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Some Lessons From the Russian Revolution

How an alluring radical nihilism seduces believers into forms of extremism

Anna Geifman
March 08, 2021
Russian Museum/Wikipedia
Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, ‘Fantasy,’ 1925, oil on canvasRussian Museum/Wikipedia
Russian Museum/Wikipedia
Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, ‘Fantasy,’ 1925, oil on canvasRussian Museum/Wikipedia

For a revolutionary, the world is worthless and merits annihilation. Someone who thinks so must loathe life. “There is no greater joy, there is no better music than a crushing sound of smashed bones and lives,” a Bolshevik poet echoed in a hymn to obliteration. The Nazis “were destroyers,” argued psychologist Erich Fromm. “They hated not only their enemies, they hated life itself.” A zeal for annihilation is at the core of extremism, no matter what the orientation. Remarkably, emotional rejection of the world almost always precedes the destroyers’ ideological justification of a plan for its ruin.

Nihilists at the turn of the 20th century in Russia held sanity, love, and kindness to be archaic and banal. Conversely, destructiveness was a token of urbanity. Writer Andrei Bely described his disparaging contemporaries who applauded everything “abnormal,” “odd,” “sick,” and antisocial. Miserable, they saw around them only despair and a profound gloom. The nihilists were desperate for a “higher principle” yet insisted there was none, the inner conflict turning into a source and a trigger for rage, which often took a political form.

Countless radicals failed to articulate concrete grievances or objectives and yearned only “to finish with all the old.” The “banner that united us was the denial of life that had formed us,” Bely explained, referring to the rebels’ self-destructive desire to annihilate the milieu of which they were an integral part.“ Our cause,” declared the 19th-century Russian radical Sergei Nechaev, is “total, universal, and merciless destruction.”

Contrary to a familiar Marxist claim that “being determines consciousness,” successes in mobilization of the hitherto conservative or apolitical masses for political revolt have frequently occurred at times of liberalization and reform. In the past century, extremism thrived in societies where disintegrated ideals left behind a cultural, ethical, and spiritual void—to be filled with totalitarian agendas. Radicalization is a psychological plight, accompanying an abrupt breakdown in collective identities.

Russia in the early 1900s was a perfect case of what the psychologist Robert J. Lifton has called “historical dislocation,” when a sense of a catastrophe accompanied the crumbling of a cultural setting, hitherto defined by the communal way of life. Swift industrialization undercut centuries-old routines when villagers from across the country relocated to industrial centers, where few found sufficient inner resources to adapt to new life as separate individuals. Estranged from their milieu, the hapless loners were easy prey for political recruiters seeking the rank-and-file cadres for the underground. A typical tactic was to allow a “dislocated person” to experience the tormenting loss of his former identity, befriend him, and invite him to join “the comrades.” Group leaders provided the new recruit with a surrogate worldview and a primitive set of values—whatever contributed to the revolution was good; whatever impeded its victory was evil. Next, the recruiters designated targets of hate and aggression.

A “dislocated person” from any culture is a usual candidate to join the cohort of politicized destroyers. “I am in a situation where I do not have a friend, I have no one to speak to, no one to consult, no one to support me and I feel depressed and lonely. I do not know what to do,” wrote the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a scion of one of the wealthiest families in Africa who became known as the “underwear bomber” for his role in a botched airline terror plot. The desperate postings of “Farouk 1986” reveal why he became al-Qaida’s choice to detonate explosives on board a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day in 2009. He would have been a recognizable figure in pre-revolutionary Russia, or Weimar Germany, or dozens of other places, including America of today; in all of them familiar identities have become invalidated and irrelevant, and the extremist attitudes filled the void.

Radicalism—as a substitute for a spurned traditional outlook—has time and again inspired sympathizers to sanctify builders of brave new worlds. From England to Japan, writers exalted the rebels’ self-sacrifice, as in Oscar Wilde’s play Vera, or in Tajima Shoji’s Stories from Europe about Women with a Purpose in Life. Steven Marks’ How Russia Shaped the Modern World cites a Chinese author who had his Russian revolutionary character say: “Nihilists, Nihilists! I love you, I worship you. Your undertakings are brilliant and glorious.”

