The centennial we are observing this month—the solemn anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution—is the anniversary of a logical absurdity and its consequences. The Bolshevik takeover of Russia came about as a matter of chance; and was interpreted as a matter of destiny. The event was predicted by no one at all; and rested its prestige on a reputation for having fulfilled the well-known predictions of Karl Marx. The absurdity of those contradictions constituted the Bolshevik mystique. And, in the greatest absurdity of all, the appeal of that mystique turned out to be spectacularly vast.
The revolution that overthrew the czar earlier in the year, in February 1917, was entirely different. In Russia, everyone except the czar himself and his courtiers and the circles of black reaction knew that czarism, the social system, was shaky in the extreme, and was bound to collapse. Everyone recognized the strength and popularity of the main opposition parties, the Social Democrats (or Mensheviks) and the peasant Social Revolutionaries. Everyone, the czar and his circle excepted, therefore predicted the February Revolution. It duly occurred, and no one was astonished. The czar abdicated. The big opposition parties assumed power. The opposition parties began the process that, in the expectation of a great many participants and observers, was going to bring Russia in a Western European direction, secular, parliamentary, and vaguely liberal. And no one anticipated that a tiny dictatorial faction of the revolutionary left was going to overthrow the democratic parties and institute an exceptionally terrible despotism of a sort that had never existed in the past—something truly novel. Lenin himself did not expect such a development. Until the spring of 1917, Lenin never imagined that a Bolshevik seizure of power would be possible. Nor did he think it was advisable, nor did any of his comrades.
There was turmoil in the streets, though, and Lenin began to suspect that he could turn the crowds to his own purposes. Nobody among his Bolshevik comrades agreed with him. He pushed the comrades. A few of them began to drift in his direction. He began to acquire a popular support here and there in working-class neighborhoods. His tiny party grew. By June and July, his followers, excited by the revolutionary prospect, were pressing to begin the Bolshevik takeover right away—and it was Lenin who stopped them, shrewdly aware that a propitious moment had not yet arrived. In October, he decided that now, at last, was the time. The Central Committee did not agree. It was Lenin who pushed the party to make its move. All of this was brilliant, on his part. Everyone among the participants saw it, too—saw with perfect clarity that, without Lenin and his insistence and perfect timing and maneuvers, the seizure of power would never have taken place. The philosopher Sidney Hook—America’s greatest Marxist theoretician, in his day—pointed this out in a book called The Hero in History, in 1943, and he was right. If Lenin had failed to return to Russia from Switzerland, if he had been injured in a street accident, if he had suffered a medical emergency, as would happen within a few years, the Bolshevik takeover would not have occurred. None of the other Bolshevik leaders—neither Stalin, nor Kamenev, nor Zinoviev, nor Trotsky—could have played his role. Would Russia’s brand-new parliamentary republic have proved to be stable and successful, in that case? Or would the parliamentary republic have failed anyway, overthrown by someone else, perhaps on the extreme right? Would the country have been destroyed in civil war? Those are questions from the realm of the unanswerable. But it is certain that, without Lenin, Russia would not have gone in the direction that quickly came to be known as Leninist, and something called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would not have been created, and a worldwide movement obedient to Soviet commands would never have emerged.
Even so, the Bolsheviks came up with an interpretation of events that pointed to the industrial proletariat (even if the industrial proletariat was chiefly a Western European social class, and an American one, and not a Russian one), and they invoked what they believed to be the industrial proletariat’s historical destiny to overthrow the capitalist class and leap into a better future. In this interpretation, the October Revolution in St. Petersburg—the Bolshevik takeover—emerged, then, as a double phenomenon. The events were deemed to be the expression of deep and unstoppable historical forces, as defined by Marx 70 years earlier. And they were deemed to be the work of a lone and irreplaceable titan, Lenin himself, who embodied the historical forces. The events were inevitable, and, at the same time, conjunctural. The events were a coup d’état, which claimed to be a social revolution. And the society that emerged from those events, the Communist society of the Soviet Union, exhibited the same double quality. Society under Communist rule was a kind of democracy, which, being more democratic than democracy, took the form of dictatorship. It was the rule of the many, which required the iron hand of the single chieftain. And the policies of the new society followed the same double formula. Communist society was the kindest, the most generous, the most humanitarian society in the history of the world; and it killed off entire social classes. It was a society dedicated to the veneration of the workers; and, in its farflung camps, it instituted slave labor on a mass scale.
