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 – No Man’s Land: 1918 – The Last Year of the Great War – John Toland

No Man’s Land by John Toland is a book about the First World War, as the abundance of evidence in the title suggests. It is a very comprehensive and lengthy account of the war, throughout using many official memos, documents, and various journals to showcase the varying perspectives on both sides of the conflict. While mainly focusing on the Western Front, the infant Soviet Union is also talked about a bit (perhaps too much), though the various other sides of the war in the Middle East, the Italian front, and the Bulgarian front are glazed over. And that is for the better in the larger narrative. The book is really about the famous hell that was the trenches in 1918.

This was the best photo of the cover I could find, mine is quite different but doesn't work in a photo

This was the best photo of the cover I could find, mine is quite different but doesn’t work in a photo.

And what a hell the book paints it to be. But far from the illogical slaughter it is usually made out to be (okay, not that far) this book made me realize that in the situation, it made good military sense. With faster transportation and longer ranges and accuracy of weapons, a larger front was needed to contain an enemy army. With a longer front comes a higher need for cover, and without tanks to break enemy lines, massive artillery barrages are the only way the trench defensive networks could be broken through. Now, this might not be what the book intended to tell me. But it gives the reader a good enough feel for the people involved that I believe they could simply have not reached another conclusion about how the war should be waged. And even though the trenches were a grinding hell, the book accurately depicts the great surges that were required to break the lines, and the enormous amount of movement needed to capitalize on a victory.

The book runs through many battles, all along the front, by the various forces. All accounts are of people who lived through the war (for obvious reasons). From Patton strolling through the battlefield, collecting retreating units and sending them forward again; to the British artillery officer Patrick Campbell, who dealt with a series of characters and ineffectual commanding officers; to the German Franz Seldte, in charge of creating motion pictures out of battlefield scenes. Through talks of both advances and retreats, where 90% casualties were easily expected, and communication so limited that individuals had little to no idea what they were supposed to be doing. Up to the Field Marshals: Douglas Haig, Ferdinand Foch, and Paul Hindenburg. And it ends with the politicians: Prime Minister Lloyd George, representative Colonel House, Premier Clemenceau, and Chancellor Prince Max.

The book covers from high to low all throughout the year in a very well researched and orderly manner. Everything is presented, as a historical book should, in a manner that does not judge, but only tells. The reader is left to make their own judgments about each of the various people presented. The author seems to put more into judging people who later wrote biographies and deleted some of the more rousing passages from various texts, though that is left to the footnotes.

The things that are presented in extravagant detail and the things that are almost glossed over are sometimes puzzling, as is the reasoning of which get better treatment, but that is very little of the book. Overall, it is quite excellently written, and a great in-depth look at the final year of the Great War. The things everyone knows, and the things only the few would know are all presented fascinatingly.

It is a bit of a disappointment to me that the negotiations preceding the Treaty of Versailles and the treaty signing itself were kept out of the book, but it was already at 450 pages when it does end, just after the armistice celebrations. It took me more than a month (with a vacation where I didn’t read much) to finish the book, and the pages are dense enough that going is slow. This, of course, does not diminish the quality of the work.

If one is at all interested in the last year of the first Great War, and has the time to devote to this book, it is great for both the casual and historic reader, with its only detriment being its length, and some might consider that a bonus.