The Moral Legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution
November 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution (it is alternatively called the “October Revolution,” but this is because of the mismatch between the Julian and Gregorian calendars). It is arguably the most influential event of the 20th Century, and it is celebrated by leftists worldwide. Yet strangely, Vladimir Putin himself has no intentions to host big ceremonies. His leadership may rely on Soviet nostalgia in his confrontation with the West, but in fact, he is much closer to the Czarist style of authoritarianism, and correctly sees that the revolutionary ideology of 1917 is more dangerous than valuable to him.
Even today, leftist propaganda all over the world tries to sugarcoat the Russian Revolution. This is frequently done by remembering how oppressive Czarist Russia was. It is extremely hard to argue against that. Whereas most European monarchies were becoming constitutional, the Romanov dynasty stubbornly held on to autocracy, unapologetically so (Alexander III even penned the infamous Manifesto on Unshakable Aristocracy). Grotesque social inequalities, and an extremely repressive regime, were the hallmarks of Czarist Russia.
But, not all Czars were keen on keeping autocracy. Alexander II emancipated the serfs in 1861, and had plans for a parliamentary monarchy. He was by all accounts an enlightened despot, someone who clearly appreciated the need for reforms, but understood that in a country like Russia, they needed to come gradually. Unfortunately, he was assassinated by anarchists (to a certain extent, the ideological forefathers of the Bolsheviks, the far left-party that ultimately took over Russia). It is not advisable to speculate too much, but it is somewhat foreseeable that, had Alexander II lived, Russia would have become a far more democratic, peaceful and prosperous country in the 20th Century. Alexander II’s assassination convinced his son (Alexander III) and his grandson (Nicholas II), that if they conceded to reforms, they would meet Alexander II’s fate. They therefore became despotic in the extreme. Ultimately, by assassinating a reformer, revolutionary impatience made things even worse.
The Russian Revolution of 1917, therefore, did not appear out of thin air. As late as 1905, peasants were still endeared to the “little father,” the Czar. But it all changed when a big multitude sympathetic to the Czar (even displaying his portraits) peacefully gathered in Saint Petersburg, to demand for some mild reforms, on January 22, 1905. The Czarist regime fired against the multitude, in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” This was a momentous event, as Nicholas II clearly lost the respect that the Russian people had for the Romanov dynasty. A tumultuous decade would follow.
By February 1917, the Russian people could not stand it anymore, and revolution ensued. The Czar resigned. But, most people unfamiliar with the historical details seem to believe that this brought about Communist rule, and therefore, the Bolshevik Revolution was a struggle against Czarist oppression. In fact, communists had a minor role in the toppling of the Czar. A coalition of political forces across the political spectrum made the change possible.
The power void was filled by successive liberal governments, but ultimately, they were under the command of Alexander Kerensky. His rule, which only lasted nine months, introduced important reforms: salary raises, eight-hour workdays, free press, and most importantly, the disbandment of the secret police, and the organization of democratic elections. But again, as with Alexander II’s assassination, revolutionary impatience took over. Bolsheviks claimed that Kerensky’s reforms were too mild, and it was just a bourgeois trap to appease the proletariat. All power, according to the Lenin (the emerging leader of the Bolsheviks), should go to the Soviets, revolutionary committees spontaneously formed. In other words, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were advocating mob rule.
After some further political crises, Bolsheviks orchestrated a coup against Kerensky. At last, all power would go to the Soviets. But, predictably, soon it all became a farce. Lenin called elections for a National Assembly, but upon learning the disappointing results for his party, he abolished it. He became a de facto dictator and reintroduced the secret police, this time rebranded as the Cheka. It proved to be far more abusive than the Czarist secret police, the Okhrana.
It is true that, despite his important liberal reforms, Kerensky refused to pull Russia out of the extremely unpopular war against Germany. But, his decision was not as capricious as the Czar’s initial decision to go to war: Germany proposed harsh terms for a peace agreement, and Kerensky believed that, under those terms, Russia had to continue the war effort. Lenin capitalized on the war’s unpopularity, and seized the opportunity to promise “peace, land and bread.”
In turn, Germany realized that Lenin would be an asset in its fight against Russia (the ultimate goal was that, with Lenin in power, Russia would pull out of the war), and supported his revolutionary activities. For decades, Soviet totalitarianism accused all dissidents of being under the pay of foreign Western powers. Yet, there is immense hypocrisy in this, as the Bolshevik Revolution was itself instigated by Germany. Lenin was not a German agent himself (some conspiracy theorists still make this claim), but now it is absolutely that he did receive substantial German support.
At any rate, once in power, Lenin did indeed pull Russia out of the war. But, he was no pacifist. As he became increasingly despotic, an amalgam of forces unhappy with his rule formed the White Army. In the ensuing confrontation, Bolsheviks organized the Red Army, and took Russia to a brutal civil war. Lenin himself ordered the assassination of Nicholas II and his family, an utter moral monstrosity. And, in turn, the Bolsheviks tried to forcibly recover the territories that Russia had originally lost in the peace agreement with Germany, in the Soviet-Polish War of 1919-1921.
Most historians struggle to make a moral evaluation of the Bolshevik Revolution. They commonly claim that, while it paved the way for Soviet totalitarianism, it brought the Czarist regime to a much-needed end, and in this sense, its moral outcome was positive. But, the truth is that the Bolshevik Revolution did not bring an end to Czarist oppression, but rather, toppled a liberal and reform-minded government. Again, we should not speculate too much, but it is also foreseeable that, had revolutionaries been more patient with Kerensky, Russia would be in much better shape today.
In fact, because of their impatience, Bolsheviks did not manage to bring about the reforms that Russia really needed. Bolsheviks never allowed for the maturation of a true liberal tradition, and easily transited from Czarist oppression, to Communist oppression, which ultimately became very similar. Stalin turned out to be a Red Czar. And Putin is of course a 21st Century Czar. It is no surprise that he is not enthusiastic about the 100th anniversary of the Revolution.
To sum up: the Bolshevik Revolution left a sad legacy, and should not be celebrated. But, contrary to leftist propaganda, that needn’t imply nostalgia for the aristocratic world of Czarist feudalism. Instead, a Burkean moral approach is more advisable. Edmund Burke rightly understood that there were good and bad revolutions. In his view, the American Revolution was admirable, the French Revolution was condemnable. American revolutionaries had more modest goals and achieved them rather peacefully. French revolutionaries had more ambitious goals; some were met, some were not, but it all came with too much terror. The fact that Putin’s Russia continues to be an autocratic state seems to prove that the Bolshevik Revolution did not achieve its goals and needlessly shed too much blood. Alexander II and Karensky would have achieved much more, had they been given a chance.