In Russia the belles-lettres of the early 1900s became a medium to construct the image of terrorist-the-humanist. Writer Leonid Andreev’s widely read stories about “the martyrs” produced a new social fad—sympathy for the extremists. Andreev turned his house into a terrorist refuge. His colleague Maksim Gor’kii converted his flat into a bomb laboratory.

Following the writers’ example, the educated elite considered it an ethical and social obligation to provide the radicals with money, shelter, and hideouts for explosives. While publicly advocating more “cultured methods of struggle,” university professors, teachers, and lawyers privately applauded terrorist acts. Journalists idolized terrorists like Mariia Spiridonova. A newspaper account about her contained terms used in Russian only in reference to saints, and soon people indeed worshiped in front of Spiridonova’s portraits.

Western sympathizers soon celebrated the Soviet experiment. Literary celebrities such as George Bernard Shaw, Theodore Dreiser, Bertolt Brecht, and Louis Aragon, were fascinated by Communism even in the darkest hour of Stalin’s regime. After his visit to Moscow in 1937—the year that became a euphemism for state terror—writer Lion Feuchtwanger reported that he had “seen the magnificent” and witnessed true justice.

Even great skeptics who took no idea for granted were enthralled by Communism as a secular messianic cult, whose millenarian aim was collective salvation at the expense of the individual—dehumanized into a functionable, consumable cell by the idol of the everlasting state organism. The National Socialists too sought secular salvation as a sacred community—as the German Volk, rather than as victorious proletarians. Yet, Nazism had no smaller messianic potential than Communism, emphasizing self-negation and a mystic fusion of the individual with the racially pure “body of Germany.”

Nazi ideology offered an all-encompassing value system and a utopian objective, which the German literati craved. Nazi intellectuals formulated and propagated Hitler’s doctrine. Scientists developed his race theory. Journalists disseminated anti-Semitism under the direction of Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, who held a doctorate in history and literature. Scores of well-educated men joined and led the SS. Highly trained physicians and scholars like Josef Mengele were in charge of horrifying medical killings in Auschwitz and other death camps.

Post-WWII intellectuals, disgruntled as they were with their environment, celebrated China, Cambodia, and Cuba as societal models. Many supported extremist regimes in Africa and the Middle East. Recently, thousands of alienated Westerners came to idealize the so-called Islamic Caliphate—precisely because of its belligerence toward the milieu they had renounced.

In May 2020 intellectuals worldwide kneeled before the image of African American George Floyd, a newly canonized public martyr. Drugs, armed assaults, arrests, violence against women, and multiple imprisonments had marked Floyd’s less-than-saintly path. Yet, as a victim of police brutality, Floyd was sanctified after “giving his life” so that “racial justice” would prevail in America and the world. The former criminal with fatal levels of fentanyl in his system when he died became the emblem of justified rebellion.

In 2004, Berkeley professor Hatem Bazian said it is “about time that we have an intifada in this country,” or revolution in the United States. Such language is today’s norm. As in the past, the postmodern recurrence of “historical dislocation” features an urge to find proxies for rejected ideals. Again, radical organizers are there to fill the void with extremist agendas and to provide targets (“white men,” “white supremacy”) for mass animosity. There is, however, a new aspect in the familiar template: In the United States, nihilist intellectuals are not just exploiting the value vacuum created by changes in social structure and the advent of new technologies; the void is in fact their own creation.

Following the European trends, the American intelligentsia has been reevaluating—and devaluating—every vital aspect of human culture, including faith, family, and gender identities. The supporters of traditional ideals have all but disappeared from mainstream public discourse. Encountering little intellectual opposition, left-liberals, in alliance with radicals, have come to define normative modes of civic dialogue. This highbrow coup has authenticated the “political correctness” that is now obligatory in the media, entertainment, and in classrooms, from preschool to college.

The nihilist literati have persevered to popularize the postmodern perception of reality as a subjective mental construct. As a result, people have never been more reluctant to distinguish a truth from a lie, or to call the worthy and the vile by their right names. Like any “social construct,” an identity may be rejected and replaced at will with a newly fabricated self-image. “Gender identity” is a state of mind, which is delineated via an assortment of more than 60 invented personal pronouns, which are then integrated into public high school curricula in the form of “grammar” and “science.” Hypocrisy being a requisite aspect of indoctrination, the deconstructionists condemn any disagreement with their view as fascist infringement on one’s right to self-definition. As a result of infinite reinvention, identity ceases to exist in any meaningful way, and the individual is disinherited from himself.

