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Intellectuals and Thugs: The Russian Revolution

Oct. 4, 2017 If ideas must be pursued at all costs, then anything standing in their way must be crushed.

By George Friedman

The 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution is approaching. It was a revolution based not merely on hope but on the certainty that the human condition could be filled with equality, plenty and freedom. It created a regime that was willing and felt compelled to go to any lengths to create that perfection, but that regime ended in 1991, exhausted by the squalor it had created.

The Russian Revolution was inspired by the work of Karl Marx, and that work was the reductio ad absurdum of the French Enlightenment. The Enlightenment had argued that humanity was engaged in progress – knowledge was constantly accumulating and, with that, the human condition was constantly improving. At the center of this process was reason, which would drive progress. And its main thrust was that the most perfect government was one that promoted the principle of human equality.

The agent of all of this was the intellectual, who placed reason at the center of all things, and therefore was the one who would deliver progress. The intellectual would understand the necessity of improving the human condition and therefore understand that anyone who impeded this was the enemy. The intellectual became a politician seeking power, and then driving the masses toward a transformation of human life.

But the Enlightenment presented a paradox. If human progress was certain, then why should the intellectual have to undertake the effort and risk of driving it forward? But there was another paradox. The intellectual was also hungry for a significance beyond those with whom he shared his life. He hungered for power and recognition, and therefore the vision of progress being his to deliver to humanity was tremendously seductive. The paradox needed examination by the contemplative. But the contemplative bypassed the paradox and presided over the French Revolution. And those who thwarted progress had to be eliminated. The intellectuals displayed the ruthlessness of pure logic, a logic that saw the people as tools to be shaped.


Russian communist supporters carry portraits of Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin and Soviet leader Josef Stalin as they take part in a demonstration marking the 99th anniversary of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution in Moscow on Nov. 7, 2016. VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images

A Revolutionary Party

Marx took the Enlightenment’s impulse to its logical conclusion. He believed not only in progress but in progress that would result in the perfection of humanity. That perfection would lead to the end of scarcity and the emergence of true human equality. This was inevitable because capitalism’s internal contradictions would ultimately destroy it, freeing the proletariat to impose a dictatorship that would forge this reality.

The problem, however, was that the proletariat, shattered by capitalism, would be unable to rise up and build the new order. Again, the tension between the inevitable and the necessity of human action showed itself. Marx tried to solve the problem by arguing that a revolutionary party would emerge from the proletariat and impose a dictatorship that would be the agent to both organize the workers and forge a new humanity.

Vladimir Lenin focused on building a communist party. The problem, he argued, was that the working class suffered from “false consciousness.” It did not know what its own interests were because of its condition and therefore couldn’t free itself. The Communist Party had to be built from those who had pierced the veil of false consciousness and saw clearly what needed to be done. It wouldn’t simply lead the working class; it would compel the workers toward progress. And the people who could see through false consciousness were the intellectuals, who came to be the leaders of the Bolsheviks.

Lenin and the people of his party were intellectuals who spoke for scientific socialism and who would do whatever was needed to compel the working class to fulfill their destiny. But it was not the working class that would trigger the Russian Revolution. Rather, it was World War I, which led to the death of millions, broke the back of the Russian army and triggered a rising of soldiers. Lenin arrived in St. Petersburg thanks to the German army, which smuggled him into the city on a sealed train to use him to forge a rising that would take Russia out of the war.

The rising succeeded and triggered a long civil war in which millions more died. The Red Army, created by the intellectual Leon Trotsky, waged the war ruthlessly and effectively. It was during this war that Lenin apparently uttered the timeless phrase, “The purpose of terror is to terrify.” The revolution could succeed only if it could terrify the masses into doing its bidding, and to that end terror was applied. It was a terror that would last a long time but whose purpose it was to build a new, humane society. The vision of a decent society merged with a pride in ruthless logic, and ruthless politics. It created a culture in which mercy was a counter-revolutionary weakness.

The truth was that the intellectuals knew terror only as an abstraction. They applied it, but not with the thorough ruthlessness of the complete thug. They thought too much and that stayed their hand.

Ruthlessness Personified

What emerged from this was Josef Stalin, who acted as a thug to perfection – the only thing that had in fact been made perfect. Men like Trotsky and the other leaders of the Bolsheviks wrote of the merciless prosecution of revolution, but Stalin was ruthlessness personified. He was not like the intellectuals; he had no interest in their theories and delusions. He displaced the intellectuals who had led the revolution, and ultimately murdered them and millions of others. When the Soviet Union needed to modernize its industry in the expectation of war, it raised the money by selling grain – almost all the grain the Ukrainians produced – creating mass starvation and leading to the death of millions.

