On October 25, 1917, the precursor to the Communist Party in Russia launched a 24-hour revolution against the revolutionary government of socialist Alexander Kerensky. This became known as the October Revolution in order to distinguish it from the revolution that had overthrown the Czar the previous February. In the October Revolution, two people were killed while the revolutionaries were capturing the Winter Palace, where the Provisional Government met. By the evening of October 26, it was clear just how provisional the government had been.
On August 21, 1991, eight leaders of the tattered remnants of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union launched a coup against the government of Communist Mikhail Gorbachev. They had placed him under house arrest at his dacha 900 miles away. Boris Yeltsin was visibly in charge of the existing government at what was known as the White House: the parliament building. The Communists sent in troops to remove him and his supporters. Thousands of citizens then lined up to resist the troops. The troops refused to fire on them. That ended the Communist Party’s power. Three civilians were killed by armored personnel carriers.
A total of five people were killed at the beginning and the end of the Bolshevik revolution. In between, Lenin and Stalin (mainly Stalin) executed or starved at least 15 million people, according to the 2007 edition of Robert Conquest’s 1968 book, The Great Terror. Conquest had initially estimated 20 million. We will never know for sure, he said in 2007.
Out of the Bolshevik Revolution came the Chinese Communist revolution under Mao. There were more: North Vietnam, North Korea, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, Cuba, Albania, and the Soviet satellite nations in central and eastern Europe. The grand total of those who died under Communist tyranny was between 85 million and 100 million, as reported by The Black Book of Communism (1997). This may have been as high as 150 million.
Without Lenin, there would not have been Hitler. Hitler positioned his National Socialist German Worker’s Party as the only reliable bulwark against Bolshevism. Add another 60 million for World War II.
His real name was not Lenin. It was Vladimir Ulyanov. He was a follower of Karl Marx in 1887. That was the year that his older brother was executed for having been the chemist who was constructing a bomb to be used to assassinate Czar Alexander III.
Lenin spent the rest of his career as a Marxist revolutionary. He achieved his goal in a rural nation in which there was no developed capitalist system. Marx had taught that it was necessary for the Communist revolution to take place in a capitalist nation: the next stage of the mode of production after feudalism. That did not bother Lenin or the other Marxists who were involved in the October Revolution.
From 1897 to 1900, he spent three years in western Siberia under “hut arrest.” Wikipedia reports: “Deemed only a minor threat to the government, he was exiled to a peasant's hut in Shushenskoye, Minusinsky District, where he was kept under police surveillance; he was nevertheless able to correspond with other revolutionaries, many of whom visited him, and permitted to go on trips to swim in the Yenisei River and to hunt duck and snipe.” The authoritarianism of the Czarist state was a mild-mannered precursor of the terrorist state that Lenin built.
Lenin was a voluminous writer, just as Marx had been. Imitating Marx, he wrote his books and pamphlets on issues of interest to only hard-core Marxist revolutionaries. He did not write for the masses. He was involved in constant power struggles and constant debates, verbal and in print, over the fine points of revolutionary theory and practice. The groups that he belonged to were tiny. In this way, his career was a carbon copy of Marx’s until October 25, 1917. Then everything changed – for him, Russia, and the world.
THE POWER TO RENAME
Ulyanov assumed the alias Lenin in 1901.
In 1903, he was engaged in a struggle with a rival faction inside the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. He demanded that party members devote time and money to the movement. His opponents allowed some members to attend meetings without making major commitments. A showdown took place at the Second Party Congress in London. The meeting was so small that it was held in a chapel. Lenin’s faction won. He named his faction the Bolsheviks: majority. He named his rivals the Mensheviks: minority.
Naming things was basic to Lenin’s concept of revolution. This is reminiscent of the story of the tower of Babel. “And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:14).
He was joined by men with new names: Josef Stalin (aka Josef Jughashvili ), Leon Trotsky (aka Lev Bronstein), Grigory Zinoviev (aka Hirsch Apfelbaum), Lev Kamanev (aka Lev Rozenfeldt). The latter two were executed by Stalin in the purges of 1934-36. The head of the NKVD who oversaw their execution was Genrikh Yagoda (aka Yenokh Gershevich Iyeguda). Stalin had him executed in 1938. He had Trotsky assassinated in Mexico in 1940. Conclusion: an apostate Christian atheist used the Communist state to murder apostate Jewish atheists. I appreciate the insight of Jacques Mallet du Pan, who in 1793 described the French Revolution: "Like Saturn, the revolution eats its children." I add this: "But not soon enough."
