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.

Book Review – On Empire (By: Eric Hobsbawm)

On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy is a collection of 4 essays that were originally speeches or lectures given by Eric Hobsbawm (which is a name I am constantly afraid of misspelling). The publication date on the book is 2008, so they’re a bit out of date, but they capture that post-9/11 world-feel that is present today, managing to still feel relevant even if the information isn’t quite as accurate anymore.


The layout and restructuring of the book is good, the text is readable and all the necessary changes to convert a lecture to a book are present. The 4 essays themselves are a bit scatter-shot, not really flowing into each other and repeating information (at one point I went through about 10 pages thinking I’d already read everything there), but they weren’t really meant to go together so that is forgivable. And they certainly don’t have the problem far too many books trying to illustrate a historic principle have of explaining again and again what the point is (not over-explaining or stretching out the explanation, but repeatedly stating, multiple times in each chapter the main point without it progressing over the book), which is wonderful. The short, concise nature of the book makes it very readable (and speakable).

Care is taken in accuracy as well; sources for statistics and the like are cited in the rather large (for a book of this size) appendix, and multiple historical events are given to “prove the point”. Though there are several types of people I’m always wary of, and in this book Hobsbawm is two of them: those who only identify problems without proposing solutions, and those who conduct their analysis from only one point of view. Admittedly both of these traits are shared by the majority of historians who write books; the view found in such works never veers much from what one can expect at the outset (after reading the first chapter). It becomes a rather boring read at times when you know much of what is going to be said (without the specific details). And that isn’t helped by the fact that I knew I would disagree with many of those points. I’m not in any particular position to say Mr. Hobsbawm is wrong, or that the basic premise (that it is unlikely the United States has the ability to or should create a world-wide “empire” for preserving peace and the American-way™ etc.) is flawed, as I agree with much of the information put forth. But in other cases I very much disagree, partially in the spirit of the act, that is, the problems without solutions I mentioned earlier. It is one thing to say that US foreign policy should shift from “what we say or war” to something else, but if you’re not going to propose even the smallest of alternatives I would ask why you even brought it up (the answer of course is because he was asked to speak and to analyze, not to solve). Everyone has their own agenda, and I get suspicious of those who aren’t trying to push theirs, and since it doesn’t take an expert to say there’s a problem, why have the expert opinion if it isn’t “more enlightened” than your own?

All that, though, is a bit of a digression from the main point of the book. And if indeed the book was set out to do what I think it was, it did it very well. The writing style is nice and moves things forward without much re-treading of old ground (at least in individual chapters), the facts are well researched, and the argument strong. I certainly enjoyed reading the book, and it was a nice change of pace from many long-winded or under-informed authors.

More Suits in Playing Cards

I have a large playing card collection; I love decks of cards. I’m not entirely sure why I like them so much, but I do. And I’ve ended up with hundreds upon hundreds of decks of cards via my collecting. It was only a matter of time before I came upon one of the many more unique decks of cards out there.

Most of us know the classic French deck as the one we use all of the time, with four suits that don’t make a whole lot of sense, 13 cards per suit, and two jokers (that are in no way related to the fool from Tarot). This deck is accepted by many in the United States and abroad as the standard deck. And it is so popular that it is easily the standard of the world. But variations are fun, and while the suits and number of cards in each suit change over several European countries (Germany, Austria, Italy, and Spain all have different styles), for some people that isn’t enough.


Some people question why we only have four suits with games like bridge, which can handle more suits (so I’m told, I can’t actually play bridge, but I think we’ve all played a game where suit doesn’t really matter). One of the earliest (and one of the only) decks that I found that realized this was the vintage Sextet Bridge deck that I picked up from a garage sale. The new suits of wheels (ship wheels) and racquets (as in tennis), while interesting, are only that. The design of the pips are far too complicated and modern to really fit the motif of a deck of cards, but are still fun nonetheless.


After seeing these, I became fascinated by decks that added more suits to the standards bunch. The most common of these are the Star-Deck and various other decks that include stars as a fifth suit, like the game Five Crowns. The star works as an addition, but it’s a bit bland, and including it smudges the overall design appearance that is so refined, in my opinion.


While five suited decks were fun, and so were decks with non-traditional suits, I wanted more. How many suits could one fit in a deck and still have it be useful? I started looking at other six-suited decks. The Blue Sea deck, which is available from print on demand services, does this, but again I think the new suits don’t quite fit the older deck. The Empire deck of cards with anchors and crowns makes a really good and nicely fitting deck, but I think better could be done. And that’s when I found a blog post from a graphic designer (New Link) online about this very topic in which he presented his own two new suits designed specifically to blend in with the existing decks (the symbol for every suit can be made with fewer than 7 lines). These two new suits are wonderful and I believe they are the best-designed additions to a normal deck of cards that exist. I just wish there was a deck using them (Edit: It appears there is now a deck featuring these cards).


But I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted more suits, not for any reason, really (some people want to play Cripple Mr. Onion). I just wanted to see if companies could consistently design a counterpart, or set of counterparts, to the modern French deck. The answer to that for me was unfortunately no. While the Fat Pack playing cards, and 8 Suit playing cards are far from terrible (the green Eagle as a fifth suit was terrible*) they do fail at being what I wanted, which is a simple and consistent addition to the French suits. The makers of these decks read more into the patterns of what the shapes represent rather than the patterns of the shapes themselves. Still, I was going to obtain several decks and play with them (in what game? Well I’d have to invent one, or play Cripple Mr. Onion).


I never did end up buying either of those decks, and after getting back into collecting strange decks after buying them some odd ones at Garage Sales and thrift stores (including Five Crowns) I went on the same journey of finding photos of each of the differently suited decks I’ve talked about. I was less satisfied this time than I was originally, and decided that I would make my own. I’m far from the greatest designer in the world, but I stuck with several of the principles that were used in the creation of the six-suited cards, and several of my own, like the simple line numbers. I decided that adding new red and black cards seemed like it would be problematic so I decided the cards would be in two new differently colored pairs (then each one would be individually colored, which was prompted by me looking at 4-colored, 4-suited decks).

Possible new card suits variation 4

Right to Left Top to Bottom: Spades, Hearts, Wheels, Towers, Diamonds, Clovers (Clubs), Globes, and Sheilds


What I came up with was this Hearts, Diamonds, Spades, Clovers, Wheels, Shields, Globes, and Towers. Each is paired off the by similarity in the bottom half, hearts and diamonds being pointy, shields and wheels being round etc. I made these cards into a 104-card deck (with the other alteration of using a P for Prince/Princess instead of a J for Jack) and had them printed at a print-on-demand service. While they aren’t amazing, I think with refinement and a better quality printing they will turn out great.

prince(slash)princess of shields

I’ve created several games to play with them, and if they are a hit with my friends (we generally play more complex games at game-night so maybe this could spice cards up enough to get it back into the front for a while) I will hopefully make more. And I don’t think that I’m finished even with the concept of my new suits. I’m sure they will change, as they need to change, and as playing cards changed when they needed to change over centuries of use.