2018 – Is the Revolution Over?

This article is an excerpt from Smith’s Almanack (2018).

By: Austin Smith

In late April 1918, Vladimir Lenin said, “In the end, countries will coalesce into a great socialist federation or commonwealth — seventy-five or one hundred years.”* I don’t believe at this point that it will be a controversial statement to say that, with less than a year left, that isn’t going to happen. But was that definitely the case when Lenin said it? Was the course of Marxism and Leninism pre-ordained at that moment? It wasn’t as if Lenin was posturing; this was said in a private conversation. He wasn’t “out of his mind;” in the same conversation he correctly predicted the Kaiser wouldn’t last the year. But of course he was not a future-seer. How long this revolution would go on without him was not his to know.

Lenin, at that moment, could not have predicted how poorly the proletariat revolution would go in the other countries across Europe. In Germany, as the First World War ended, the bourgeoisie “lucked out” when the country was proclaimed a republic before the communists could assert too much influence, and the “spartacists” were violently suppressed. How could Lenin have foreseen the violence with which the “middle class” and even the workers would resist the revolution throughout Europe, with what vehemence they would speak of “communists”? The “Fascist” movements that grew as the influence of the kings waned were certainly a troubling development for the Comintern (communist international). While the actual politics of Mussolini’s Fascists, Hitler’s National Socialists, and Sima’s Iron Guard were quite different from one another, they all shared a hatred for the communist party. By the late 1930s, with General Franco having crushed the republican resistance (who were supported by the Soviets) in Spain it seemed as if the USSR would remain alone in its “capitalist encirclement.” Perhaps the revolution was already finished.

Of course, the worst was yet to come. Neither Lenin nor anyone in the 30’s (save perhaps Hitler himself) could’ve conceived of the brutality of what might be considered the death-knell for international communism, the Second World War. One might, with the benefit of hindsight, look back and think it obvious that in the duel between superpowers the relatively untouched United States would win out against a country that had just lost some 30 million people (9 million soldiers killed {2-3 million of whom were prisoners}, 11 million civilians exterminated {1.3 million of whom were Jewish}, 8 million starved, 3 million used as slaves and then killed.† And that doesn’t even count the 500,000 Tartars, 500,000 Volga Germans‡ and sums of Cossacks, Volksdeutsher, Muslims, and all others deemed untrustworthy during the German invasion who were deported by the Soviets and forced into labor camps or killed, nor those who were murdered in Stalin’s purges). Such massive losses would account for 10% of the current United States population (it was perhaps 14% of the Soviet population then), and combined with the facts that most who died were young men, and that massive amounts of equipment and farmland were also destroyed during the war, it seems a miracle that the Soviets could remain a superpower at all.

Indeed, as the war neared its close, Soviet influence extended only as far as the Red Army could take it. In Western Europe, after heavy losses of manpower and equipment, it found itself butted up against a wall of troops it could not pass through with a guarantee of success. Despite communists gaining ground in Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia, the US (relatively fresh as far war was concerned) and its allies had them caged in. In Korea and Vietnam they rattled this cage, but even though the US ceded ground it was clear that any significant advance would be checked. The fact that in Vietnam the number of communist casualties was more than double that of US and allied casualties⁑ should have been enough to give pause, and the Americans had only left, they were not defeated.

Yet, there was hope for the revolution. The Soviet Union and its rising ally China were still formidable opponents with room to consolidate and expand their influence with cooperation. But this idea, and the last possibility for a worldwide dictatorship of the proletariat, died when the actual dictators got in the way. The communist nations publicly broke with each other. Tito’s communism would be different from Stalin’s, and Mao’s different from Khrushchev’s. There would not be a unified front, and any dreams of coalescing would be put on hold. The communist sphere had reached its zenith, and it would only recede.

Still, had it really taken that long for the end to be near? Had not the spirit of communism died when it became a dictatorship? Some would argue that it wasn’t always, and didn’t always need to be, that way. The principles of communism aren’t meant to be those of dictatorship. Were Lenin (whom, we should not forget, organized the killing of thousands and said “Do you really think that we can emerge victoriously from the revolution without rabid terrorism?”) and Stalin (who ordered the murder of 500,000 and starved millions more) just flukes that could be overcome? Those many other party leaders, who eventually agreed to Lenin’s decisions, or allied with Stalin to oust Trotsky, or accepted their death sentences out of loyalty to the party, obviously thought that things would turn out better. Most only realized the blood they had waded into when it was too late. While history has shown us that it is the unfortunate place of such naïve and idealist men to be taken advantage of by the ruthless and the tyrannical.

But the real end can be traced even farther back. In 1918, two weeks before Lenin spoke of “seventy-five or one hundred years” the Red Army murdered hundreds of members of anarchist groups. Murders like this had happened before to different groups, and they would continue. The idea of a revolution that could elevate everyone’s lives had been abandoned swiftly. And now, in April 1918, Lenin was admitting that rapid communization would be difficult, and the régime would need to make concessions “for the moment” in order to keep pace with the world (concessions which, when revoked under Stalin, led to the starvation of thousands). In that moment when Lenin spoke, the revolution had already been undermined, and a struggle for power had taken its place. In that moment, as Lenin spoke of the future of communism, the revolution was already dead.