A side note: Stalin was a very serious seminarian. He studied for five years. He was the best student in the school. Then he left. It is not clear why. This was a replay of Marx's early years. Up until he went to college, Marx was a self-conscious Christian. His senior thesis was explicitly Christian. Then, without warning or explanation, over the summer he became an atheist, and soon thereafter, a revolutionary. (I discussed this in my 1968 book, Marx's Religion of Revolution, p. xxv.)
The Russian word “stalin” means “man of steel.” It sounds powerful. Jughashvili was 5'6", one inch taller than Lenin. He weighed 165 lbs, or so official figures reveal. He always wore a heavy coat in public that made him look like a person with more bulk. He was not a Russian. He was Georgian. He crafted his own image. The image was fake. He was a skinny shrimp who got his start in politics as a bank robber.
When the Bolsheviks came into power, they renamed cities. St. Petersburg had become Petrograd in 1914 after the war with Germany began. This meant Peter’s City. The authorities wanted to avoid two German words, Sankt and Burg. The Communists changed Petrograd to Leningrad in 1924, five days after Lenin’s death. They changed the name of Tsaritsyn to Stalingrad in 1925.
In 1961, Stalin's former toady Nikita Khrushchev instructed his toadies, who ran the USSR, to change Stalingrad to Volgograd. He wanted to show his independence. From 1953, the year Stalin died, until his removal in 1964, Khrushchev was the General Secretary of the Communist Party. He had been Stalin’s enforcer in Ukraine in 1946–47 during the famine. At least 300,000 died. It may have been five times this. In 1956, Khrushchev delivered a four-hour speech on the cult of personality of Stalin. It was a blistering attack. He vilified the memory of his boss, who had told him what to do for years. Renaming Stalingrad was the culmination of his rebellion. He understood what the Bolsheviks had always understood: the power of renaming.
Throughout the entire history of the USSR, the government changed the names of cities and towns. On the morning of December 25, 1991, Gorbachev announced on television the end of the USSR. The four-day-old Commonwealth of Independent States had replaced it, he said. He resigned as President. The Soviet flag was lowered for the last time that evening. For the next few years, the government changed the names of hundreds of Soviet cities and towns back to their pre-1917 names. The importance of this was missed by old-line American anti-Communists, some of whom insisted that the public suicide of the USSR was fake: a Communist-orchestrated deception. Those name changes persuaded me that the anti-Revolution revolution was real.
OBSCURE MEN UNTIL 1917
Today, we are told that Marx re-shaped the world. Prior to December 25, 1991, Marx was taken seriously by Western intellectuals. University instructors assigned the Communist Manifesto, as if it had shaped the thinking of millions of people. But its influence among the masses came only after the Bolsheviks began assigning it to Russian school children. Almost no one, then or now, who has not been forced to read it by a teacher has ever read it, cover to cover. Anyone who has had to read it knows why. It is excruciatingly boring.
In was published in late February 1848. It was anonymous. It was written in German. A tiny group of German socialists, the Communist League (formerly the League of the Just), in mid-December 1847 asked Marx to write a pamphlet that might trigger the looming revolution, which revolutionaries across Europe expected would come in early 1848. Marx agreed, but then dithered. He got sidetracked by giving lectures. In late January, the League issued an ultimatum: submit the manuscript by February 1. He did, but it was too late. The revolutions had begun across Europe before it got printed. Incredibly, it began in Bavaria on February 9, with a public protest by conservative Catholics against the King's mistress, who was a liberal. Liberal students then went into the streets. Then other revolts began. No one paid any attention to Marx's book until the 1870's. It was not used to guide any revolutions.
Marx never described what the final Communist society would look like. In a large manuscript of a book unpublished in his lifetime, The German Ideology (1845), he wrote this unspecific forecast. It was on the division of labor in society.
For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.
This was the only thing he wrote about final-stage Communism. The now-famous ten planks of the Communist Manifesto applied to the earlier phase of communism: the transition period after the proletarian revolution but before the final stage.
Marx was known in London only by obscure revolutionaries and the police. He spent his days in the British Museum. He wrote long articles and books attacking rival socialists. He never wrote refutations of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, J. B. Say, John Stuart Mill, William Stanley Jevons, or Carl Menger. He barely or never mentioned any of them. He did not interact with the major thinkers of his era. He wrote in obscurity for obscure immigrants in London. A dozen people attended his funeral in 1883.
As for Trotsky, this story appears in British historian A. J. P. Taylor’s book, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe (1980). In 1915, Austrian Leftist political leader Victor Adler objected to a statement by Count Berchtold, foreign minister of Austria-Hungary, that war would provoke revolution in Russia. Adler replied: "And who will lead this revolution? Perhaps Mr. Bronstein sitting over there at the Cafe Central?" Ludwig von Mises repeated a variant of this story in Notes and Recollections (1940).
