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What we learned from the Russian Revolution


That day in November 1917 when Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks seized power in Russia may have been the darkest day in the history of humanity.

lenin1What was introduced into history that day, in Russia first, but later in China and elsewhere, was the most lethal phenomenon ever witnessed.

Totalitarianism was not new; the aftermath of the French Revolution had already brought that bloody and brutal reality to the heart of Europe.  The French terror was an early form of secular extremism, but Lenin went further and innovated in that regard; the Soviet Union was the world’s first officially atheistic state.  State atheism, in Moscow and Berlin and Beijing, would make the twentieth century a slaughterhouse.

What was novel was the reach of the Soviet communists.  There was no area of life that state coercion would not touch — the economy would be planned, education would be completely revised, religion would be eliminated, social classes would be reconstructed.  All of it would be supervised by an omnipresent state, enforced by a secret police that under the cover of darkness could ship anyone off to Siberia, or Lubyanka, or directly to the grave.  Over time, the communists wouldn’t bother waiting for darkness, but wrought their tyranny in the light of day.

The Soviets had imperial ambitions.  It began with the subjugated nations of the internal empire — Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic nations, the central Asian republics — and expanded to the enslaved nations of Europe, imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain.  Further afield, communists in Africa, Asia and Latin America had ready support from Moscow.  Today, people will die in Venezuela because of what Lenin wrought.

The communist philosophy, being entirely materialistic, had no room for free will.  Human freedom does not lie in material realities; it does not reside in this molecule or that atom.  It is part of what is transcendent in man, and the ultra-mundane politics of Marxism had no room for transcendence.  It therefore had no room for freedom, and therefore no room for those who chose to exercise it.

Hence Marxist-Leninist politics, plunged to even deeper levels of depravity by Stalin, had to dispose of anyone who claimed freedom.  The death toll was staggering, measured in the tens of millions, to which a vast catalogue of torture, imprisonment, displacement and exile must be added.

The resolution of free peoples proved resilient in containing communism, and the peaceful revolution of conscience and spirit within the evil empire proved more potent than Lenin or Stalin could imagine.

Yet the reign was relatively short.  Not as short as the Thousand Year Reich of Adolf Hitler, which missed that mark by 988 years, but by 1991 not only had communism been wiped off the map of Europe, but the Soviet Union itself no longer could be found on it.

Eric Hobswawn, the Marxist historian, wrote of the "short twentieth century," from the Great War to 1991, a period dominated by the rise of totalitarian communism and its total defeat.  The Great War brought an end to the royal houses of Russia, Germany and Austria, and dissolved both the Habsburg and Ottoman empires.  Yet what rose in Russia was far more authoritarian and imperial than what preceded it.

At the distance of a century, two things stand out.  The first is the Soviet century was not even that, and its dissolution was both complete and (largely) nonviolent.  The resolution of free peoples proved resilient in containing communism, and the peaceful revolution of conscience and spirit within the evil empire proved more potent than Lenin or Stalin could imagine.  That the vanquishers of communism would be led by priests (John Paul II) and playwrights (Vaclav Havel) gave the lie to the communist slogan that power proceeds only from the barrel of a gun.

At the same time, the short Soviet century was long enough to teach us that so many experts and so many leaders got it so terribly wrong.  Some were simply complicit for base motives, like the New York Times, which covered up the Ukrainian terror famine.  Others were fellow travellers who liked the progressive frisson of communism from a distance.  And still others thought that what everyone knew to be true — that communism was robust and the way of the future — was certainly true.

Into the 1980s it was not difficult to find economists who were singing the praises of the Soviet economy.  Foreign relations experts clucked derisively about the anti-communism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, making anti-anti-communism a uniting force for the global left.  The professorial Kremlinologists who insisted that the Soviet empire was a permanent fact of life had no idea that their own faculty tenure was more enduring.

The consensus of respectable opinion turned out to be spectacularly wrong.  Respectable opinion today should be chastened, and those who lecture others about what opinions are permitted in the respectable consensus should be reminded of that.

November is the month of remembrance.  This November we remember the fearful toll of tyranny, and salute those, who at great cost, defeated it.



NationalPostFather Raymond J. de Souza, "What we learned from the Russian Revolution." National Post, (Canada) November 10, 2017.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

The Author

desouza Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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