[Marxism] 100 years later, Bolshevism is back. And we should be worried.

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 6 13:22:52 MST 2017

(Jeez, I thought she was talking about Bhaskar Sunkara, not Steve Bannon.)

Washington Post, Nov. 6 2917
100 years later, Bolshevism is back. And we should be worried.
By Anne Applebaum

At the beginning of 1917, on the eve of the Russian revolution, most of 
the men who would become known to the world as the Bolsheviks had very 
little to show for their lives. They had been in and out of prison, 
constantly under police surveillance, rarely employed. Vladimir Lenin 
spent most of the decade preceding the revolution drifting between 
Krakow, Zurich and London. Joseph Stalin spent those years in the 
Caucasus, running protection rackets and robbing banks. Leon Trotsky had 
escaped from Siberian exile was to be found in Viennese coffee shops; 
when the revolution broke out, he was showing off his glittering 
brilliance at socialist meeting halls in New York.

They were peripheral figures even in the Russian revolutionary 
underground. Trotksy had played a small role in the unsuccessful 
revolution of 1905 — the bloody, spontaneous uprising that the historian 
Richard Pipes has called “the foreshock” — but Lenin was abroad. None of 
them played a major role in the February revolution, the first of the 
two revolutions of 1917, when hungry workers and mutinous soldiers 
occupied the streets of Petrograd, as St. Petersburg was then called, 
and forced the czar to abdicate. Alexander Shliapnikov, one of the few 
Bolsheviks to reach the Russian capital at the time, even dismissed the 
February street protests, at first, as inconsequential: “What 
revolution? Give the workers a pound of bread and the movement will 
peter out.” Chaotic elections to the first workers’ soviet, a kind of 
spontaneous council, were held a few days before the czar’s abdication; 
the Bolsheviks got only a fraction of the vote. At that moment, 
Alexander Kerensky, who was to become the Provisional Government’s 
liberal leader, enjoyed widespread support.

Seven months later the Bolsheviks were in charge. A Russian friend of 
mine likes to say, in the spirit of Voltaire’s famous joke about the 
Holy Roman Empire, that the Great October Revolution, as it was always 
known in Soviet days, was none of those things: not great (it was an 
economic and political disaster); not in October (according to the 
Gregorian calendar it was actually Nov. 7); and, above all, not a 
revolution. It was a Bolshevik coup d’etat. But it was not an accident, 
either. Lenin began plotting a violent seizure of power before he had 
even learned of the czar’s abdication. Immediately — “within a few 
hours,” according to Victor Sebestyen’s excellent new biography, “Lenin: 
The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror” — he sent out a list of 
orders to his colleagues in Petrograd. They included “no trust or 
support for the new government,” “arm the proletariat” and “make no 
rapprochement of any kind with other parties.” More than a thousand 
miles away, in Switzerland, he could not possibly have had any idea what 
the new government stood for. But as a man who had spent much of the 
previous 20 years fighting against “bourgeois democracy,” and arguing 
virulently against elections and parties, he already knew that he wanted 
it smashed.

His extremism was precisely what persuaded the German government, then 
at war with Russia, to help Lenin carry out his plans. “We must now 
definitely try to create the utmost chaos in Russia,” one German 
official advised. “We must secretly do all that we can to aggravate the 
differences between the moderate and the extreme parties . . . since we 
are interested in the victory of the latter.” The kaiser personally 
approved of the idea; his generals hoped it would lead the Russian state 
to collapse and withdraw from the war. And so the German government 
promised Lenin funding, put him and 30 other Bolsheviks — among them his 
wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya , as well as his mistress, Inessa Armand — onto 
a train, and sent them to revolutionary Petrograd. They arrived at the 
Finland Station on April 16, where they were welcomed by a cheering crowd.