The February Russian revolution caught the Czar by surprise. Kerensky’s July coup caught Prince Lvov by surprise. Lenin’s revolution caught Kerensky by surprise.
Then Lenin was caught by surprise: the complexity of planning the entire economy from Moscow. There was no socialist blueprint. There still isn’t. Mises in 1920 explained why. There are no consumer-driven prices in socialism. There are no capital markets. Central planners are flying blind. They do not know what to order producers to produce. They do not know how to balance quality and quantity in production. They do not know how to price producers’ output. Socialist economic planning is irrational. The Soviet Union never solved these problems. It went bankrupt in 1991. Beginning on August 21, Yeltsin hammered a "going out of business" sign on the USSR. Gorbachev closed the corporate doors for the last time on Christmas day in the West. That was the merriest Christmas since the first one.
The two most successful Communist revolutions took place in the two largest nations on earth: Russia and China. Both of these nations had long been governed by bureaucrats. They were top-down societies. A tiny elite in the respective capital cities ran the countries. Neither of these societies had a tradition of political participation by the middle class, meaning Marx's bourgeoisie.
Lenin took control of the Czar's massive bureaucracy. He did not purge most of them initially. Instead, he gave them orders. They dutifully followed orders. Here was a nation that covered 11 time zones, and it was controlled by Moscow. This was in a society with only telegraphy to connect the administrative units on short notice. The USSR had to be administered by an army of bureaucrats. Lenin controlled this army.
A revolution in China organized by Sun Yat-sen in 1911 replaced the Emperor. The Emperor had overseen the oldest bureaucracy on the face of the earth. The disruptions that followed his departure led to political and military vacuums across the country. Sun Yat-sen’s wife was the sister of the wife of Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang was one of the contenders for political power. He was defeated by the Communists in 1949. China was used to bureaucratic administration, so Mao inherited a comprehensive system of control. The Chinese people were familiar with top-down rule. The political transition was smooth. All it took was systematic, government-operated terrorism, just as it had in Russia. These Communist revolutions, which were supposed to take place in highly developed urban societies in Western Europe, took place in a semi-feudal agricultural society in Russia, and in the most heavily populated rural society on earth, China.
The Communists took over the existing bureaucracies, and they imposed a centrally planned economy. This led to the militarization of both societies. Both societies remained poor. (Journalist Richard Grenier in the mid-1980's described the USSR as Bangladesh with missiles.) Both had enormous military bureaucracies. Centralization is basic to military operations. What they did not have was output of consumer goods.
In 1951, Mises wrote an Epilogue to his 1922 book, Socialism. He described the Soviet experiment as non-Marxist.
They resorted to a new modification of Marxism according to which it was possible for a nation to skip one of the stages of historical evolution. They shut their eyes to the fact that this new doctrine was not a modification of Marxism, but rather the denial of the last remnant which was left of it. It was an undisguised return to the pre-Marxian and anti-Marxian socialist teachings according to which men are free to adopt socialism at any time if they consider it as a system more beneficial to the commonweal than capitalism. It utterly exploded all the mysticism inwrought into dialectical materialism and in the alleged Marxian discovery of the inexorable laws of mankind’s economic evolution.
Having emancipated themselves from Marxian determinism, the Russian Marxians were free to discuss the most appropriate tactics for the realization of socialism in their country. They were no longer bothered with economic problems. They had no longer to investigate whether or not the time had come. They had only one task to accomplish, the seizure of the reins of government. (Yale University Press, pp. 546-47).
They seized the reins of government. They became mass murderers. They set the pattern for other Communist mass murderers in rural Asian societies.
And then, on Christmas day, 1991, it all came tumbling down. The Soviet Union went out of existence in a way that Marx did not foresee, but what T. S. Eliot described so memorably: “Not with a bang but a whimper.” (Concluding line of The Hollow Men)
The world has now seen first-hand the results of central economic planning and one-party political rule. The promised Communist New Man did not appear. It was the same old man, but without any significant institutional restraints.
It will be far more difficult in the future for revolutionary socialists to persuade intellectuals that a replay of these experiments will turn out differently. Their class died at Stalin’s hands and Mao’s hands. They were purged – liquidated, as Stalin described it.
The masses never did favor these experiments. The experiments were imposed on them by intellectuals who were mass murderers. The masses do not favor the destruction of capitalism. They just want a larger share of the pie. They will not favor "new, improved" Communism next time. It is highly unlikely that there will ever be a next time. The decentralization of technology and communication will prevent it. Lenin and Stalin did not have to deal with smartphones and Facebook, let alone Amazon.