Now is as good a time as any to mark the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1905. This upsurge of revolt against Czarism was the occasion of some of the most tragic and inspiring scenes in the revolutionary drama: the “Bloody Sunday” march to the Winter Palace, Trotsky’s leadership of the St. Petersburg Soviet and the Potemkin mutiny. The revolution seemed likely to prove successful when the government agreed to a parliamentary constitution (October 17 in the Julian calendar), but once the threat was over, the autocracy reasserted itself, and the Duma was reduced to a talking shop. Less than 10 years later, the Czarists took Russia into the Great War, leading directly to nearly two million deaths and indirectly to many more.
The lesson drawn by many was that peaceful reform was hopeless: this inevitably pushed the most determined revolutionaries, Lenin and the Bolsheviks to the fore, and for much of the 20th century, they appeared to many to have history on their side. After 100 years, however, it is as clear as any historical fact can be that Bolshevism (or, perhaps more accurately, Leninism) has been a complete and catastrophic failure.
The failure of Leninism is obvious enough in Russia and in the other countries where Communist parties came to power (and in the case of China still hold it). Nothing much is left of the Communist era except decay and corruption. Inequality and economic injustice are far more prevalent than in countries that never experienced “actually existing socialism”.
But the Leninist legacy has been little better in the rest of the world. From 1917 until the end of the Cold War, Communism was an albatross around the neck of socialist, social-democratic and progressive movements around the world, causing division and strife everywhere. Admittedly, Communism attracted some of the brightest and most idealistic opponents of capitalism, and Communist parties often took brave and idealistic stands while mainstream labour parties dithered and temporised. But this only increased the damage that was done when these talents and ideals were used to serve the interests of totalitarian regimes and ideologies.
Meanwhile, those on the Left who rejected Communism were forced into unpalatable choices, between splitting the labour movement and handing victory to the other side, or working with the Communists, accepting the resulting opprobrium and running the risk of being left high and dry by a shift in strategy (until the 50s mostly arising from a change in the Comintern line and after that from the internal vicissitudes of revolutionary politics).
Even more lasting damage has been done by the rhetoric of revolution itself. The idea that a single violent irruption, followed by a (supposedly temporary) revolutionary dictatorship, can break unending cycles of oppression, and achieve permanent change for the better is intuitively appealing and gains support daily from the failures of more modest attempts at reform, from the peaceful protest march to the Winter Palace in 1905 to the shoddy compromises of day-to-day democratic politics (and particularly in this context, social-democratic politics).
Yet the appeal of revolution is an illusion. Most attempts at revolution fail, leaving the participants and the oppressed worse off than before. Even where revolution is successful, attempts by the revolutionary party to hold on to power usually lead to reactionary dictatorship in short order. The French Revolution, the model on which Marxist analysis was based, lasted five years from the liberation of the Bastille to Thermidor, and ten years to the 18 Brumaire seizure of power by Napoleon. The Bolshevik revolution lasted four years until the adoption of the New Economic Policy and seven years before Stalin’s rise to power.
The successful revolutions have mostly been those where the ancien regime collapsed under its own weight, and where those who came to power did not try too hard to hold on to it when, inevitably, the wheel of public support turned against them
At a deeper level, the appeal of revolution has a substantial residue of aristocratic sentiment. In the course of the last 200 years, and even allowing for the defeats of the past 20 years or so, the achievements of the Left have been impressive, starting with universal suffrage and secret ballots, going on the creation of the welfare state, continuing with progress towards equality without regard to race, gender and sexuality, preserving the environment from the disastrous impact of industrialism and so on. Yet most of this progress has been achieved in a thoroughly bourgeois fashion, through long agitation, boring committee reports and so on. Gains that are ground out in this way are not noble enough for an aristocratic sensibility: far better to fail gloriously.
As far as the main body of the left is concerned, the issue has ceased to matter: the appeal of revolution is pretty much dead, and the symbols of Bolshevism are more likely to appear in vodka advertisements than in progressive pamphlets these days. But the appeal of revolution is independent of ideology, and there has always been a steady stream of converts from the revolutionary left to the radical right, reversing most of the signs but maintaining Leninist styles of argument and an attraction for the violent assertion of power. In the 1920s and 1930s, beginning with Mussolini, converts of this type mostly went over to Fascism. In the 1950s and 1960s, ex-Communists supplied much of the firepower of McCarthyism and its variants. In the 1970s and 1980s, the same tendency (frequently moving via Trotskyism) became neoconservatism. Most recently, the membership of the “decent left” is drawn largely from those on the left who have never given up on the appeal of revolutionary violence, and now see George W. Bush as the agent of revolution.
I’ve made some pretty broad generalizations above, and there are plenty of exceptions. Sometimes peace is not the answer: there are just wars, and necessary revolutions. But the great problem in politics has almost never been inadequate willingness to resort to violence: rather it has been an excessive belief in the potential of war and revolution to achieve desirable goals.
fn1. The February 1917 revolution might perhaps have turned out like this, if only the Kerensky government had been willing and able to extricate Russia from the bloodbath of the Great War.
fn2. Since it will undoubtedly be raised, let me concede in advance that the Allies should have gone to war against Hitler in September 1938 rather than waiting until September 1939. Against this example, there are the vast numbers of cases of decisions to go to war in which neither side was justified, most importantly the Great War beginning in 1914 (and, arguably, continuing in one form or another until 1989) which set off the whole tragic story of the 20th century.