The first mission of the Communist Party, according to doctrine, was that it had to survive, and for that, the Soviet Union had to survive – by any means necessary. Lenin was a theorist of terror and its practitioner. But what he opened the door to was not the liberation of humanity, but to Stalin, a man who practiced terror as an end rather than a means.

It is unclear whether Stalin was actually a Marxist or used Marxism as a justification for taking and holding power. But regardless, Stalin believed that the party could not survive without ruthless suppression in order to liberate. And that meant that Stalin had to remain in power to manage the suppression. Stalin’s beliefs and Stalin’s interests were the same, and the niceties mattered little.

After taking power, Lenin signed a peace treaty with Germany that ceded large areas of the new Soviet Union to the Germans. It helped secure the Soviet Union, but Lenin held on to the possibility that it would lead to something better. When Stalin took power, the Soviet Union became a nation like any other, pursuing the geopolitical interests of the Soviet Union in a natural, ruthless way. In theory, the purpose was to protect the party of the workers and to spread the doctrine of communism to the world by whatever means necessary. But the Enlightenment’s vision of human progress had become obsolete. Ruthlessness had become an end in itself. The necessary evil became the normal course of events.

Turning the Means Into an End

The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were equally ruthless. Hitler was no intellectual in the sense of being a scholar, but he did live in a world of ideas, and in that world the goal was not communism but the elevation of the Aryan race. Hitler regarded this as inevitable, but like the communists, he had to act with utter and merciless brutality to make it happen. Why the Aryans didn’t already rule if they were superior was as irrelevant as why the proletariats needed intellectuals to guide them if their victory was inevitable.

This was the kind of problem that thinkers should think on. But being men of action rather than men of contemplation, Stalin and Hitler pursued their dreams with a scientific precision that focused only on considerations of necessity and not of humanity. The distance between thinkers and common sense was never greater than in the 20th century. Rather than sorting through the tensions in their thoughts, they put them aside in order to act. And to put them aside, they turned the means – ruthlessness – into an end.

The Enlightenment was the age of ideas. Ideas left to themselves, without being wrapped in a sense of decency, know no bounds. That was the history of much of the 20th century, shaped as it was by Hitler, Himmler, Lenin and Stalin. Logic is like a game of chess. You don’t worry about the fate of a pawn. So too the ideologies of the 20th century. The death of a pawn meant nothing compared to dreams. And the greater the dreams for the people, the less important people were. Thinkers embody logic, and logic that is unleashed is devoid of pity.

What emerged after Stalin were no longer tyrants but survivors, people who lived through Stalin by doing what had to be done, without dreams and with only fears. Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev were men who wanted to live and prosper but who had no great dreams beyond protecting the Soviet Union. With the idea lost in endless blood, survival was all that was left; and this is where geopolitics – the art whereby states survive – comes in. But geopolitics born of vast visions is a shallow thing, and it could not support the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union collapsed for many reasons, but mostly it was out of exhaustion and cynicism. With nothing left to believe, it became a weak version of a real nation. What emerged in the end was the old Mother Russia, tired and soiled by its dreams, neither believing very much in nor even playing the game of geopolitics with crisp precision.

The lesson of this is the danger of ideas when unleased as absolute truths demanding utter logic, thus precluding the softening of kindness or decency. If ideas must be pursued at all costs, then anything standing in their way must be crushed. The problem is that in that world, the man who crushes best wins. Thus Marx, the hapless intellectual who set this all in motion, was superseded by Lenin, half intellectual and half thug, who was in turn superseded by Stalin, entirely a thug.

The distance between Marx and Stalin appears great. But in truth there is an intimate connection between the two. Intellectuals think and have ideas. Put into practice, these ideas lose the fuzziness of the library and classroom and take on a clarity that demands obedience. The intellectual in the end lacks the will to impose the fear needed for obedience. And that necessitates the introduction of the thug.

The Russian Revolution was the embodiment of an idea – an idea turned into a political party, ruled by a man who claimed the authority of logic and who killed anyone who stood in his way. The 20th century was filled with such men. Today, thugs have fewer ideas, and that makes them less ambitious. For the most part.

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