority, they anointed themselves in the Bolsheviks (meaning the majority). The communists of all factions were a minority on the political spectrum, and Russia was an agrarian society with 97% of its population engaged in agriculture. It was, perhaps, the last place on the planet where a revolution of the industrial proletariat, as envisioned by Karl Marx, should have taken place.
One of the lessons of the Russian Revolution is that majorities do not make history. Organized minorities fanatically dedicated to a cause make history.
Lenin was a fanatic. His life was devoted to the revolution. He shielded himself from many of the ordinary pleasures of life to harden himself toward the task of the revolution. He was not amoral; he was immoral.
Even the assassins he sent to kill the Romanov family members hesitated in killing the children, but Lenin’s orders were clear. All the Romanovs must die for the sake of the greater good.
Leon Trotsky, the strategist and tactician of the October Revolution, had no military training. He was a gifted amateur who succeeded by sowing dissension in the Imperial military and capturing strategic assets. A minor ideology with a few thousand men and women running through the streets of Petrograd with rifles in their hands could overthrow not only a three-centuries old dynasty but also seize a vast country in which it barely had a footprint.
The totalitarian nature of the Russian Revolution did not begin with Stalin but with the realization that the imposition of a minority ideology on a people required the abolition of freedom of thought and unmentionable brutality.
In 1922, Lenin sent into exile hundreds of intellectuals who disagreed with communism. The revolution would not tolerate a difference of opinion.
Stalin noted that a single death is a tragedy but millions of deaths are merely a statistic as he continued Lenin’s intolerance of anything resembling disagreement.
Eventually, the revolution like Saturn would devour even its own children as the once keepers of the faith were themselves sent to the Gulag or to receive a bullet in the back of the head.
The totalitarian instinct exists in many societies. The self-anointed keepers of opinion and thought control on our campuses are cut from the totalitarian cloth. The cowardly university administrators who refuse to enforce freedom of speech rights against the gaggle of pubescent tyrants are like the weak provisional government that could have changed the course of history by seizing Lenin at the Finland Station but wouldn’t do so.
Those who bring violence and intimidation to the public square for the achievement of the greater good share in this corruption.
The historian J. B. Bury reminds us of how the assent of human freedom was a long, difficult, and bloody struggle. The Russian Revolution reminds us of how fragile this achievement is and what are the true costs of its loss.