What was Bolshevism’s mystique, then? It was the mystique of transubstantiation. It was the mystery that allowed for one thing to be transformed into something else—the chance event in St. Petersburg that was transformed into an inevitable event on a world scale; the unpredicted event that became the fulfillment of a scientific prediction; the many that were transformed into the one; the leap into the future that reinstituted the labor system of the pharaohs. Bolshevism was a social science that, through the workings of a doctrine called dialectical materialism that no one could understand, became a mysticism. To become a Bolshevik, then, was appealing in every way and its opposite. Bolshevism offered the appeal of democracy that was also the appeal of cult followership; the appeal of rebellion that was also the appeal of obedience; the appeal of generosity that was also the appeal of cruelty; the appeal of humility that was also the appeal of superiority. Bolshevism’s appeal was the cult of reason that was, at the same time, a madness. And the power of this appeal turned out be, for a substantial period of the 20th century, greater than anything the world had ever seen. Within 30 years or so, Communism commanded the loyalty, or at least the obedience, of a quarter of the world’s land mass and more than a third of the world’s population, with enthusiastic and disciplined supporters in every country on Earth and reason to suppose that it was going to triumph universally. Not even Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries enjoyed successes with such speed and on such a scale.
Many people would of course argue that, in disparate parts of the world, Communism’s appeal during the 20th century was much more straightforward, and the logical absurdities of Bolshevik theory and the mystical cult of obedience had nothing to do with it. Many people would argue, above all, that workers in the labor movement in one country after another ended up supporting the Communist Party out of a principle of labor solidarity, and nothing else. The workers wished to see a stronger working class, and the Communists offered strength. Or, at least, a great many people used to say so.
But was it true? The first achievement of Lenin’s Bolsheviks in Russia was to attack and destroy the Mensheviks, together with all of the other non-Communist institutions and organizations of the Russian working class, and this became Communism’s goal in every other country, too. Everywhere in the industrial world, the first and most lasting political achievement of the Communist Party was to create a split in the labor movement—one more observation of Sidney Hook’s. Wherever a labor party or a socialist party existed, the Communists broke it up in order to create their own party. Wherever a trade-union movement was reasonably strong, the Communists split the unions. The splits tended to endure. Everywhere those splits weakened the working class, instead of strengthening it. And the splits proved to be fatal. Germany in the 1930s was the principal and most terrible example, from which civilization has never recovered. And yet, a great many people continued and still continue to think of Communism as a force for strengthening the working class. Here, then, is another absurdity.
In other parts of the world, a great many people over the course of the 20th century would have insisted that support for Communism rested on a different aspiration, which was national and anti-colonial, instead of proletarian—on the desire to fend off the Western empires and find a proper road for national development in the Third World. Communism, from this standpoint, was not so much a working-class movement as a modernization movement, intended to rescue the countries of the Third World from cultural stagnation and pre-modern economies, and, by defeating the imperialists, to usher those countries into the benefits of modern civilization.
But is this argument any more convincing than the one about working-class strength? The longest and most violent struggle in the history of the Communist movement was the struggle in East Asia—first in Korea, then in Vietnam—to destroy the governments that called themselves “nationalist” and were backed by the United States and its allies, with the goal of replacing those governments with Communist republics. All over the world, people who observed the struggles in East Asia regarded the Communist efforts as noble and inspiring, and supported those struggles, as best they could. And yet, what was the result?
In the Korean peninsula, living standards at the end of the 1940s were at African levels, and, in what became the Communist half of the peninsula, living standards remained at dreadful levels. A degree of starvation exists in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea even today (the Democratic People’s Republic being, of course, in the Communist style, a dictatorial monarchy). South Korea under nationalist rule, on the other hand, demonstrated over the decades that an extremely poor country of the Third World can, in fact, lift itself out of poverty, and can do so by building an economy partly based on industrial manufacturing, and can generate an impressive degree of wealth, and can create a democratic political system, too. South Korea was the first country to show this possibility. The search for national development, then—was this really the cause of the Korean Communists? The people around the world who preferred the Korean Communists to the American-backed regime in South Korea: Were they really the supporters of economic progress and Third World liberation and political freedom?
The Vietnamese example poses the same question in a different manner. The Communists in Vietnam achieved their successes north and south, and everywhere their successes were disasters. Even before they had defeated the French imperialists, the Communists massacred the Vietnamese Trotskyists. Their first achievement in North Vietnam, once the French had departed, was to drive upwards of 900,000 people into the South, and to institute a famine. Two decades later the Communists succeeded in South Vietnam, too, and replicated their North Vietnamese achievements by driving 1.5 million people into the South China Sea, by inaugurating labor camps, and by instituting still another agricultural catastrophe. It is true that, in the reunited Vietnam, unlike in North Korea, the Communists eventually came to their senses and corrected their economic policies. But to what effect? They instituted a market capitalism, as in South Korea, except without any hint of South Korea’s democracy. Even so, the cause of Vietnamese Communism proved to be, during the second half of the 20th century, the world’s single most popular and passionately-supported political cause.
The heritage of the Bolshevik Revolution of 100 years ago, then—what was it, finally? Catastrophe, of course. Everyone knows that, by now. And the appeal of Bolshevism—what was that appeal, finally? People will be asking that question centuries from now. It will be an inquiry into human nature.
Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.