More than 70 years ago, George Orwell explored the intention behind the dystopian determination to deprive the individual of his true self. Emptied of all his former ideals, meanings, and priorities, he would become an empty vessel for totalitarian dogmas: “You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.”

Intellectual subversives have left American youth with no ideal that cannot be dismantled. And the young are angry—at their parents, who failed to empower them with deeply rooted values; at their semiliterate and confused school teachers, who beg for respect and try to win it by teaching children to respect nothing; at their college professors who, having forsaken their commitment to education, assist political efforts “for a peaceful and just society.” Professors fail to provide knowledge or to teach critical thinking; instead, they urge students to scorn outmoded beliefs and send them off to adult life with a farewell message that life is meaningless. Losers—in a morphological sense of the word, for they are as lost as have been their “dislocated” peers in the past—the young are famished for new principles to fill the yawning hollowness. They are perfect material for political demagogues.

“A sacred place cannot be empty,” affirms a Russian proverb. To the new “progressive” creed the rebels must hold on for dear life: Aside for allowing them to redirect their accumulated anger toward newly defined enemies, it offers a brand-new core identity, an illusion of values, and a sense of belonging. Revolutionary activity is highly addictive, and unlike other narcotics, the perpetual pursuit of visionary ideals provides a never-ending sense of exhilaration, backed by the promise of an impending grand triumph.

“Moral is everything that contributes to the triumph of the revolution. Immoral and criminal is everything that inhibits it,” Nechaev wrote, endorsing a mindset that the scholar Gary Saul Morson explains as the intelligentsia’s “reduction of ethics to politics.” Accordingly, America’s “elite” intellectual class easily discards the yoke of worn-out scruples that hinder revolt. “Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence,” declared a New York Times reporter at the height of last summer’s rioting.

Dull acquiescence to nihilistic gibberish has become not just normal, but unavoidable. It is socially acceptable to proscribe differing views and to cancel their proponents with simple epithets. Meanwhile, nonconformists who reject sacred theories of class and race are shamed as bigots, humiliated, ostracized, and marginalized. Sixty-two percent of the Americans who think they live in a democracy admit fear to reveal their true political views. Such apprehension seems legitimate when freedom of expression is a de facto privilege of adherents to a progressive “party line” backed by big tech monopolies that aggressively define truth based on slapdash and heavily politicized criteria while surveilling their users, and where schoolchildren are encouraged to label and denounce their peers for thought-crimes.

Our experience with the iconoclasts of various shades and tins that have dominated the previous century warrants a proposition that ideology-driven extremism is essentially one recurring phenomenon. Temporal, geographical, cultural, and dogmatic differences notwithstanding, radical attitudes conform to an underlying template. Presently, in the rekindled effort to remold individuals through the use of coercive power, a new generation of revolutionaries usurps the right to impose a lofty ideal. It has revealed itself in various forms, be it the “proletarian paradise,” salvation of the “master race,” or revival of the caliphate. In a refurbished version of today, the ideal self-represents as secular humanism.

As G.K. Chesterton brilliantly observed, when a man loses faith in God, he does not believe in nothing; he believes anything. Anything can turn into an object of paganistic worship; for example, a politicized “Truth.” And a crusade for “Justice” can become an oppressive dystopia, a new wave of totalitarianism.

At the core of totalitarian thought and behavior is the practice of forfeiting personhood to a consecrated idea. When a society elevates the idea above the sanctity of individual life, citizens suffer abuse, coercion, violence, and pain. Millions die because political idolatry presupposes perpetual human sacrifice. That is the lesson of the Russian Revolution.

Anna Geifman is Senior Researcher at Department of Political Studies, Bar Ilan University, Israel and Professor of History (Emerita), Department of History, Boston University. She is the author of Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894-1917; Entangled in Terror: The Azef Affair and the Russian Revolution; and numerous articles and book chapters. Her most recent book is Death Orders: The Vanguard of Modern Terrorism in Revolutionary Russia.

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