A few days later Lenin issued his famous April Theses, which echoed the 
orders that he had sent from Zurich. He treated the Bolsheviks’ minority 
status as temporary, the product of a misunderstanding: “It must be 
explained to the masses that the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies is the only 
possible form of revolutionary government.” He showed his scorn for 
democracy, dismissing the idea of a parliamentary republic as “a 
retrograde step.” He called for the abolition of the police, the army 
and the bureaucracy, as well as the nationalization of all land and all 

Plenty of people thought he was crazy. But in the weeks that followed, 
Lenin stuck to his extremist vision despite the objections of his more 
moderate colleagues, agitating for it all over the city. Using a formula 
that would be imitated and repeated by demagogues around the world for 
decades to come — up to and including the demagogues of the present, 
about which more in a moment — he and the other Bolsheviks offered poor 
people simplistic answers to complex questions. They called for “peace, 
land and bread.” They sketched out beautiful pictures of an impossible 
future. They promised not only wealth but also happiness, a better life 
in a better nation.

Trotsky later wrote with an almost mystical lyricism about this period, 
a time when “meetings were held in plants, schools and colleges, in 
theatres, circuses, streets and squares.” His favorite events took place 
at the Petrograd Circus:

“I usually spoke in the Circus in the evening, sometimes quite late at 
night. My audience was composed of workers, soldiers, hard-working 
mothers, street urchins—the oppressed under-dogs of the capital. Every 
square inch was filled, every human body compressed to its limit. Young 
boys sat on their fathers’ shoulders; infants were at their mothers’ 
breasts. No one smoked. The balconies threatened to fall under the 
excessive weight of human bodies. I made my way to the platform through 
a narrow human trench, sometimes I was borne overhead. The air, intense 
with breathing and waiting, fairly exploded with shouts. . . .

“No speaker, no matter how exhausted, could resist the electric tension 
of that impassioned human throng. They wanted to know, to understand, to 
find their way. At times it seemed as if I felt, with my lips, the stern 
inquisitiveness of this crowd that had become merged into a single 
whole. Then all the arguments and words thought out in advance would 
break and recede under the imperative pressure of sympathy, and other 
words, other arguments, utterly unexpected by the orator but needed by 
these people, would emerge in full array from my subconsciousness.”

This feeling of oneness with the masses — the sensation, bizarrely 
narcissistic, that he was the authentic Voice of the People, the living 
embodiment of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat — supported Trotsky 
and propelled him onward. It also disguised the fact that, like Lenin, 
he was lying.

Power in chaos

So were all his comrades. The Bolsheviks lied about the past — the 
relationships some of them had with the czarist police, Lenin’s secret 
pact with Germany — and they lied about the future, too. All through the 
spring and summer of 1917, Trotsky and Lenin repeatedly made promises 
that would never be kept. “Peace, Land, and Bread”? Their offer of 
“peace” concealed their faith in the coming world revolution and their 
determination to use force to bring it about. Their offer of “land” 
disguised a plan to keep all property in state hands. Their offer of 
“bread” concealed an ideological obsession with centralized food 
production that would keep Russians hungry or decades.

But in 1917, the fairy tales told by Lenin, Trotsky, and the others won 
the day. They certainly did not persuade all Russians, or even a 
majority of the Russians, to support them. They did not persuade the 
Petrograd Soviet or the other socialist parties. But they did persuade a 
fanatical and devoted minority, one that would kill for the cause. And 
in the political chaos that followed the czar’s abdication, in a city 
that was paralyzed by food shortages, distracted by rumors and haunted 
by an unpopular war, a fanatical and devoted minority proved sufficient.

Capturing power was not difficult. Using the tactics of psychological 
warfare that would later become their trademark, the Bolsheviks 
convinced a mob of supporters that they were under attack, and directed 
them to sack the Winter Palace, where the ministers of the Provisional 
Government were meeting. As Stalin later remembered, the party 
leadership “disguised its offensive actions behind a smoke screen of 
defenses.” They lied again, in other words, to inspire their fanatical 
followers to fight. After a brief scuffle — the ministers put up no real 
defense — Lenin, without any endorsement from any institution other than 
his own party, declared himself the leader of a country that he renamed 
Soviet Russia.

