A hundred years ago, on November 7 (October 25 according to the Russian calendar), 1917, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian government and established a communist dictatorship. The world has never been the same since.
Of all the legacies left in the revolution’s wake, the worst is a wrecked Russia. Seventy years of communism devastated the country. The Soviets did modernize things, but at what a price?
Richard Pipes says the Russian Revolution killed 9 million people. Robert Conquest believes that at least 20 million and probably as many as 30 million people perished in the Great Terror. If “unnatural deaths” are included, that number could be as high as 50 million.
This horrible record of mass genocide is exceeded only by another communist dictatorship, Maoist China, which destroyed between 44.5 to 72 million lives (according to Stephane Courtois). And let’s not forget the “killing fields” of Cambodia in the 1970s.
Communists could kill people, but ultimately that is not why they and the Soviets failed. Nicolas Eberstadt estimated that the life expectancy of Russians in the 1980s was six years lower than in Western Europe. Infant mortality was three times higher, and death rates were rising for every age group.
Russians looked westward and were appalled by their own poverty. Whatever the West had — freedom and wealth — that was what the Russians wanted.
The Soviets had failed to deliver on their grand social promises. More than any other reason, it was this fact that brought down the Soviet Union.
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Russians still live with the historic devastation caused by communism.
Despite their freedom to travel, and the benefits of an economy mostly fueled by energy exports, they are stuck with the old legacies of communism. Every day they face the corruption and poverty caused not only by authoritarian rule, but by the social habits and structural problems created by communism.
Another bitter legacy is totalitarian terror: Starting with the Great Terror of the Bolshevik Revolution, a terrible precedent was set. Now the gates were open for others to mobilize mass violence in the name of revolution.
It matters not whether that revolution was communist, fascist or jihadist, the use of terror to revolutionize society is an historical precedent established by the Bolsheviks (and the French revolutionaries before them).
For much of the 20th century the developing world was beset with countless social revolutionaries who, like the Soviet Union, tried to use the gun and the central planning office to modernize their societies. The results were nearly always the same — poverty and more human misery.
Most of the 88 countries that score “repressed” or “mostly unfree” on The Index of Economic Freedom are either communist, former communist, or of some variation of a socialist economy. They are also the world’s poorest nations. Even countries that were never officially communist, like Egypt and Greece, but which adopted socialist economic policies, are today among the poorest and most corrupt.
Turning closer to home, what has been the impact of the Russian Revolution on America? The alliance against Nazi Germany in World War II was the biggest event. It created a sense that communists can’t be all bad if they can help us defeat the worse enemy, fascism.
This positive war experience with the Soviet Union of course quickly disappeared in the Cold War. But oddly, the legacies of the Russian Revolution and communism live on in their impact on American liberalism. Today communism and crude Marxism are dead in America (except for some university departments and extremist political circles). But some of its core ideas — refashioned by the cultural New Left of the 1960s — very much live on in the American liberal mind.
Inspired by Neo-Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse, and Frantz Fanon, the New Left of the 1960s dropped the proletariat and abandoned the stodgy old men in the Kremlin. Instead, they adopted the hip new mantle of sexual and other forms of liberation in the name of equality. They also updated Lenin’s theory of imperialism by making decolonization mainly about race.
Thus was invented identity politics and radical multiculturalism, which are today the mainstays of American liberalism. Most liberals who believe in these causes think they have nothing whatsoever to do with their Neo-Marxist roots; in fact, they go to great lengths to dismiss as mere paranoia what the intellectual history of these ideas plainly shows to be true.
The New Left’s attempt to distance itself from the old left of communism was brilliant politics. It enabled liberals to disown all the evil created by “their side of history.” They could now argue with a straight face that all that genocide and misery wrought by communism “has nothing to do with us.” Socialism is a noble idea that has never been truly tried. The oppressions of the Soviets were excesses born not of evil intent, but of too much enthusiasm. Socialism could be made democratic through elections, but the old authoritarian ideal of radically remaking society was preserved.
Thankfully, democratic socialism made this break with communism. But it doesn’t change its intellectual origins and historical associations. Frankly, neither does it change the fact that any attempt to socialize an economy involves forcefully taking something away from people. Illiberal coercion is the original sin of both socialism and communism.
The Russian Revolution may have died the day the Russian government took down the hammer and sickle flag over the Kremlin. And, yes, the crude Marxism of the Soviet era is dead as well. But we still live to this day with the legacy of the Russian Revolution. Not only in North Korea. Not only in China. Not only with the poverty communism and socialism caused in the developing world.
We live with it as well in the myths of our own politics. Perhaps by the 200th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2117, these myths will be retired as well, like the hammer and sickle 130 years before.
This piece originally appeared in Richmond Times Dispatch