* Williams, Albert. Journey Into Revolution – Petrograd 1917-18. 1969 pg. 283

Ellman, M. Maksudov, S. Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War: A Note. 1994

‡ Werth, Alexander. Russia at War: 1941-1945. 1964 pgs. 474 and 763

Encyclopedia Britannica (the official estimates of 200,000 South Vietnamese military deaths and 60,000 US military deaths compared to 1,000,000 North Vietnamese military deaths actually bring the ratio closer to three or four times as many).

⁂ Additionally consulted: Keith Gessen. How Stalin Became Stalinist. 2017. The New Yorker Magazine.

Book Review – Genghis Khan: and the Making of the Modern World (By: Jack Weatherford)

Genghis Khan: and the Making of the Modern World is a 2004 book by Jack Weatherford in his series of books about reevaluating the place of certain peoples in history. I got it as a present for my father, who had it on his books-to-read list, and I picked it up after he recommended it (it turns out I already had a copy but that’s neither here nor there). It supposedly illustrates how, unlike our normal ideas about Genghis Khan and his rule, the Mongol Empire was ahead of its time, and was a major factor in the enlightening of our modern era. Is it convincing?


The cover of the (edition I have of the) book says “”Reads like the Iliad… – Washington Post”” I believe that is a terrible thing to say, but then again I don’t like the Iliad. I would be more disposed to saying something along the lines of “it reads like the Iliad would have felt to the audiences of its time”. Meaning, the (first part of the) book is very good; it’s wonderfully written, fascinating, exciting, and enlightening. This first part, which is almost exactly one half of the book, is about Genghis Khan himself, using the (relatively) recently deciphered “Secret History of the Mongols” text and the travelings of the author and his academic companions as a basis for a narrative of the life of Temujin, the man who would become the Great Khan. The detailing is wonderful. The explanation of how Mongol society and the civilizations around them worked are as long as they need to be and not overbearing. Battles are not given an unnecessary (and likely unavailable) amount of detail, and the politics of the relatively complicated situation are related in an understandable way. It was one of the few books where I actively wanted to read more and would take more time out of my schedule to do so. The text in this section is so lovingly crafted, the areas covered so vast and interesting, and the man presented with his faults (but mostly his accomplishments) in such a way that it seemed to be forcing me to read more. And, throughout, one gets the same feeling toward Genghis Khan that they would experience about Caesar when reading a Colleen McCullough book: a grand reverence and fascination.

The same cannot be said about the second half of the book, which the reader collides with almost like a brick wall. This section, detailing the lives and accomplishments (/failures) of Genghis Khan’s dynasty, is at times excruciatingly boring, and seems tacked on and forced. I would get the impression that the author only cares about the history of Genghis himself, but the history of his empire after his death is important only to illustrate how “ahead of their time” (my words, not his) Genghis and the Mongols really were for the relatively short time they were in power. It is, from what I can tell, an accurate summary, if a bit biased toward the Mongols (even as they fail), but there are a lot of accurate technical documents I would rather not read. Compressing the amount of time (more than a few lifetimes of the man himself) into a section the same size as the one about Genghis Khan prevents the type of characterization and wonderful language that made the first half of the book so good, and coupled with the fact that, again, none of these people are people it seems Weatherford actually cares about (I guess they weren’t in the secret history) creates a section that has a very different tone to the previous one. This section that has more in common with a history textbook that bores students than the wonderful tale that came before.

Still I’m not sure the section should have been omitted (perhaps written by someone else) as a book simply about Genghis (with the level of detail in this work) would have been much too short and not have made the intended point. And the book does make a point, however refutable some think it is, while doing a very good job of staying out of the trap of many history-based books with a point, that is, constantly ramming the point down the reader’s throat. It gets worse about this in the latter half but for the most part these retreadings of old ground feel more like helpful little reminders and not an unnecessary constant restatement of the book’s central idea. This main idea is “somewhat” controversial, but perhaps a bit overstated in the title and some of the inside text. What is presented as “the Mongols were the first truly modern empire!” or “the Mongols were so far ahead of ‘X’ civilization!” comes off more like “the Mongol empire and its accomplishments have been largely and unduly overlooked since the Mongols were labeled as ‘barbarians’”. The first two statements are controversial but I feel the third is not so much. And this book does a good job of explaining and showcasing both the triumphs and failures of the Mongol empire, with many of the same lessons that can be learned from studying large empires, but a few that are uniquely Mongolian. It is guilty of minimizing some of the underlying truths; this book and many others are guilty of using the phrase “taken as wives” in place of “kidnapped and raped” to make their “great empires” (and it happened with every empire) less appalling to modern sensibilities. But many books do this, and after all, the point is to showcase the empire’s strengths and “modern-ness” rather than its weaknesses.