Keeping power was much harder. Precisely because he represented a 
fanatical minority and had been endorsed by no one else, Lenin’s 
proclamation was only the beginning of what would become a long and 
bloody struggle. Socialists in other countries used the Marxist 
expression “class war” as a metaphor; they meant only class rivalry, 
perhaps conducted through the ballot box, or at most a bit of street 
fighting. But from the beginning, the Bolsheviks always envisioned 
actual class warfare, accompanied by actual mass violence, which would 
physically destroy the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, physically 
destroy their shops and factories, physically destroy the schools, the 
courts, the press. In October 1917, they began using that mass violence. 
In the subsequent Russian and Ukrainian civil wars that consumed the 
former empire between 1918 and 1921, hundreds of thousands of people 
died. Millions more would die in waves of terror in the years that followed.

The chaos was vast. But many in Russia came to embrace the destruction. 
They argued that the “system” was so corrupt, so immune to reform or 
repair, that it had to be smashed. Some welcomed the bonfire of 
civilization with something bordering on ecstasy. The beauty of 
violence, the cleansing power of violence: these were themes that 
inspired Russian poetry and prose in 1918. Krasnaya Gazeta, the 
newspaper of the Red Army, urged the soldiers of the Bolshevik cause to 
be merciless to their enemies: “Let them be thousands, let them drown 
themselves in their own blood . . . let there be floods of blood of the 
bourgeoisie — more blood, as much as possible.” A young Ukrainian named 
Vsevolod Balytsky, one of the early members of the Cheka, the Bolshevik 
secret police, published a poem in the Ukrainian edition of Izvestiya in 

There, where even yesterday life was so joyous
Flows the river of blood
And so? There where it flows
There will be no mercy
Nothing will save you, nothing!

Fourteen years later, Balytsky, by then the secret police boss in 
Ukraine, would launch the mass arrests and searches that culminated in 
the Ukrainian famine, an artificially created catastrophe that killed 
nearly four million people. Four years after that, in 1937, Balytsky was 
himself executed by a firing squad.

Also in that year, the peak year of the Great Terror, Stalin eliminated 
anyone in the country whom he suspected might have dissenting views of 
any kind. Lenin had already eliminated the other socialist parties. 
Stalin focused on the “enemies” inside his own party, both real and 
imaginary, in a bloody mass purge. Like Lenin, Stalin never accepted any 
form of legal opposition — indeed he never believed that there could be 
such a thing as constructive opposition at all. Truth was defined by the 
leader. The direction of state policy was defined by the leader. 
Everyone and everything that opposed the leader — parties, courts, media 
— was an “enemy of the people,” a phrase that Lenin stole from the 
French Revolution.

Within two decades of October 1917, the Revolution had devoured not only 
its children, but also its founders — the men and women who had been 
motivated by such passion for destruction. It created not a beautiful 
new civilization but an angry, unhappy, and embittered society, one that 
squandered its resources, built ugly, inhuman cities, and broke new 
ground in atrocity and mass murder. Even as the Soviet Union became less 
violent, in the years following Stalin’s death in 1953, it remained 
dishonest and intolerant, insisting on a facade of unity. As the 
philosopher Roger Scruton has observed, Bolshevism eventually became so 
cocooned in layers of dishonesty that it lost touch with reality: “Facts 
no longer made contact with the theory, which had risen above the facts 
on clouds of nonsense, rather like a theological system. The point was 
not to believe the theory, but to repeat it ritualistically and in such 
a way that both belief and doubt became irrelevant. . . . In this way 
the concept of truth disappeared from the intellectual landscape, and 
was replaced by that of power.” Once people were unable to distinguish 
truth from ideological fiction, however, they were also unable to solve 
or even describe the worsening social and economic problems of their 
society. Fear, hatred, cynicism and criminality were all around them, 
with no obvious solutions in sight.

So discredited was Bolshevism after the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991 
that, for a quarter of a century, it seemed as if Bolshevik thinking was 
gone for good. But suddenly, now, in the year of the revolution’s 
centenary, it’s back.

The neo-Bolsheviks

History repeats itself and so do ideas, but never in exactly the same 
way. Bolshevik thinking in 2017 does not sound exactly the way it 
sounded in 1917. There are, it is true, still a few Marxists around. In 
Spain and Greece they have formed powerful political parties, though in 
Spain they have yet to win power and in Greece they have been forced by 
the realities of international markets, to quietly drop their 
“revolutionary” agenda. The current leader of the British Labour Party, 
Jeremy Corbyn, also comes out of the old pro-Soviet far left. He has 
voiced anti-American, anti-NATO, anti-Israel, and even anti-British (and 
pro-IRA) sentiments for decades — predictable views that no longer sound 
shocking to a generation that cannot remember who sponsored them in the 
past. Within his party there is a core of radicals who speak of 
overthrowing capitalism and bringing back nationalization.

In the United States, the Marxist left has also consolidated on the 
fringes of the Democratic Party — and sometimes not even on the fringes 
— as well as on campuses, where it polices the speech of its members, 
fights to prevent students from hearing opposing viewpoints, and teaches 
a dark, negative version of American history, one calculated to create 
doubts about democracy and to cast shadows on all political debate. The 
followers of this new alt-left spurn basic patriotism and support 
America’s opponents, whether in Russia or the Middle East. As in 
Britain, they don’t remember the antecedents of their ideas and they 
don’t make a connection between their language and the words used by 
fanatics of a different era.

But so far, the new left, however fashionable it may be in some circles, 
is not in power, and thus has not managed to create a real revolution. 
In truth, the most influential contemporary Bolsheviks — the people who 
began, like Lenin and Trotsky, on the extremist fringes of political 
life and who are now in positions of power and real influence in several 
Western countries — come from a different political tradition altogether.

Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Jaroslaw 
Kaczynski: although they are often described as “far-right” or 
“alt-right,” these neo-Bolsheviks have little to do with the right that 
has been part of Western politics since World War II, and they have no 
connection to existing conservative parties. In continental Europe, they 
scorn Christian Democracy, which had its political base in the church 
and sought to bring morality back to politics after the nightmare of the 
Second World War. Nor do they have anything to do with Anglo-Saxon 
conservatism, which promoted free markets, free speech and a Burkean 
small-c conservatism: skepticism of “progress,” suspicion of radicalism 
in all its forms, and a belief in the importance of conserving 
institutions and values. Whether German or Dutch Christian Democrats, 
British Tories, American Republicans, East European ex-dissidents or 
French Gaullists, post-war Western conservatives have all been dedicated 
to representative democracy, religious tolerance, economic integration 
and the Western alliance.

By contrast, the neo-Bolsheviks of the new right or alt-right do not 
want to conserve or to preserve what exists. They are not Burkeans but 
radicals who want to overthrow existing institutions. Instead of the 
false and misleading vision of the future offered by Lenin and Trotsky, 
they offer a false and misleading vision of the past. They conjure up 
worlds made up of ethnically or racially pure nations, old-fashioned 
factories, traditional male-female hierarchies and impenetrable borders. 
Their enemies are homosexuals, racial and religious minorities, 
advocates of human rights, the media, and the courts. They are often not 
real Christians but rather cynics who use “Christianity” as a tribal 
identifier, a way of distinguishing themselves from their enemies: they 
are “Christians” fighting against “Muslims” — or against “liberals” if 
there are no “Muslims” available.

To an extraordinary degree, they have adopted Lenin’s refusal to 
compromise, his anti-democratic elevation of some social groups over 
others and his hateful attacks on his “illegitimate” opponents. Law and 
Justice, the illiberal nationalist ruling party in Poland, has sorted 
its compatriots into “true Poles” and “Poles of the worst sort.” Trump 
speaks of “real” Americans, as opposed to the “elite.” Stephen Miller, a 
Trump acolyte and speechwriter, recently used the word “cosmopolitan,” 
an old Stalinist moniker for Jews (the full term was “rootless 
cosmopolitan”), to describe a reporter asking him tough questions. 
“Real” Americans are worth talking to; “cosmopolitans” need to be 
eliminated from public life.