A secondary point to the book is how much the Mongol Empire affected the progress of human technology and interconnectedness for the better, an idea that more and more historians have been exploring in recent years. I think it makes the case well that human “progress” was “improved” by the Mongols, and that the state of technology, science, and trade was better during and after their reign that it was before. But then again I came in to the book already believing that idea. Large amounts of land, excess money, and trade (like that accumulated by the Mongols, Romans, British, Arabs, Chinese, and French) always lead to technological improvements and a general raising of the quality of life, though many do have to die for such excess to be available in peace time. The effect the Mongols had in this way is well- (and over-) explained and believable, though I don’t agree with every point. It does seem obvious that the effect of the Mongols on world development has been overlooked. Though I’m still not entirely buying Genghis Khan’s “uniqueness”, the author talks about him like he was doing entirely new things with strategies and technological appropriation, while I was sitting there reading and thinking ‘that sounds a lot like what Caesar did”. And the whole “relying on people based on ability instead of familial connections until it comes to choosing a successor for your empire” thing strikes me as very poor planning.

But moving on to some things about the physical book, which I have little to say about, but more than I do for most books. The printing is superb. It feels like a Penguin book, which are my favorite books to hold. The cover design is fine, but the spine is a problem: it is way, way, to easy to damage. I finished the book without much wear but that was because I had seen several copies before and held the book carefully to avoid it. While it doesn’t really affect the functionality, I do think it is bad design to have a book made in such a way that simply reading through it in a normal way would leave it visibly “damaged” (worn). The copy I picked up second-hand was terrible in this respect. Inside the book has mainly words, but there are some wonderful ink drawings at the beginnings of some chapters, and a few maps. These maps are… not great. They do convey their message, and to me, someone who reads maps a lot, they are quite legible. But to someone unfamiliar with the geography of the area or without a keen sense of gray-differentiation, they will very easily become confusing. I think it would have been very easy to do them better but they also aren’t the main part of the book and don’t distract too much.

I liked the book, and I would recommend that most fans of history books take a look at it. I’m not entirely on board with every idea presented, but it is a fascinating and exciting look at an often-overlooked culture and empire in the grand, usually European, scheme of the world. The very fact that this book is based off of a historical document that was found recounting the events of foundation of an Eastern empire that westerners were allowed to see and interpret is a historical anomaly worthy of looking into on its own. But that the first half of the book was crafted so lovingly and well, and the usual pitfalls of historical books of this nature so well avoided, brings it above the standard historical work and even overshadows the sub-par (but not awful) second half. As a teaching tool or a “book that will change your life/view/the world” I can’t really say it works, but for a more balanced and interesting look at history I would definitely give it a look.

Review – Sharpie China Marker

A ‘china marker’ or ‘grease pencil’ is essentially a hard, fat crayon that is used mostly for temporarily marking nonporous surfaces like glass, plastic laminate, tile, etc. They are an item that used to be pretty popular but have since waned as newer products like dry erase markers for temporary work on board or laminate, and permanent markers for less temporary weather resistance have come on the scene. Yet they still can be very useful when working with glass or porcelain. This being the case I was not surprised to see some in the hardware store, but I was slightly surprised to see that they were ‘Sharpie’ brand. Do they hold up in comparison?


The short answer would be “yes”. The Sharpie brand here is just an addition to an older, very standard design by Sanford. The body is just a version of their “Peel-Off” design. I have a fairly old (by surviving china marker standards, since using them destroys them) one that is almost identical in most ways. The body is tightly wrapped brown-ish paper that is sealed with a black, perforated coating. On this coating is all of the relevant information of the product, and beneath it is a small white string. Pulling on this string will create a tear in the coating that can then be used to tear off enough of the inside material to expose the tip if it is worn down. The tip begins exposed with a roughly conical spiral of the paper that provides a nice template when tearing off a bit later. While I do suppose that the item could be sharpened, it would be pretty wasteful and difficult which is why a system like this was developed.


As for writing, I have a black version, and it behaves very similarly to a fat crayon. Line width and coverage are dependant highly on how much pressure is applied, but it almost never is a true “line” in that it doesn’t fill in the whole space when writing. It writes well on nonporous surfaces and often on porous ones, being again about as smooth as a crayon. For what it’s intended to write on it is relatively weather-and handle-proof (it can smear) but can be removed with a paper towel and some elbow grease. Nonporous surfaces are a bit more tricky, but in general there is a way to clean it off.

There are only two types of grease pencil/china markers: the mechanical version, and peel-off versions, this one being the latter. It is very hard to mess up a peel-off grease pencil, but it is also hard to innovate in that field. This shows neither. It was competently made, but not entirely ingenious. It lacks any innovation or improvement over the pervious generations, but it does mark what it was meant to mark (china) and more. The price and availability are also quite reasonable. If you desire to acquire a china marker, and don’t mind the fact that the “greasy” (waxy) tip is exposed, then this one will do everything you want it to.