Surprisingly, given its mild and pragmatic traditions, even British 
politics is now saturated with Leninist language. When British judges 
declared, in November 2016, that the Brexit referendum had to be 
confirmed by Parliament — a reasonable decision in a parliamentary 
democracy — the Daily Mail, a xenophobic pro-Brexit newspaper, ran a 
cover story with judges’ photographs and the phrase “Enemies of the 
People.” Later, the same paper called on the prime minister to “Crush 
the Saboteurs,” choosing a word that was also favored by Lenin to 
describe legitimate political opposition.

Famously, Trump has also used the expression “enemy of the American 
people” on Twitter. Though it is unlikely that the president himself 
understood the historical context, some of the people around him 
certainly did. Bannon, Miller and several others in Trump’s immediate 
orbit know perfectly well that the delegitimization of political 
opponents as “un-American” and “elitist,” and of the media as “fake 
news,” is the first step in a more ambitious direction. If some of what 
these extremists say is to be taken seriously, their endgame — the 
destruction of the existing political order, possibly including the U.S. 
Constitution — is one that the Bolsheviks would have understood. The 
historian Ronald Radosh has quoted Bannon’s comparison of himself to the 
Bolshevik leader. “Lenin,” Bannon told Radosh, “wanted to destroy the 
state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, 
and destroy all of today’s establishment.” At a conservative gathering 
in Washington in 2013, Bannon also called for a “virulently 
anti-establishment” and “insurgent” movement that will “hammer this 
city, both the progressive left and the institutional Republican Party.”

And what gives a president who did not win the popular vote the right to 
do that? This, too, is a familiar idea: the “People.” It is a mystical 
notion, quite different from the actually existing population of 
America, but strikingly similar to the “crowd” in whose name Trotsky 
spoke at the Petrograd Circus. In his dark, nihilistic inaugural 
address, much of it written by Bannon and Miller, the president 
announced that he was “transferring power from Washington D.C. and 
giving it back to you, the American People” — as if the capital city had 
until 2017 somehow belonged to foreign occupiers. This un-American idea 
of the “People” bears more than a passing resemblance to the 
Dictatorship of the Proletariat, the force that scientific Marxism once 
predicted would run the world. It also sounds a lot like what Le Pen 
means by “the Nation,” as opposed to the “globalist elite,” or what the 
Law and Justice party in Poland mean when they talk about “suweren,” the 
sovereign nation, as opposed to the majority of Polish voters, who 
actually oppose them.

A nihilistic desire for disaster

Like their predecessors, the neo-Bolsheviks are also liars. Trump lies 
with pathological intensity about matters small and large, and he lies 
so often and so obviously that it is not even necessary to cite his 
uncounted falsehoods again here. But he is not alone. Recently Le Pen 
was charged in an investigation into her anti-European party for 
cheating the European parliament out of money. The Law and Justice party 
pretends that its attacks on the Polish constitution are nothing more 
than “judicial reform.” Orban has hidden the probably corrupt details of 
Russian investment in a nuclear plant in Hungary. These are not 
coincidences. Nor is it a coincidence that the most successful 
neo-Bolsheviks have all created their own “alternative media,” starting 
online and moving into the mainstream, specializing in disinformation, 
hate campaigns, racist jokes and organized trolling of opponents. (The 
old Bolsheviks used to call this propaganda, and they were brilliant at 
it.) Both the politicians and the “journalists” lie out of conviction, 
because they believe that ordinary morality does not apply to them. In a 
rotten world, truth can be sacrificed in the name of “the People,” or as 
a means of targeting “Enemies of the People.” In the struggle for power, 
anything is permitted.

Finally, and most painfully, there is a hint, and sometimes more than a 
hint, of a reviving appreciation among the neo-Bolsheviks for the 
cleansing possibilities of violence. The violent poetry of 1917 has 
morphed into the violent memes of 2017, the “Ultra Violence” threads on 
Reddit, the white nationalist groups seeking “race war,” and the NRA 
videos urging Americans to arm themselves for the coming apocalyptic 
struggle to “save our country.” Some of this dangerous trash has been 
around for a long time: far-right and far-left extremists in Europe have 
always savored the idea of violence. But now some of that nihilistic 
desire for disaster has become mainstream, even reaching the White 
House. As long ago as 2014, Trump, after railing against Obamacare, 
fantasized: “You know what solves it? When the economy crashes, when the 
country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster. Then you’ll 
have a, you know, you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be 
when we were great.”

Shocking though it is, that sentiment is mild by comparison with 
Bannon’s apocalyptic vision of a coming war — perhaps with Islam, 
perhaps with China — that will cleanse the Western world of weakness and 
restore Western greatness. This is how Bannon put it in 2010: “We’re 
gonna have to have some dark days before we get to the blue sky of 
morning again in America. We are going to have to take some massive 
pain. Anybody who thinks we don’t have to take pain is, I believe, 
fooling you.” A HuffPost article included similar Bannon statements. In 
2011: “Against radical Islam, we’re in a 100-year war.” In 2014: “We are 
in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I 
think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it.” In 
2016: “We’re going to war in the South China Seas in the next five to 
ten years, aren’t we?”

An echo of this lust for war can also be heard in the schizophrenic 
speech on “Western civilization” that Bannon is said to have helped 
write for Trump in Warsaw in July. Amid some paragraphs that sounded 
almost like a normal foreign policy speech, someone inserted a passage 
describing the Warsaw uprising — a horrific and destructive battle 
which, despite great courage, the Polish resistance army lost. Those 
heroes,” Trump declared, “remind us that the West was saved with the 
blood of patriots; that each generation must rise up and play their part 
in its defense.” Each generation? That means our generation, too: Get 
your weapons ready, because these people want you and your children to 
bleed and die in the cause of civilizational renewal.

No excuse for complacency

Fortunately, we do not live in 1917 Petrograd. There are no bread 
shortages, or ragged barefoot soldiers, or aristocrats in thrall to mad 
monks. There will be few opportunities to surround the government in a 
palace, enter and take it over. Our states are not, yet, that weak.

We also have, as the Russians of 1917 did not have, the benefit of 
hindsight. In much of continental Europe, the demagogue who divides the 
nation into enemies and patriots creates bad connotations and triggers 
unpleasant memories. Over the past year, French, Dutch and Austrian 
voters rejected the nihilism and xenophobia of Le Pen, Geert Wilders and 
Norbert Hofer, not least because of what they resembled.

The French may even have taken the first necessary step in the longer 
battle against false revolutions by voting for Emmanuel Macron, the 
first major European politician to argue for a muscular revival of 
liberalism. Macron openly opposed the fear, the nostalgia and the 
nativism on the rise across the continent, and he won without offering 
impossible schemes or unattainable riches. Even if he fails in France, 
his formula hints at a way to fight back against modern false prophets. 
Offer a positive vision, both open and patriotic. Don’t let the 
nationalists appeal to “the People” over the heads of the voters. Don’t 
let extremists become mainstream.

But the Anglo-Saxon world was less lucky. It may not be an accident that 
neo-Bolshevik language has so far enjoyed unprecedented success in 
Britain and the United States, two countries that have never known the 
horror of occupation or of an undemocratic revolution that ended in 
dictatorship. They therefore lack the immunity of many Europeans. On the 
other hand, the Anglo-Saxon world has its own advantages: the bonds of 
old and long-standing constitutionalism, the habits created by decades 
of rule of law and relatively high standards of living. It may be that 
as Americans and Brits slowly learn to recognize lies, they will become 
less susceptible to the fake nostalgia on offer from their leaders.

But there is no excuse for complacency. That is the lesson of this 
ominous centennial. Remember: At the beginning of 1917, on the eve of 
the Russian revolution, most of the men who later became known to the 
world as the Bolsheviks were conspirators and fantasists on the margins 
of society. By the end of the year, they ran Russia. Fringe figures and 
eccentric movements cannot be counted out. If a system becomes weak 
enough and the opposition divided enough, if the ruling order is corrupt 
enough and people are angry enough, extremists can suddenly step into 
the center, where no one expects them. And after that it can take 
decades to undo the damage. We have been shocked too many times. Our 
imaginations need to expand to include the possibilities of such 
monsters and monstrosities. We were not adequately prepared.

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